Lying to Kids

The insightful Paul Graham:

One of the most remarkable things about the way we lie to kids is how broad the conspiracy is.  All adults know what their culture lies to kids about: they’re the questions you answer "Ask your parents." If a kid asked you who won the World Series in 1982 or what the atomic weight of carbon was, you could just tell him. But if a kid asks you "Is there a God?" or "What’s a prostitute?" you’ll probably say "Ask your parents."

Since we all agree, kids see few cracks in the view of the world presented to them. The biggest disagreements are between parents and schools, but even those are small. Schools are careful what they say about controversial topics, and if they do contradict what parents want their kids to believe, parents either pressure the school into keeping quiet or move their kids to a new school.

The conspiracy is so thorough that most kids who discover it do so only by discovering internal contradictions in what they’re told. It can be traumatic for the ones who wake up during the operation. Here’s what happened to Einstein:

Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies: it was a crushing impression. 

I remember that feeling. By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance.

What if one wrote a clear simple web page explaining to young kids the important lies they are told?  How popular would it be with kids?  Yes, even if kids like the page it might take a while for word to get around about it, but I suspect it would face a much bigger problem: very few kids really want to see through the lies.  Hat tip to Kat

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  • Michael G.

    Robin, do you have children?

    Could you please give me the evidence for the statement: “…very few kids really want to see through the lies.”

  • Robert

    What makes you think they don’t want to see through the lies?

    Even if they didn’t ‘want’ to they would still feel compelled to read the site, just out of curiosity (who could look away?). See 2girls1cup for a similar example.

  • PM

    Might I suggest NOT going to the previous poster’s example?

    Anyway, I think the idea for that site is compelling… I might actually do it. What is your reason for thinking children don’t want to know? Mine seem intent on subverting what few protections I give them, so my experience doesn’t agree with you, but I’m willing to be dazzled!

  • Valter

    I am a big fan of Santa Claus. It is an elaborate prank that tests children credulity/skepticism and (eventually) teaches them that things are not necessarily true even if everybody around them say they are. Moreover, it does so in a very gentle way: “Yes, I played a trick on you – but you got quite a few toys because of it and you did not mind that, did you?” And think of the sense of empowerment that is experienced by the little four or five year old kid who corners his parents and makes them confess it was a joke!

    I liked it. My daughter liked it. It’s good stuff, really.

    Sure, it can be hard at times. As a seven year old, I was forced by a classmate into a discussion about the existence of a Santa Claus-like figure and, out of exasperation, I made the mistake of saying “OK, let’s ask the teacher and see who’s right.” Naturally, the teacher was part of the adult conspiracy and I lost the argument. But hard experiences build character – and teach you that even teachers can say falsehoods. So, it’s all good stuff anyway.

    Long live the Santa Claus conspiracy!

  • spindizzy

    The most effective lies we tell children are the lies we tell ourselves as well.

    Therefore, when kids realise they’re being lied to, they’ve learned a very important truth!

  • David Boyle

    You can’t beat Dawkins’s letter ‘good and bad reasons for believing’. I’m about 20 years too old to know how it reads to a ten year old, but I’ll bet that its about as good as you can get to make the point:

    “Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun? …”

  • Grant

    I’d also like some evidence to back up the assertion that “…very few kids really want to see through the lies.” In my experience, this isn’t true, although I tend to avoid kids. It certainly wasn’t true in my life (by the time I was 12, I was convinced the vast majority of humanity was incapable of honesty).

  • All, “I suspect” flags that I have only moderate confidence, and didn’t choose to summarize my evidence here. For those who think otherwise, create the website and prove me wrong! I think I’d love to be wrong here.

    Michael, I have two boys, age 15, 17. They figured out Santa very early on but then changed their mind for a few years, apparently because it was more fun to believe in Santa.

  • “For those who think otherwise, create the website and prove me wrong! I think I’d love to be wrong here.” Robin Hanson

    I could set up one that includes the occasional lie “When the ice cream truck music is playing that means they’re sold out” things like that. That way the chaff of the lies (and the occasionally lying websites amongst the real ones) will drown out anyone who attempts to tell the truth. Which site are children to believe? They probably just have absolute faith in Wikipedia like the rest of us. If they do some nasty truths might out

  • Bert

    After a few Bible classes, my kid has seen through the bs. Now he hates Jesus and has switched his interest to more entertaining stories, such as the one about the three little pigs.

  • poke

    Besides Jesus, sex and Santa what are we lying to them about?

  • I think the internet has destroyed any ability of parents to operate a functional conspiracy of lies.

    Any kid with the tiniest bit of curiosity about any subject can easily acquaint him or herself with the entire range of human opinion on that topic.

  • When I was a child on the farm in Kansas, I remember the first time I saw pasta. I was fascinated by it. I asked my mother where it came from. Thinking she wasmaking a sweet joke, she told me it grew on trees in Africa and was harvested by men on the backs of giraffes.

    Being about 4, I believed her. I went to nursery school and told this story of the wonderful pasta only to be mocked by all. It remains a painful memory. (Yeah, I’m a fragile wimp. 🙂 )

    It was not the lie that bothered me so much as that my mother would willingly put me in a place where other people could humiliate me. Needless to say I am not an advocate of lying to children, altho’ I do believe the truth should be told in a gentle and age-appropriate manner.

    They will find out the hard facts anyway soon enough from TV and certainly from classmates. Making a “debunk” website for children certainly isn’t proof of any veracity; does anyone trust 99% of the websites they read?

