Should Adults Lie to Children?

I’ll say it: Lying to children is a vital part of a good education.

Adults lie to children all the time.  Santa Claus. Easter Bunny. Tooth Fairy. Daddy will eventually come home again…

But can such lies be considered “education?”  Our attitude toward this question might tell us a thing or two about the continuing culture wars over American education.

The question came up again in Professor Jerry Coyne’s review of Jonny Scaramanga’s Salon article.  For those of you who just joined the party, Professor Coyne is an irascible atheist and scientist.  He is an inveterate campaigner against creationism and delusional religionism.  Scaramanga is a recovering fundamentalist, blogger, and sometime contributor to these pages.  Scaramanga’s Salon article decried the repackaged fundamentalist curricula that are being taught in some publicly funded charter schools in Texas.

In response, Coyne thundered,

Adults have the right to be as stupid as they want, but I don’t think they have the right to tell lies to children. Those lies include not only religious dogma, but the antiscience attitudes that come with it. How sad that a group of bright and curious children can become ignorant, superstitious ideologues simply because they were born into the wrong families.

Professor Coyne is not the first science pundit to take this position.  In his 1964 anti-creationism book This View of Life, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson blasted the lies that had thwarted evolution education.  “Even now,” Simpson argued,

a hundred years after The Origin of Species, most people have not really entered the world into which Darwin led—alas!—only a minority of us.  Life may be considerably happier for some people in the older worlds of superstition.  It is possible that some children are made happy by a belief in Santa Claus, but adults should prefer to live in a world of reality and reason.

But as anyone involved with education knows, adults lie to children all the time.  Doing so is a vital part of every good education.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

1.) “This is what we believe.” 

Every education, in every culture, whether it means formal schooling, apprenticeships, or informal instruction, includes the passing along of central ideas.  Professor Coyne meant that adults should not tell young people things that are untrue.  But what if the adults believe it fervently?  Is that a lie?  Or, to complicate the matter, what if the adult isn’t sure if she believes it fervently, but is convinced that it will be good for the young person to believe?  For example, in the world of religious faith, an adult may have had serious doubts about her faith, but decide that a young person is not yet mature enough to consider those gray areas.  She might then tell young people that certain religious mysteries are simply truths, knowing that later the child will and should wrestle with the more complicated questions about it.

2.) “You can do this.”

This can be a flat-out lie.  Teachers and parents often work to inspire confidence in their children and students, even when the adults are very unsure of the truth of their statements.  Adults may have serious doubts that young people can, indeed, accomplish certain goals.  Yet the adults might tell the children that such goals are definitely, absolutely, 100% achievable.  It’s a lie.  But it is something good parents and teachers do.

3.) “I hate phonies.”

In our culture, many of the biggest truths are best understood through lies.  I’m no Salinger fan, but I still remember reading Catcher in the Rye in high school.  I remember Holden’s struggle with phonies.  It taught me important truths about the ways people interact with one another.  None of it was “true,” of course.  It was all fiction, all lies.  But my teacher taught me those lies.  And I’m very glad she did.

Our attitude about lying to young people can tell us a lot about our positions on key educational culture-war issues.  Professors Coyne and Simpson think it is not okay for young people to learn creationism or other religious falsehoods.  But that position doesn’t include room for the complexities of real education.  Adults lie to children all the time, for the children’s benefit.  Sometimes they do so deliberately.

But more often, adults tell children things that the adults think are true.  Creationists don’t set out to deceive their children; they hope instead to protect their children from the deceptions of mainstream science.

But what if we don’t agree that creationism is true?  Are those creationists guilty of lying to children?  Professor Simpson said yes.  Professor Coyne says yes.  Jonny Scaramanga, I’m guessing, would say yes.

I disagree.  Teaching children our core beliefs is not lying.  Even if I think those beliefs are untrue (and I do think young-earth creationist beliefs are untrue), parents who teach such things to their children are guilty of nothing more than educating their offspring.

There is no parental right more fundamental than that.


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  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I have nothing to add that I haven’t said to you already, but I wouldn’t actually call what is happening in Texas lying. The reference to “lies” in my Salon article was added by the editor, not me. I have called various creationist teachings ‘lies’ in the past, but I might be more circumspect if I were writing those blog posts now. I think lying requires intent to deceive. While I do think creationists occasionally indulge in this (for the greater good), I think that they are sincere in the overwhelming majority of cases.

