Can you lie to children?

Opvoeding
26 January 2024 |

Children swallow a bunch of lies without realising it. Parents and educators often brush them off with a (half-)lie and as a society we’re no angels either with St Nicholas, Santa and the Easter Bunny. So is lying pedagogically acceptable? We asked professor of historic and general pedagogy Lieselot De Wilde of the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy.

As a society we feel that lying on purpose is unacceptable, but a little white lie? That’s not a problem, is it? How strongly we feel about a lie depends on our perspective. It explains why we don’t think twice about lying to children but react strongly when children try to put one over on us. “When children lie, we immediately think they are intentionally withholding the truth. But the truth is that children, just like adults, lie to protect themselves and others”, says Lieselot De Wilde.

Protection is the operative word when we lie to our progeny. “We want our children to grow up worry-free so we sugarcoat the truth. It’s quite human. But when a child asks you why mummy and daddy are getting a divorce, it’s safe to be honest. A child can handle a lot.”

Stay truthful

Lieselot De Wilde advocates being as truthful as possible when answering tough questions. “Never underestimate children and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers. It’s better that they feel you’re not trying to trick them than it is to betray their trust by underestimating them.”

Answering truthfully is not the same as explaining everything in detail. “Take account of the child’s frame of reference and try to answer questions from the perspective of their own world. Don’t be afraid to leave room for interpretation, for fantasy. Children can deal with semi-answers. There’s no need to shower them with information.”

Lieselot does see a few exceptions to the general rule. “If you’re planning a surprise party then I can understand that you lie about it”, she laughs. But she also feels that telling a deliberate lie about serious matters can be justified. “I do a lot of research on foster care and in that environment educators and caregivers often have to weigh the pros and cons of telling the truth or protecting the child. The important thing about those lies is not to maintain them when the child realises you’re not being entirely truthful.”

Demystifying the child

Nothing is more fun than telling fairy tales and taking children on a journey in a make-believe world of goblins, dragons, witches and fairies. Lieselot calls it fantasy-oriented lying. “This is of a different magnitude than outright lying. It’s perfectly fine to go along to a certain extent with your child’s fantasy world. Toddlers have a strong imagination they use to construct their own truth. It’s amazing to hear the stories or analyses they come up with. But in our society we attach more importance to the actual truth than to fantasy. In pedagogical circles we call this the disenchantment of the child, which goes hand in hand with a growing tendency towards rational thinking in the Western world. Today we interpret the world based on science and reason, to the detriment of magic and fantasy.”

Does that mean that everything that is not scientifically correct is automatically a lie? “I think that’s an interesting discussion because the magical world offers many benefits. Imagination is actually a quality to be nurtured: to foster creativity, think outside the box, learn to deal with complex emotions... UGent’s motto ‘Dare to Think’ also means having the courage to venture off the beaten path. Every child carries within itself the potential to think differently than the preceding generation. Their fantasy makes new solutions to major social challenges possible. I find that a heartening thought.”

St Nicholas v rationalisation

Some parents refuse to lie to their children about St Nicholas. “That also fits in with the trend towards rationalisation. In the old days no one would have described the tale of St Nicholas as a lie. But those parents are up against it because when it comes to St Nicholas, everything and everyone is on board. As a child it’s almost impossible not to believe in the holy man, despite the fact that your parents are telling the truth.”

According to Lieselot there are several reasons why we collectively lie about St Nicholas. “The St Nicholas celebration is a deeply rooted cultural tradition and has evolved from a children’s into a family event. Research shows that parents celebrate St Nicholas with their children because of their own fond St Nicholas memories. It’s a chance to briefly revisit their own childhood.” So Lieselot doesn’t consider St Nicholas a lie but rather a valuable tradition.

And then there’s the moment you realise St Nicholas isn’t real. A traumatic experience? “Not as I see it, but so far no scientific research has been conducted into the subject. Usually the realisation comes gradually and the child has harboured suspicions for some time. You often see that when the child starts to have its doubts, the parents try to keep the myth alive, but at a certain point the game is up (laughs).” However, magical thinking doesn’t end when a child knows the truth. “It doesn’t matter whether children know if St Nicholas is real or not. They go along in the fantasy anyway because it’s so much fun.”

 

Professor Lieselot De Wilde of the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy (Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences) primarily conducts research into the parent-child relationship and (the history of) out-of-home placement.