© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Pants-on-fire parenting


Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.
Economist VILFREDO PARETO, referring to the errors of Kepler

In 1847, around the time Pareto was conceived, an obstetrician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women in his hospital were much more likely to die if their babies were delivered by doctors than by midwives. He then noticed that doctors whose patients died had usually come straight from autopsies. Semmelweis asked the doctors to humor him by washing their hands before delivering a baby. Maternal mortality in the hospital dropped below two percent.

It took another generation for the medical establishment to accept germ theory as fact — but once they did, the average human lifespan in Europe nearly doubled overnight.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, where we’ve overlearned the message. Thanks to air filters, airtight homes, and antibacterial everything, our environments have been so thoroughly scrubbed that our systems are losing the ability to deal with the germs and irritants that abound in the world outside our doors.

Among other things, the result has been a spike in serious childhood allergies and infections. According to an NPR story on studies supporting this conclusion, “An emphasis on hygiene means we are no longer exposing children to enough bacteria to help trigger their natural immune systems.”

With the best of intentions, we so thoroughly protect our children from an admittedly bad thing that we do them a disservice.

See where I’m headed?

I think the same idea applies in many areas of parenting — among them the careful scrubbing of all exposure to “nonsense” from our children’s lives. I’ve heard the assertion that “we must never lie to our children” from many nonreligious parents, always intoned in the kind of hushed voice usually reserved for sacred pronouncements.

Actually, I think it’s terribly important to lie to our children.

(N.B. That tongue-in-cheek sentence appeared in the initial draft of Raising Freethinkers until my editor protested that what I advocate isn’t really lying. Spoilsport. So I changed it to this:) Though I don’t advocate outright lying, the playful fib can work wonders for the development of critical thinking.

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. I would rather, in a low-key and fun fashion, encourage them to constantly take whatever I say and run it through the baloney meter. To that end, I sprinkle our conversations with fruitful errors, bursting with their own corrections.

When my youngest asked, “How far away is the Sun?”, I said, “Twenty feet,” precisely so she would look at me and say, “Dad, you dork!!” When my kids ask what’s for dinner, I say “Monkey lungs, go wash up.” When the fifth grader doing her homework asks what seven times seven is, I say 47, because she should (a) know that on her own by now, and, equally important (b) know the wrong answer when she hears it.

Yes, I make sure they end up with the right answer when it matters, and no, I don’t do this all the time. They’d kill me. But pulling our kids’ legs once in a while is more than just fun and games. For one thing, if every word from my mouth was a reliable pearl of factuality, they would get the unhelpful message that Authority Always Tells the Truth.

Now don’t instantly whip over to the cartoon extreme of Dad lying about whether a car is coming as we cross the street ( “All clear!! Heh heh heh.”) I’m talking about fibs of the harmless-but-useful variety — and yes, I firmly include Santa in that.

Knowing that Dad sometimes talks nonsense can prepare them to expect and challenge the occasional bit of nonsense, intentional or otherwise, from peers, ministers, and presidents. The result in our household is this: When I answer a question, my kids don’t swallow it without a thought. They take a moment to think about whether the answer makes sense. By seeing to it that their childhood includes nonsense, I’m building their immune systems for a lifetime swimming in the stuff.

An interesting and related post on lying by philosopher (and PBB contributor) Stephen Law

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This was written on Tuesday, 23. December 2008 at 10:17 and was filed under critical thinking, My kids, Parenting, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. I hear what you’re saying, and I don’t disagree, but I just can’t make myself do the Santa thing!

    Maybe it’s because it’s a big ‘lie’ (over weeks, with lots of detail) – it makes it harder to do? Maybe it’s because I am such a bad liar (as my boss tells me!)?

    Comment: Rob A – 23. December 2008 @ 10:53 am

  2. I think it’s perfectly fine to give it a pass. I see it as an opportunity to prepare for other big, detailed myths, but not a necessity by any means.

    Comment: Dale – 23. December 2008 @ 11:00 am

  3. We do the santa thing, and I love pulling my daughter’s leg. She loves it too, and will play right along. She’s really good at pulling my leg right back, at least for a while. She can only keep it up for a little while before dissolving into giggles.

