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 “you 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.

31 Comments

  1. I’m hardly someone who knows anything about kids and therefore I can’t really give an answer. I’m going to come from a totally different view point on this. I was raised Jewish (I mentioned that on the other post) so therefore the whole Santa thing was just a big joke to me my whole life. If (a big IF) I ever have children I do not want to raise them with any religion at all and therefore no Christmas. Everyone thinks that is so cruel but I didn’t have a Christmas and I think I turned out ok. What I wonder is…how do you raise a kid in a world where they will be among all these children that believe in Santa?
    I think I may have an idea for a post of my own 🙂

  2. Hi Robin!
    You ask a fascinating question. I suppose one answer is to raise a child with the idea of Santa Claus as a representative of a spirit of one-way giving and that he is not a real person.
    That kind of kills the idea of surprise overnight gifts, though, and it does not solve the sticky problem of dealing with other kids who still “believe” and inadvertently — or on purpose — ruining the fantasy with reality.
    That’s the problem with a lie — you have to build other lies around it to protect the core lie and, as William Jennings Bryan said, “The truth, when crushed to the ground, shall rise again.”
    Come back here and post a link to your post if you get it figured out! 😀

  3. I think back to my youth, when my parents thought I still believed in Santa Claus. I remember riding the school bus during Christmas time when I was probably in first grade. An older kid told all of the younger kids that there was no Santa (probably in an effort to be mean). He said that it was our parents who were putting the presents under the tree.
    I remember talking with my friends about this. We decided to not tell anyone because we knew we’d probably get less presents. I don’t think anyone admitted to knowing the secret out of my group of friends.
    I don’t think lying about Santa or the Tooth Fairy is a big deal because most kids probably know that these are imaginary characters as soon as they go to school. It adds to the fun of being a child. And the magic doesn’t have to end when one gets older. My wife always has presents from Santa under the tree.
    Not telling children about a medical condition is terrible. The child will know something is wrong because of illnesses. It is better to be upfront and confront the illness so that treatment can be started, rather than ignoring it. People have a tendency to do this, however. There are always stories about guys fighting through a heart attack because of denial.
    Kids have a tendency to think the worst when hospitals visits are involved. It is better to be up front so that the psychological aspects of coping with an illness can be dealt with as well as the physical needs. After a while, I would assume that a child would figure out what is going on just by being around doctors and hosptial personnel. It would be better to start the healing on all levels right at the beginning. It would make me extremely angry to find out people had lied to me if I subsequently discovered I had a deadly disease.
    Chris
    http://d-chaos.blogspot.com
    BA~~32

  4. Hubby and I decided before we had kids that we would not tell them Santa or the Easter Bunny or any of that was real. Because when the time came for them to learn the truth, they would wonder what else we had lied to them about. If Santa isn’t real, what about Jesus? Trust is fragile and as parents we should guard it.
    At the same time, we always tell our kids not to make fun of kids who do believe in those characters, or to tell them they’re not real. It’s not their place.

  5. I’m torn on this issue. I grew up believing in Santa Claus until I was about 7 or 8. I wasn’t mad at my parents for confirming what a classmate told me. He didn’t really do it out of malice. He just kind of stated it matter-of-factly.
    I remember asking my mom if the kid was right and she said yes. I made sure I asked her when my younger brother wasn’t around. I wasn’t too disappointed. Maybe because deep down I realized that it made a lot of sense. She asked me not to tell my brother, and I agreed. I thought it was fun to believe in him.
    Maybe one thing that made it okay for me was the fact that when confronted with the question, my parents didn’t try to continue the charade. I remember one kid in the fifth grade who was adamant about the existence of Santa Claus because his parents continued to support his belief. I often wondered what his reaction was when they finally came clean.
    Perhaps we want our children to believe in Santa Clause is because we did. We want them to experience that innocence and see their wide-eyed wonder. Is it selfish? Probably, but I’ve never seen a screwed up adults on Oprah blaming their problems on the fact that their parents lied about Santa Claus. 😀
    Now, a bunch of lies about a bunch of different things, especially a child’s health? That’s appalling.

