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Lies, Lies, Lies

Should we ever lie to our children ... or for them?

The ethics of lying comes up over and over again in the normal course of parenthood. We’re often tempted to lie to our children, and most of us do so, for lots of different reasons. We also occasionally feel tempted to lie for our children, to help them manage various sticky situations. And then we have to deal with their lies, based on how bad we think it is for a child to lie in some specific situation.

Lies tend to feel bad. That’s why it’s possible for a lie detector test to be at least fairly reliable. Feeling bad, our hearts beat faster, we breathe differently, we tense up. But why the reluctance to lie? Why do we need to justify ourselves, instead of allowing lying to be just one of those things we do now and again?

Lying to someone gives you power over them, but a special kind of power—power over the information they have access to. Lying to someone is like putting a blindfold on him, so that he loses access to a body of information, or like putting a drug in her drink, so she suddenly sees things inaccurately. Being lied to diminishes your capacity to orient yourself to the real world, and diminishing someone’s capacities is generally frowned upon. That at least begins to explain why lying seems bad, but it doesn’t quite explain why lying seems so bad.

Perhaps the reason it seems so bad is that the capacity that is diminished by lying is one we value so much: the capacity to find out the truth. Plus, the way the capacity gets diminished exploits something we particularly value and depend on—the trust that allows us all to get information from each other through speech. It feels bad to betray someone’s trust in that way, especially when the trusting person is as completely trusting as a child. Lying also moves us a little closer to a world in which the trust underlying communication is completely eroded. In such a world, we couldn’t get our thoughts across to others or know their thoughts. That would be a world vastly worse than our own. For many good reasons, there’s a high premium placed on truth-telling in most cultures, and a proscription against lying.

Lying is always tainted, but presumably it’s not always wrong, all things considered (regardless of what a few stern moralists have said). Take the classic case of the inquiring murderer. Nazis came to the door of the building where Anne Frank and her family were hiding, and their protectors lied repeatedly—"No Jews are living here.” Of course, the lies we tell to children aren’t usually going to be as overwhelmingly justifiable as that lie. But if lying is not always wrong, then our lies could sometimes be justifiable.

What are the defensible lies we tell to children?

 
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