    Comment: antimattr – 23. December 2008 @ 11:50 am

  4. Thanks for reminding me to get a “Question Authority” sign to hang in the kitchen.

    We do Santa and I am so interested in the way my 5.5yr-old daughter’s mind works over the idea. She wants to wake up when he is delivering toys because, among other things, that would prove he’s real. When she wonders or questions or states, I talk to her but don’t out-right lie — “I don’t know [how he gets down the chimney], I’ve never seen Santa.”

    I think she has more trouble believing in flying reindeer than in Santa.

    Comment: AmyS – 23. December 2008 @ 11:54 am

  5. Well put, Dale!

    Comment: michellegalo – 23. December 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  6. I’ve been lying to my 5-year-old for as long as I can remember. When she was very small, I remember her taking everything I said very seriously, and noticed that it was causing a lot of anxiety for her. Even when I’d say very silly things she wouldn’t call me on them, but I could see that the cognitive dissonance was causing her a LOT of distress. Infallible Mommy says the thing that is not so!

    I started coaching her on calling me “silly” and telling me when I was making stuff up. It took a lot of coaching. Once she caught on, the gleam in her eye was priceless. More power for her meant less anxiety. It’s been a very good fit.

    Of course, now she pulls the same thing on us and we spend a LOT of time laughing at our house. We’ve also had to set some ground rules as to when these fibs are and are NOT okay.

    I’d say beware using this parenting tool, though. Once you open the door to a kid’s critical thinking skills, they have an awful lot of creativity and energy to put into out-foxing you. 😉

    Comment: schmiedesgruebl – 23. December 2008 @ 12:58 pm

  7. Hi again, Dale.

    I think there’s a categorical difference between “twenty feet” on the one hand and Santa on the other. (My Full Disclosure is that I don’t presently have kids, but I expect that I probably will within the next 3-4 years.)

    When you tell your daughter that the sun is twenty feet away, you don’t actually intend for her to believe you. Quite the opposite–you want her to detect, hopefully very quickly, that you’re full of it. I think that’s a fine idea; count me in on Playful Fibs.

    With the Big Fib of Santa, though, the intention is to get the kid to believe. For years, in fact. I don’t think there’s any way I’m going to be able to bring myself to do that; it seems to me like a real violation of trust. I don’t have any problem with getting my kids to think critically about what I’m saying (via Playful Fibs or otherwise), and I’m sure they’ll recognize that I’m no “infallible authority” rather early on. But I do think I owe them a duty not to knowingly steer them wrong for years at a stretch.

    One thing I’ve talked about with my wife is, instead of concocting a “conservative theism” Santa (i.e., Santa’s a real person who does real things like deliver presents and eat cookies), we may try a “liberal theism” Santa instead (i.e., Santa’s not a person, he’s just a name/face/symbol for the spirit of giving and family togetherness that lots of cultures celebrate in December). Santa as presented by John Tillich, perhaps.

    Quite possibly my motives and yours aren’t entirely different; it’s crossed my mind that my kids, when they get into a very literal-minded stage, might decide that “liberal theism” Santa is awfully silly. I can’t say that would break my heart….

    I think this thread could use a link (or have you already seen this?) to fellow atheist Amanda Marcotte’s post on “Pandagon” defending the Santa exercise–on grounds that are amusingly parental-interest-centered.

    Comment: Rieux – 23. December 2008 @ 6:38 pm

  8. Did I actually write “John Tillich”?

    The man’s name, of course, was Paul.


    (Neither one of those two could measure up to George Tillich or Ringo Tillich, of course. But we all knew that.)

    Comment: Rieux – 23. December 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  9. When you tell your daughter that the sun is twenty feet away, you don’t actually intend for her to believe you. Quite the opposite–you want her to detect, hopefully very quickly, that you’re full of it.

    That’s fine, of course. All are free to decide whether the difference between quick and eventual detection is one of category or degree, and whether the child is harmed or helped. I’ve made my choice and been pleased with the results.

    Comment: Dale – 23. December 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  10. Did I actually write “John Tillich”? The man’s name, of course, was Paul.

    Of whom Nietzsche famously said, “Paul is dead.”

    Comment: Dale – 23. December 2008 @ 11:13 pm

  11. As I lay in bed last night, the thought occurred: if I am willing to let my child have the fantasy of Santa and tell her the story about him, why do I not also tell her the myth of a baby born long ago in dire circumstances who possessed the potential to change the world, to bring hope and healing? My daughter is only 15 months, so I have a little time to ponder this. My husband is not comfortable with prolonging the Santa fantasy, and we are both non-religious. He was raised UU and I was raised Catholic. I remember the nativity being a special and meaningful part of my holidays, and I wonder whether to incorporate it somehow (but am not sure I can get my spouse to agree anyway).