  6. Chris — You have an interesting take on the topic. I do find curious you still remember the moment you learned the truth about Santa so it must have had some effect! 🙂
    Jana — I think you approach is wise and on point. Fantasy is fine as long as it is identified as such right at the start and everyone can play along.
    Carla — It must be a difficult moment for a parent to have to admit, “Yes, I lied to you. There is no Santa Claus.” That must be especially hard if a parent has been truthful in all other aspects of the relationship with the child.

  7. Really, we all lie at some point, and I think that’s going to happen regardless of whether someone’s parents lie about the existence of Santa Claus.
    For example, even if my parents had never lied to me about St. Nick, I still would have fudged my report card in ninth grade to make an F a B. :-O

  8. When I worked on the cancer floor, every single kid knew they were very sick if they were too young to understand and the older ones knew they had cancer. I have yet to come across a parent that didn’t tell their child what they actually had. I’m also saddened that parents would do that to the child when they probably know colds dont last a lifetime.
    I remember when I lived over in Germany is when I found out there was no Santa Claus. My parents thought they were slick too locking the door to the living room but I snuck out of my bed and the apartment we were living in on base had wood floors and one of those old fashioned key locks where you could see through the key hole. Well there was probably about an inch from the door to the floor where I peered out and then peeped through the keyhole. I saw my parents put every last present out and looked at who they were from the next morning. I was probably 6 or 7. I didn’t say a word to my siblings though but I did feel betrayed that there wasn’t really a Santa Claus and once I found that out I pretty much blew off any other holiday with an icon as well.

  9. Hi hterry!
    Your stories are fantastic! Unfortunately, I think cancer is considered by many to be an “honorable” affliction while AIDS and HIV are still seen as “dirty” and “deserved” diseases — even when it comes to innocent fetuses who are infected by their mothers.
    I love your touching story about Santa Claus. There are a lot of people who express wounded moments when they find out there is no Santa Claus and I wonder if that moment burns white hot so many years later because of the loss of Santa or the because of the loss of faith in a parent who lied?

  10. I don’t lie to my kids. But I don’t tell them everything either. When I feel they don’t need to know something – I either dodge the question or tell them flat out that I’m not discussing whatever it is.
    I posted about this back when rockets were fired at our ships in Jordan. My husband was on that ship. I freaked and my son wanted to know what was wrong. At the time I just told him that something had upset me but that everything was ok and I didn’t want to talk about it. Later that evening after thinking it over, and after a direct question of “Mom did something happen to Daddy?” I told him the whole story.
    Oh – and we don’t do Santa – and Christmas is still magical and fun. 😀 (I posted about that once too!)

  11. I raised my children to be appreciative of the love shown to them by the family and friends who work hard to buy them Christmas and Easter presents.
    I have never understood why anyone would raise their children to “thank” a total stranger for generous presents, instead of the people who love them, especially when the “stranger” in question is a fat man in a red suit, or a rabbit.
    My children are adults, and have always had wonderful Christmas’ and Easters’ – they still do, and they still thank the people who deserve their thanks for gifts.

  12. Can’t we just leave some things well enough alone? Let the kids believe in something so wonderful as Santa Claus. There will be enough harsh reality for them once they get older. Let them be kids.

  13. Well i beleive that a child should be informed of santas excistence. As children we live in a fantasy world, our own little bubble where nothing can ever go wrong. If anything a partent is helping the child improve creativity when they get older.
    Let a child enjoy it ehile they still can

  14. I’ve always found it interesting that so many people remember some great moment of disillusionment upon finding out that Santa Claus does not exist.
    I have a Christian mother and a Jewish father, and though I consider myself a member of neither religion, I have always celebrated the holidays of both. In my family, Santa Claus was a part of the Christmas tradition, like a myth of any culture. I may have believed in him, but all my presents came from specific members of my family and I have no memory of “finding out” one day. I do remember, however, my elementary school classmates making fun of me for professing a belief in the *spirit* of Santa if not the actual fat dude. (They just didn’t get it.)

  15. Thanks for directing me to your post. Very thought provoking indeed. I don’t really think there’s a specific right or wrong answer. Just what work’s for you specifically. My challenge is working with what has already been established for my step-kids and yet still developing an opinion (and possibly implementing one) for myself.

  16. It’s tough, natzgal. I just don’t think lying to children for the benefit of the adult fantasy is something that should be supported. Adults know better than children and to allow kids to fantasize about something that is known to be fake and a trick on them seems to me to be the height of cruelty.