Breaking the Bad News

Many parenting websites will have discussions like this one today. Yes, the topic is when to tell your children that you have been lying to them about the Easter Bunny, but all the great ethical issues of philosophy are there, being debated in a practical context.

Personally, it’s long been my view that parents should lie to their children. Otherwise, they will be unprepared for how elected officials will treat them when they grow up.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Breaking the Bad News”

  1. You may find this funny, but as the mother of two girls (five and three years old), this is actually something that has been something that has concerned me. It’s an odd situation because both telling the truth and not telling the truth can create trust problems.

    One suggestion that I heard was from a friend who said that she’s always been talking about Santa and friends in a “let’s pretend” fashion. I.e., making no real secret of it being an illusion while pretending they are real and expecting that eventually her children would catch up to it and feel smart about figuring it out rather than being deceived. It seemed to work for her, but I’m still not sure it’s easy to pull off without some ruffled feathers.

    What makes things worse is that my daughters trust both my husband and me deeply. That makes some aspects of parenting easier (e.g., when we have to ask them to do something unfun but important — such as getting poked by a doctor’s needle — they generally take our word for it that it’s good for them), but it also puts a bit of a burden on us not to violate that trust.

    1. Hi Katja

      I meant what I said about the seriousness of the philosophical issues at stake. S/he that increases knowledge, increaseth sorrow, so while parents want their children to learn about reality they also want to protect them from it. The lies of omission are also part of this, a friend who raised his children under apartheid said it was also difficult to decide when to explain to one’s children what the system was because its very existence was tramautic to children (Sometimes even white ones), and once they knew about it they lost their innocent sense of fair play.

  2. As someone who isn’t a Christian, but rather looking in from the outside, I hope the following doesn’t seem disrespectful.

    Santa Claus is a bit like a personification of a certain model of God for kids; and needless to say God (or a part of God) as a human being is a central part of Christianity. Santa, like God, knows if you’ve been “naughty or nice” and you are judged, and rewarded, accordingly. He has powers that only God could have (visiting every home in the world in one night). He’s a kindly father-figure.

    But, finally, every Christian parent must eventually tell his or her children that Santa doesn’t exist, or rather exists as spiritual and moral impulses within us.

    I can’t help feeling that the social and psychological reason the story exists is, in part, to allow this discussion to happen one day. And I can’t help wondering whether that’s really a metaphor or coded way of talking about the larger issue of God’s existence in a way that’s emotionally acceptable to everyone.

    1. In my own experience, my discovering that Santa Claus was a myth as a child seems a perfect analogy for discovery that deism was a myth as a teenager. The same sort of epistemological process was used – making observations, gathering evidence, applying skepticism. To this day, I find the analogy still holds when trying to explain my line of reasoning. Recently, a group of co-workers asked why I chose to describe myself as atheist as opposed to agnostic, as atheism implied a definitiveness in absence of proof. Well, I told them, would I describe myself as an agnostic with regard to Santa Claus? No! I suppose there is a chance he exists, but everything we know about the story and its context tells us it is a story invented by man to serve a specific purpose.

      As for the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, etc., my children have no belief in God (unlike myself at their age – I was raised an offshoot of Sikh), yet love the mythology. As long as they don’t grow up and devote their lives to their worship, I’m not too concerned!

    2. I think a more generic and less controversial (!) was proposed in a book by my favourite author, Terry Pratchett, where it was suggested that the purpose the Easter Bunny and his ilk have is indeed as practice, a chance forchildren to believe in little things/lies before starting on the big stuff, like Duty, Justice and Mercy. Just as the Easter Bunny has no literal existence but requires children’s belief to give it purpose and meaning, so with his bigger cousins. As often with Pratchett, I suspect he was only very partly joking!

  3. My parents never lied to me, but they “told me stories.” My sister was born when I was three, and when they told me “the stork is coming for a visit” I already understood at that age that it was a “story,” not a lie. I think I was expected even at that age to understand the difference.

    Each reader, of course, has to discern for himself when our politicians are lying to us and when they are just “telling us a story.” Sadly, a large fraction of adults seem to be able to talk about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny while recognizing they don’t really exist, but don’t have that same facility of distinguishing fact from fiction ITRW. IOW, a lotta folks are really gullible.

  4. If you can’t embrace hypocrisy on a daily basis, you’ve no business being a parent.


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