    I don’t have an answer to that, but I thought it an interesting question. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this if you have some.

    Comment: kathryn – 24. December 2008 @ 10:06 am

  12. why do I not also tell her the myth of a baby born long ago in dire circumstances who possessed the potential to change the world, to bring hope and healing?

    Stephen Law blogged about this precise question last year, and his thoughts are so similar to mine that I’ll just send you there. (In short, the Santa myth is a bubble that eventually pops, while we are culturally discouraged from ever leaving that Other Bubble.)

    Comment: Dale – 24. December 2008 @ 10:16 am

  13. In short, the Santa myth is a bubble that eventually pops, while we are culturally discouraged from ever leaving that Other Bubble.

    At the (very real) risk of oversimplifying, then, maybe that’s the crucial factor distinguishing the perspectives here: the time duration each of us is comfortable leaving between the fib and the fibee’s realization that it’s a fib. Some of us are uncomfortable with a fib that lasts more than a few seconds to a few minutes; you and Mr. Law (among others) are cool with a few years, at least for educational or other worthwhile purposes; and none of us approves of a decades- or life-long wait.

    I think it’s safe to say that my model’s not entirely accurate, but it has the virtue of being terrifically simple.

    Comment: Rieux – 24. December 2008 @ 11:08 am

  14. Thank you for referring me to his blog. A useful post!

    Comment: kathryn – 24. December 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  15. “If you tell a lie that’s big enough, and you tell it often enough, people will believe you are telling the truth, even when what you are saying is total crap.”

    It’s not that immune systems or critical thinking skills are either existent or not in most cases, it’s a matter of how strongly they’ve been built up. I have an immune system that does pretty darn well, but it’s not as good as someone who’s grown up living in less sanitary conditions and if I’ll be avoiding the water in Mexico if I ever visit. It’s not a matter of having it or not, but a matter of finding the best cost/benefit mark is.

    One extreme is you do nothing but speak total truth and at the other you raise the child to question everything to the point they’re never sure of anything at all. The same goes for immunity. You could either raise them in a hermetic environment or overexpose them to bacteria that wind up harming them. I think that Santa and letting the kid eat an occasional booger are pretty good mid-points. If done well they’ll get a good net effect and not stand much chance of harming the kid.

    Comment: carpespasm – 24. December 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  16. Hi Dale. First, since I’ve not commented before, my wife and I really enjoy your writings. Though we are not parents ourselves, your experiences will very likely be a strong influence on us if and when we take that step. We’ve both a lot of respect for your opinions on this subject.

    As for this post, very nice, and certainly a rare offshoot from the popular opinion — the opposite extreme in my opinion — that is, “Never lie to your kids.” Counter-intuitive at first, but very compelling.

    Thanks for your contributions to the world. I truly think they will make our parents, and therefore our society, a little better. -LN

    Comment: lneely – 26. December 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  17. Thanks so much for that nice note, LN! Glad to be of help.

    Comment: Dale – 26. December 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  18. As a former Catholic, I’ve struggled a bit with the manger issue too and happen to disagree with Dale on this. At the Austin seminar, Dale introduced me and my wife to the term “Cultural Catholic” and it’s something that she identifies with and I am entirely comfortable with. So yeah, as a secular humanist I still enjoy my family’s traditions of an Advent wreath, Nativity Scene (without the three wise men until Epiphany, thank-you-very-much) and singing carols around the Christmas tree. For my kids it’ll be part of the seasonal cycle as are their mom’s Halloween and Thanksgiving traditions and my own Czech St. Nicholas Day and (very pagan) Easter Monday.

    BTW, we love messing with our 4 year old and now anytime we say something she finds doubtful, her response is to ask whether it’s “for real”. Things like Santa or Baby Jesus haven’t made it up to her list of things that need to be determined as to whether they’re “for real”. For now they exist in her world of imaginary friends along with her fairies, dragons and “her sister Sarah”. I feel no need to make special provisions for them.

    Comment: nonplus – 26. December 2008 @ 11:41 pm

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