A Convenient Lie

One of my favourite parent-lying-to-child stories is one a friend told me about the way her mother would tell her and her brother that Mr.Whippy (An ice cream van franchise) only played the music when he had run out of ice cream. It’s funny because it is such a wonderfully mean and creative example of the convenient lie, the type we tell our kids to shut them up and/or to avoid a fight.

I am already telling a lot of convenient lies to Tilly. I can’t say that it has really come as a surprise to me. I’ve been a habitual liar my whole life. My parents are very fond of telling me what a consummate and constant liar I was as a child; how I could lie to their faces without blinking. They put it down (only half in jest) to me lacking a conscience. I prefer to think of it as just one of many manifestations of my overwhelming and lifelong desire to avoid conflict, and be approved of. You see, my primary strategy for avoiding conflict and seeking approval was actually to do, and be, exactly what my parents wanted. Lying was just the backup system, for when bad luck (or a rare instance of my Id outmuscling my Superego) resulted in me not doing what my parents expected.

Anyway, leaving aside my therapeutic process, the point is that my early life prepared me well for the constant lying that characterises parenting. That doesn’t mean I am entirely comfortable with all those lies though. I am often asking myself whether a particular lie is necessary, or just convenient (I’ve touched on this before), and sometimes it is really hard to know.

One thing I am sure of, is that being a good parent has to involve a certain amount of lying. There are truths, for example, that are just simply too frightening for your children, or that they simply lack the sophistication, or even the categories, to make sense of.

To my mind,  deciding to always tell the truth to your kids is the relational equivalent of giving away all your money; on the surface, it might seem like a noble thing to do, but it is really just an abnegation of responsibility. One grand gesture, one big decision, that absolves you of the responsibility to actually wrestle with how to spend your money (or your truth) from moment to moment. The really courageous thing is to be constantly assessing what truths your kids can, and can’t, handle at a particular point in their development, knowing that you are going to get it wrong time and time again, and hoping that, when they look back as adults, they will love you enough to forgive you for all the times you got it wrong.

Because we are not just talking about the giving of information on a ‘need to know basis’ here. Our lies (interlaced with truths, one hopes) actually serve to form an entire worldview for our kids; a worldview that may well be necessary as a vessel to carry them through to adulthood and beyond, but which, like any vessel (however sturdily built) will be vulnerable to being scuttled by icebergs that we have not foreseen.

I came across a great post on the lies we tell our kids by a guy called Paul Graham. If you want to read the whole thing, here is the link, but I’ve inserted a great section on lies that relate to basic identity below.


Some parents feel a strong adherence to an ethnic or religious group and want their kids to feel it too. This usually requires two different kinds of lying: the first is to tell the child that he or she is an X, and the second is whatever specific lies Xes differentiate themselves by believing. [5]

Telling a child they have a particular ethnic or religious identity is one of the stickiest things you can tell them. Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake.

This despite the fact that it can be one of the most premeditated lies parents tell. When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be “raised as Xes.” And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes, despite the fact that if their parents had chosen the other way, they’d have grown up considering themselves as Ys.

One reason this works so well is the second kind of lie involved. The truth is common property. You can’t distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by “outsiders” on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? If they aren’t an X, why do all the non-Xes call them one?

This form of lie is not without its uses. You can use it to carry a payload of beneficial beliefs, and they will also become part of the child’s identity. You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious. Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

This probably accounts for a lot of the spread of modern religions, and explains why their doctrines are a combination of the useful and the bizarre. The bizarre half is what makes the religion stick, and the useful half is the payload.

The one, to me, questionable assumption Paul seems to be making here (and it is a classic one for those who see themselves as standing in the common-sensed centre of their culture, rather than at some point on the bizarre and arbitrary extreme) is that it is possible to be a parent who doesn’t do this to their children. But if history has taught us anything (and it probably hasn’t) then it is that those at the centre of every culture in every age have considered those who were at the centre of their culture in previous eras to be dangerously deluded fantasists. Subsequent generations will inevitably think the same of us – inconceivable though that may seem to some of us.

The very convoluted point I am trying to make is that none of us are able to construct an unsinkable ideological Titanic for our children, that will carry them unrattled and unscathed all the way to the far shore. I don’t think raising children with a particular religion is inherently any more dangerous than raising them as a rationalist or an atheist. The danger is, whether out of arrogance or fear, we hide from them our own doubts and uncertainties about the seaworthiness of what we happen to be sailing in. Again, how and when you reveal these doubts is the trick. I guess the key is to wait until you’re so far from land that it’s impossible for them to jump out and swim back. Not, of course, that there is any dry land to swim back to (metaphor officially exhausted!).

There’s this bizarre book that my parents made me read when I was a kid that says that ‘love covers over a multitude of sins.’ (and if the word ‘sin’ is too loaded for you, try substituting ‘lies’). In the end, this is what I’m banking on with Tilly: that I can love her enough that she will forgive me for all the convenient (and bizarre) lies I’ve told her – and particularly, for those lies that I (in my ignorance and vanity) passionatly believe to be true. I hope and pray that there are not too many of those.

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6 Responses to A Convenient Lie

  1. Dani says:

    An interesting post as always Rod! As for lying as a child, I’ve read somewhere (can’t remember where) that a young child (i.e., 3-4 years old) being able to lie is a sign of intelligence, particularly emotional intelligence. Lying involves an understanding that others have different information to us and that we can use that to our advantage! For example, if the cake was eaten while Mum was out of the room, who’s to say the dog didn’t do it?!? All part of “theory of mind” (which is thought to be the key deficit involved with asperger’s/autism/etc). So there’s a positive spin to put on young children that lie – they do it because they’re bright! Of course, the other reasons for lying (e.g., to please others, to avoid conflict, or just because you are a budding sociopath) come later on ;)

  2. The truth looks different from every angle.
    There is only One Love.

  3. Nicole says:

    Plus he has two heads. Maybe he has two brains?

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