Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Lying

I thought I’d post a follow-up to the Santa is a Tool post in light of some other posts that have been brought to my attention. Rob A. pointed me to a post by Steven Law. SL would “happily lie” about the existence of Santa Claus, and presents six arguments in favor of lying to children. As I said before, I am not an anti-lying absolutist. Yet I did not find any of SL’s arguments at all persuasive. Here they are:

1. “Educational Fibbing.” SL says that if we lie to our children, they will become good at detecting lies, which is a valuable skill to have. While it is true that we want our children to be good “truth-detectors,” this goal does not require me lying to my children. Our world is full of lies and liars, devious deceivers, fallacious reasoners, and so on. My children are lied to or mislead by others and this will continue for the rest of their childhood. They (or we) can investigate and learn from these lies just as much as they can from lies told by me to them. By letting others do the lying for me, I do not risk the downsides of having lied to them myself. (I’d add that SL’s example of educational fibbing isn’t quite lying—it is more along the lines of a practical joke, or pretending. To lie is to intentionally and knowingly state a falsehood with the aim that it be believed. Joking around about fairies in the garden shed, so as to elicit an immediate refutation from the hearer, is not lying.)
2. “It makes them happy.” Yes it does, at least in the short term. And for some, even in the long term. But plenty of other activities and interactions that don’t involve lying make children happy, too. I agree that if X makes your child happy, then that is a reason to X. But that reason has to be taken into account along with other considerations, like the negatives that accompany lying to your child. Since there are non-lying alternatives that may produce even more (and more lasting) happiness, why go the lying route?
3. “Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.” I’m not sure how much value knowing what it is like to be a true believer has. Perhaps it is helpful in dealing with true believers? In any event, life presents plenty of chances to be fully convinced of a thesis, only to later learn that the thesis is false. Every academic field and nearly all non-academic professions provide opportunities for developing confidence in a belief, as well as the tools to later overturn that belief. Indeed, some might say that the history of science best exemplifies this.
4. “Fun for adults.” This is only a very weak reason for lying which I believe is overwhelmed by countervailing considerations, along the lines of lack of trust. Also, do we really want to convey to our children that it is permissible to lie to innocent others for the sake of our own pleasure?
5. “Useful for controlling behavior.” This is the main reason the Santa myth persists, I think, in conjunction with #4. At best this is a temporary measure, most effective in December. The message it conveys is that the reason to be good is to get a reward. This may be your view—indeed this is the functional role of heaven and hell—but it is not mine. I do not think that egoism is the correct account of morality. We have reasons to be good even if doing so isn’t what will get us best rewarded.
6. “Protects children from upsetting or damaging truths.” Well, I don’t think this applies in the Santa case. (Plenty of non-Christian children grow up undamaged, despite the fact that they never believed in Santa.) In talking about other things, such as deaths, injuries, or terrible events, it is not clear that lying about them is better for the child. Is a child better off thinking that Spot is in doggie heaven instead of the truth (that he is in hell for crapping on my Persian rug)? I will remind readers that there are non-lying alternatives to telling the truth: remaining silent, being vague, changing the subject, saying that you don’t want to talk about it, or delaying the conversation.

So I don't think SL has given us any conclusive reasons to lie to our children.

Just today, at Parenting Beyond Belief, Dale McGowan says that it “is terribly important to lie to our children.” The thing is, what DM defends is not lying at all (something he admits an editor of his pointed out to him). As I said above, to lie is to intentionally and knowingly say something false with the aim that it be believed. To joke that the sun is 20 feet away (one of DM’s examples of “lying”) is not a lie at all. If, after hearing this, your child became hysterical with fear about the impending solar-terrestrial collision—that is, demonstrated evidence of having believed you—that would be the exact opposite of what you intended.

another post, DM defends lying about Santa. His defense is largely an extended version of SL's #1. In any event, lying about Santa is quite a different animal than joking that “monkey lungs” are for dinner. When DM says the latter, he has no expectation that he will be believed. But when he tells his child that Santa exists, I suspect he not only expects that he will be believed, but that that is the point. So don’t be moved by the acceptability of monkey-lung playfulness with our children to endorse lying about Santa.

One possible defense for DM is to say that when he tells his kids that Santa exists, he actually does not have the aim that they believe him, and thus it is not, on the standard definition, a lie. Rather, it is a kind of test or critical thinking exercise. (Whether this justifies it is another matter.) He could support this interpretation of his own acts by reference to his satisfaction when his kids discover for themselves that Santa does not exist. He could go further by saying that were his kids to still believe in Santa when they are 15 years old, he would be very upset by this. At that age, he does not intend his children to believe him when he says that Santa exists. The problem with this is that up until the age at which he can reasonably come to expect his children to discover the truth about Santa, he is indeed lying to them. When they are too young to figure out that Santa does not exist, DM cannot intend that his falsehood elicit that response (one cannot intend what one believes is impossible). When they are that age, he is indeed lying to them.

DM advances his own reason for lying to children, distinct from the ones that SL offers. DM writes: “Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids’ lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority.”

Hold on a minute. My general refusal to lie to my children does not imply that I am infallible or an oracle. This is because sometimes, not lying to my kids means that my answers to some of their questions is “I don’t know.” Or, “It could be X – let’s find out.” Or “What do you think?” Or even, “Yes I know, but I’m not going to give you the answer.” There is no necessary connection between a failure to lie and aspirations to (or impressions of) omniscience. Indeed, honesty and fallibility go hand in hand.