    I still need to think more about the ethical implications of this. I’ve sketched out an argument for why it should be banned in the past, but I’m not fully convinced by it myself. I’m more throwing it out there in a bid to elicit counterarguments.

    I do think there are qualitative differences between the ‘good’ lies you describe and teaching creationism, though.

  2. I do agree with you that it is an overstep to claim that “adults don’t have the right to teach these lies to their children.” I am of the opinion that they do have that right, although they have no business putting it into public education. I do not think it is particularly harmful for a child to be told “your school teaches evolution, but I believe in 6 day creation”… especially when it is presented as an alternate belief, rather than fact. Teaching it as fact is unethical, but not illegal. And, to be fair, I find the other lies that you mention in this post to be somewhat unethical as well. Let me explain.

    As far as religion goes, I absolutely think that parents should have a right to educate their children regarding their religion or lack thereof. However, “we believe ____ but some other people believe other things” I think is a perfectly child-appropriate way to discuss religion to children. I wish to God that I’d been taught this way instead of “this is the Truth, everyone else is wrong, and if you question the Truth that is just the devil talking.” Yes, children cannot and will not wrestle with the same deep questions of faith that an adult will, but opening the door to allow them to consider their faith more intellectually rather than dogmatically in the future is a good thing. Of course, I would never outlaw a parent teaching their child their religion as Truth, but I think it is ethically unsound and generally poor practice.

    “You can do this” is really not always appropriate for children… especially if the adult really does have doubts about the child’s abilities. If they honestly believe the kid can do it, they should support them in this way. But if they have doubts, sometimes it is best to say something like “do your best” or “even if you can’t do it, I’ll be proud of you for trying.” As someone who had pretty severe academic problems in the past, the mantra “I did my best” was really the one thing that kept me from giving up on the idea of going to college altogether. Kids are acutely aware when they do not measure up to the expectations of the people around them or their own expectations, and lying to them about their abilities can often just make that worse. Even as an adult, I find it a bit odd when I express trepidation over something that I have to do and I am told “oh, you will do fine!” The truth is, I may very well NOT do fine, and empty assurances of my abilities really aren’t encouraging, although they are intended in good spirit, so I don’t complain.

    As for the example of fiction… fiction is not a lie. It is not intended to deceive the reader into thinking it is real. Hopefully, it is well-written enough that we can suspend our disbelief and almost believe in it while we read. But that is very different than if someone gave a kid the book 1984 and said “I’ve traveled into the future and this is really what it is like. Now you can read about how life will be,” as if the words in the book are actual truth.

    As such, while lying to kids (or anyone) certainly shouldn’t necessarily be illegal (although it can be in cases that cause monetary or physical harm) I do consider it generally unethical. Truths should be expressed when possible. Beliefs should be expressed, but we should be clear that they are beliefs. Facts which the parent is uncertain about should be discussed with that uncertainty fully disclosed. Kids don’t only see black and white. In fact, if a kid only sees black and white, I’m pretty sure that’s a good sign that they’ve only been taught in black and white by their parents. It’s a sign of fundamentalism.

  3. Creationist consider evolution to be a lie, just as evolutionists consider a creator God to be a lie. It must be the case that both cannot be true but a lie hinges on what one perceives to be true. When a creationists tells others about creation, the are not lying. When an evolutionist tells others about evolution the same is true. The lie would be for the creationist at heart to espouse evolution as truth and vice versa.

    Who wants the government to punish parents for telling their kids about creation? Who wants the government to punish parents who tell their kids about evolution? That is indeed where the argument of Professor Coyne leads. If you don’t agree with me, you should not be allowed to act freely. Sicko! Who wants teachers to be hauled off to jail for teaching both theories? It’s obvious that many feel that to even expose children to the concept of a creator is criminal. That is a shame, for no matter what the consensus, the minority aught to have the right to speak freely of their beliefs without fear of retaliatory aggression. No matter how much one wishes it was not the case, empirical data about the earth and the cosmos often are at odds with scientist’s best guesses. Theories must be revised and thrown out constantly in the light of new discoveries and data. Today’s scientific truth is often tomorrow’s falsities. What arrogance to conclude that we are at the apex of all scientific knowledge – to the point where we would advance any such view that others, who arrive at different conclusions, aught to be silenced.

    The word “should” is always a scary sentiment, because one is really asking what should happen if someone else says something we determine they should not. More often than not the answer is to send men with guns to their house and force them to comply or throw them in a cage. This is wrong not matter what dogmatic view drives the mob.


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