Is it ever appropriate to lie to a child? If the answer is “yes,” are there any lines drawn between truth and falsity or is the truth a bending line that requires re-definition every day? In my post, Learning How to Cuss, some of the comments for that piece focused on the idea of Santa Claus and I posted this thought there:
It’s fascinating how the idea of Santa Claus is negotiated [with children] and it’s almost inevitable that it will end in disappointment and heartbreak.
That wondering leads me to ask if telling children there is a Santa Claus, when there isn’t one, is appropriate. Does asking our children to believe in Santa Claus wrongly condone a lie in the right context? Do we believe in our own lies?
Some will argue believing Santa Claus helps give a child comfort and happiness. Is there a problem with that logic? Are we satiating young and impressionable children with something that doesn’t exist? Is it proper to perpetuate the lie of a faked reality that lives in a magical story and fanciful gifts that mysteriously appear?
We can argue Christmas and Santa are a spirit of a fantasy and that it isn’t really lying; but young children believe in Santa, The Man and not Santa, The Representative of Christmas Giving. Is there a grey area between the right and wrong of childhood believing? Are there gradients of lying?
Is a White Lie less infectious to the system than, say, a Bold-Faced Lie? Is there any difference between a “lie” and an “untruth?” We don’t lie to children only about Santa Claus. Many also lie to about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and, some may claim, ideas of Heaven and Hell and the characters that inhabit those mystical lands.
On a related, but much more serious note, one of my former students — who is now friend and a practicing MD — works with children who have AIDS and who are HIV positive. He deals every day with poor and disadvantaged kids who believe in Santa Claus and who are dying of AIDS. By law in the state of New Jersey he is not allowed to tell his child patients they have AIDS or HIV if the parents refuse to let him.
Many parents tell him to tell their kids they just have colds. My friend refuses to lie to the children and instead chooses to tell those who are able to comprehend him “you are very sick, but we can try to make you feel better.” When he asks the parents why they don’t want their children to know they have AIDS, the parents say they don’t want to ruin their childhood or the family’s standing in the community. Most babies born with AIDS/HIV are infected by their mothers in utero. My friend tries to explain to them their child can better participate in the program of treatment if there are no secrets and no lies being told.
“Death comes faster in the lie,” he urges. The parents refuse to give him permission. There is, however, one loophole in the New Jersey state law. That loophole states if a child directly asks a doctor what is wrong with them, the doctor is released from the parent’s directive and is allowed to give the child the diagnosis because, in the end, the law confirms, a doctor’s first commitment is to the patient, the child, and not the guardian, the parent: If a child is old enough to ask the right question, the child deserves the right to know the right answer.
My friend is funny and smart and warm and he chooses his words carefully, so when he tells a child â€œyou are very sick, but we can try to make you feel better,” the first words out of the child’s mouth are “why am I sick?” With those four magic words, he’s legally set free to share the truth of their lives and shy them away from the lies of dying.