UPDATE: Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a related Santa post entitled "Santa Claus is for Parents."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Philosophy Dad! I was worried about the 'setting myself up as an authority' thing...

(I should have realised that my kids' behaviour clearly demonstrates that they don't regard me as any great authority!)

Merry Christmas to you and yours!!!

Cytherea said...

I just found your blog, and read both this post and your post from last year regarding lying to kids about Santa Claus. I know this is delayed, but I did want to join the discussion!

This is something that I have always taken issue with. As a child, I *never* believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy... but my parents (esp. my mom!) refused to admit that I was right. Hence, I spent YEARS of my childhood playing tricks and setting up traps for my mom so that I could provide her with EVIDENCE that I was right. I would sneak downstairs and memorize the location and appearance of a certain present, and see if it was from "Santa" after all. I analyzed "Santa's" handwriting and compared it to my parents'. I went through the basement looking for the special wrapping paper that only "Santa" used. When I lost a tooth, I used to keep it and hide it for days, weeks, even months, and once sufficient time had passed, put it under my pillow to show that the tooth fairy didn't come. I would ask friends about their holiday traditions, and compare it to ours (for example, when we moved to our new house, I discovered that the "Easter Bunny" did an Easter egg hunt for each family- something we had never done). No matter how much evidence I had, my mother still insisted to me that I was wrong and that they were real, even when she didn't have a story to make up to explain it away.

I was an extremely intellectually frustrated child. And even as I grew older, my parents still lied to me about some of the most important things. The most drastic example? My mother took one of our cats to the vet to "give her away" and instead put her to sleep. The cat was slightly handicapped, but it wasn't life threatening, and she didn't even try to find a new home for her. I was 15 years old. Instead of telling me the truth, that she couldn't handle the cat anymore, and giving ME a chance to come up with some solutions, finding someone to take her, she killed my cat. And when she got home, she told me that they didn't even have to leave her in the shelter, because an old woman came in right as they got there and took her right away.

My parents never told me the truth. Years later, as a senior in high school, finally with a car to drive, I drove by that shelter all the time. Finally, one day, I pulled over on the side of the road, and turned around and went in to ask about her. I thought that maybe they could give me an update, tell me if she was doing ok. The girl at the desk who looked up my cat was probably only a few years older than me, and the look on her face before she had to tell me that the cat wasn't given away, that she had been taken in to be put to sleep... I was beyond crushed when I found out the truth.

My parents still don't know that I know; I never told them. My mom gets frustrated when I mention that the cat is dead. She still refuses to admit that Santa isn't real.

As an adult, I am close to my mother. Despite everything, I have turned out fine, and my childhood only indicates that I was born to be a philosopher (I am currently obtaining my MA). Despite everything, her and I are friends.

But this has caused a bit of discord between my husband and I when we talk about how we will raise our children when we have them.

I, for one, vowed never to lie to my children about anything important in life.

He wants to tell our kids about Santa. He remembers those years as some of his best. Where I remember frustration, he remembers magic. He does not want to deny that to our children. So far, we compromised. I told him that he can feel free to tell them the stories, but he will be the one doing it. I'll play along in that I'll do the Santa-y things and not tell them otherwise- *unless they ask.* If any of my children ever comes to me and asks me seriously, I will NOT lie to them.

I don't know how well it will work... if it will work at all. But from my own experience and my studies in philosophy, I can find no sound justification for lying to your own children on something so fundamental.

stepan said...

@heather, your mother seems to have some issues that make her way more extreme that the majority of pro-Santa parents (not being able to tell at 15yo that the cat's being put down?!?) FWIW, you lucked out that you grew into a healthy skeptic (I love your childhood experiments to evaluate whether Santa or Tooth Fairy really exist).

I think your compromise with your husband should work quite well. I am in the let-them-believe-in-Santa camp, but I've never really told my daughter about him or insisted that he's real. Santa has come into her life as other supernatural creatures have by us reading books and stories about them. (Well, he does do the stocking thing, but that's my wife's doing.)

I don't go out of my way to explain that laws of physics prevent beans from growing really high or giants from living in the sky or (and that would crush her) fairies from flying around. Ditto for Santa. And when she does ask (wonderingly but not really wanting to have her illusion removed) I ask her "what do you think" or "wouldn't it be cool if...". This allows me not to "lie" to my child yet still not stripping away hew imaginary world. When she does insist about knowing something "for real!", I'm more than happy to tell her or, preferably, to point her to the place where she can find out for herself.

I'm with Dale McGowan and think there is a healthy middle ground between being a fantasy-crushing literalist and explicitly insisting that Santa is real.

Rob A said...

Heather, your story does seem quite extreme.

We have never propogated the Santa myth with our kids (now 6, 4, 2). What they 'know' comes from (pre-)school (teachers and friends), and the TV (with a tiny bit from relatives at xmas).
It's interesting to observe kids as they grow and how their concepts develop, and how 'solid' those concepts are. The lines between Santa, people-dressed-up-as-Santa and Christmas-as-a-whole seem quite blurred (certainly at 4 years old).

The oldest is soon to lose his first tooth. The reality of the tooth fairy is easier to tell and hear, so he's under no illusion that one exists (and besides, he is half French, and in France it's a mouse, not a fairy...). Anyway, we've asked him if he'd like to put his tooth under his pillow, and get something in return. Of course he does!