A Parent Told Their 4-Year Old A Very Stupid Lie And Wants To Know If It Was A Mistake (Yes)
A guide to lying to your children.
Welcome back to “Advice? I’ll Give Ya’ Some Stinking’ Advice”! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve done one of these because like everyone else I was a bit caught up in the midterm election and Elon Musk buying Twitter. So let’s get back on the horse! In today’s edition, I’m looking at a question that was sent to Slate. In many ways it is a traditional evergreen parenting question, but in one way it is very strange indeed.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 4-years-old and is beginning to ask logical questions about Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other made-up characters. For example, we were recently reading a book about colorful little forest fairies and she asked if fairies are in “real life.” I said no. Her follow up question was “Is the tooth fairy real?” I felt silly and my answer was illogical, but I said yes. A few weeks later, we were at a birthday party with a visit from the character Elsa. She asked if Elsa was real and I said yes. That week we watched the movie Frozen and she asked if the movie was real. I felt silly and caught in a lie so I said yes. My question is: How do I play along with these fun traditions of childhood but also teach the realities of life? Unicorns and mermaids don’t exist, and we won’t ever be able to find them in real life, but Santa is? I’m doing a terrible job at navigating this, and I feel like a liar. Meanwhile, I am proud to raise a daughter who is logical, thoughtful, and asks good questions. Where is the line? I don’t remember how I myself figured out these differences as a child, but I do remember believing in Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.
—Where is the line?
The general rule of lies is that you should lie for a reason. Lying to children about Santa is fine if you know what the goal is. Will it delight your child? OK, that’s a good reason. Will it be a helpful tool for instilling in them moral behavior via the “naughty/nice” dichotomy? Good stuff.
Eventually, your child is going to find out that Santa isn’t real, though, and the danger is that they won’t figure that out until they’re so old that it causes them social problems.
Normal children will put it together or learn from their friends in preschool. They’ll call you out on it and you’ll sheepishly admit it and then make them chocolate chip pancakes and everything will be fine.
Many of their friends will be going through the exact same process and they won’t be weird.
But what if your child isn’t normal? What if your child is stupid? What if your child doesn’t put it together until 2nd grade and one day says that Santa is real and everyone in the class points and laughs and someone pours chocolate milk on their head?
That dumb child might never forgive you. They might grow into a dumb adult who is in therapy in their 40s talking about how they haven’t been able to have healthy relationships because their bastard parents didn’t model honesty for them.
It’s a risk!
I think if your child still believes in Santa when they are going into Elementary School you should leave some clues around to help them figure out it’s not real. Leave the computer in the kitchen open to a page about Santa being a lie. Make a lot of noise when you are putting the presents on the tree that year so they wake up. Don’t directly tell them because one of the fun things about the lie is figuring it out, but nudge them along.
There are also some reasons not to lie to your kid about Santa.
One reason is that it gives them a superpower with their friends. I never believed in these sorts of things because I have a sister who is 18 months older than me and she told me the truth when she found out. Consequently, I was the kid who told everyone else in pre-school that Santa was a lie. It’s fun to have a thing!
You can use that situation to also teach them something: you know a secret but with great power comes great responsibility. Maybe don’t spoil your friends’ fun?
And it is nice to have a secret! It bonds you together. If all the children in the world believe that Santa is real and your child is the one child whose parent loves and trusts enough to tell the truth, then it will strengthen your bond with your kid.
But let’s now focus on the real thing that jumps out of this letter: you lied to your kid about Frozen? What lol.
The cartoon? Does your child not understand the concept of fiction? This is a bizarre lie that will backfire in your face.
What is the goal of this lie? There is none. You did it because you’re weak and in the moment you couldn’t tell the truth.
Will it cause them to get teased? 100% it will. And soon.
Is it a common lie that other kids their age will also be sleuthing out? No. The other children will have no empathy in this situation. Your child will have chocolate milk poured on her hair every day for weeks.
Your kid is going to say to one of their friends the next time she sees them that Frozen is real and that friend is going to laugh at her. And if that friend doesn’t laugh at her, when the playdate is over, the friend is going to ask their parent if Frozen is real and that parent, made of sterner stuff than you, will say “what? no. It’s a movie.” And then the friend will laugh and say “I thought so” and be slightly ashamed of even asking. That shame will fester in their heart and they will take it out on your child in the form of teasing.
Your child will come home crying and you’ll have to have a very uncomfortable conversation, and still, she will wonder “what else is my mom lying about?”
You are fucked. It’s probably too late. Because these kids love Frozen and I can’t imagine she hasn’t already said something about this to someone else but if you’re lucky enough that she hasn’t quickly correct yourself and tell her the truth.
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