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.