    And finally nowadays children are more savvy than ever; my friends have 10-year-old girls who act, dress and talk like we did when were 17. Which actually creeps me out a bit!

  • anon

    The wikipedia article about lies to children describes them as simplified, easy to understand explanations which are not intended to be deceptive, e.g. Newtonian mechanics vs. relativity/quantum theory. If this is the case, a page listing such lies will be utterly unhelpful to kids.

  • Michael

    I wonder whether the internet will make the whole point moot. Reading the comments, I Googled, out of curiousity, “is santa real” and the second link settled the question for me. As kids are often more computer-literate than their parents, they don’t need to ask questions to adults anymore–they have the answers at their fingertips.

  • Michael

    Oops–Matthew C. beat me too the punch.

  • iwdw

    Hrm, that brings up an interesting question. How would a singularitarian answer a child’s question of “Am I going to die?”

  • Silas

    I just went to a school with 4th graders, and I thought they were old enough to know the truth. They asked me, and I answered that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. They were genuinely upset and refused to believe me. I guess I broke the rules. Wish me luck.


    Now, for something more controversial, what about a site that reveals lies that *adults* are supposed to conspire to keep telling? One that informs people things like:

    -There isn’t actually much difference between alcoholic beverages, as people can’t distinguish them in double blind tests; they just pretend there is in order to set up pecking orders and make getting high seem cultured.

    -Women give romantic advice in order to weed out those men stupid enough to follow it.

    -If you shoplift, and the store staff sees you, there isn’t actually much they can do about it.


    • Broggly

      I’m pretty certain I could tell my local lager from a guinness, or even a stella. That’s a really odd thing to say and I’m not going to believe you until you’ve cited your reference

      Also, when I decide not to do some “romantic” type thing that my girlfriend suggests she becomes unhappy rather than showing greater respect for my intelligence. I admit she may just be playing on one more level than me, but that seems unlikely. Again, give me evidence rather than flat assertions.

      The last one I have no special experience with, but it does seem odd. I certainly expect that if I just grabbed a bunch of merchandise and walked out of a shop without paying the staff would attempt to stop me. Evidence, please.

  • Caledonian

    Moreover, it does so in a very gentle way: “Yes, I played a trick on you – but you got quite a few toys because of it and you did not mind that, did you?”

    Lesson taught: fall for the lies that society wants you to and you will be rewarded.

    I suppose that is a valuable lesson for the sorts of societies people like you create. But it’s not a society I wish to live in.


    For the record, I was – and remain – angry with my parents for lying to me about Santa Claus. I had already realized that their beliefs about God were silly, but I knew they sincerely believed them. I couldn’t make any sense out of the Santa Claus facts, but the presents were clearly there, and they denied putting them there, so…

    It was extraordinarily painful to realize that not only would they lie to me about something important, but that they valued the pleasure they got out of making me fall for the lie more than they were concerned about my feelings. That hurt a great deal.

  • How would a singularitarian answer a child’s question of “Am I going to die?”

    The truth, of course:

    “Not if I can help it.”

  • Julian Morrison

    While I totally disagree with lying to kids – even the really taboo stuff, like sex (and if you keep that off your hypothetical site, you’re lying by omission) – I think it’s probably the wrong approach to just give them the answers, all at once, in a heap. Consider what you’re training them to do: accept disconnected rote truths from above. These truths exist and the evidence is hardly subtle. They could be good junior-Bayesian practice.

  • iwdw

    I don’t recall having many of those kinds of moments growing up. I never really genuinely believed in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, etc. Certainly not in any emotional way.

    The one real memory I do have of Santa was being asked if I believed in Santa Claus by some of my peers (who presumably had just learned the truth, but that’s just speculation). I would have been around 11, and I had never really considered the evidence before — my parents were never big on Santa, and it was painfully obvious anytime I got a “Santa” present as a kid that it was something from my parents. But I distinctly remember, in response to the question, thinking about all the stuff I had seen about Santa — as “Santa Claus: The Movie” had just come out the year before, and there was a great deal of “stuff” in the world about him, that I was really scared about going against what appeared to be “everyone”.

    So, I said “yes”, not really believing it, and got laughed at. Yeah, thanks society.

    (God was the same way. I just assumed that he kinda had to exist, because everyone around me seemed convinced about it, even though it just looked like a bunch of people doing inscrutable things on Sunday mornings. Most social interactions and traditions were opaque to me at that age, so I just assumed that there was something there that I didn’t understand yet, and I’d get it eventually.)

  • I’m pretty sure my seeing through the soft deceptions encouraged by adults never bothered me; if memory serves, it was actually kind of fun.

  • I am really embarrassed by everyone here who figured out santa did not exist at age 5. I remember when i found out. I saw this figure at the end of my bed so i turned on the lights and there stood my mum with presents in her hands. I should have realised as she was the only one with keys to my apartment.

    “Besides Jesus, sex and Santa what are we lying to them about?” by: poke
    What are we lying to ourselves about? I suppose that is the topic of this blog. What are the times you realised a major cornerstone belief of yours was wrong?

  • I’ll echo Caledonian on being upset that I was deceived. I remained a Christian though.

  • josh

    -There isn’t actually much difference between alcoholic beverages, as people can’t distinguish them in double blind tests; they just pretend there is in order to set up pecking orders and make getting high seem cultured.

    What exactly are you talking about? Night Train doesn’t taste like Chateau Latour.

  • I wasn’t lied to about the existence of god or what prostitutes are. But given that adults lie to each other and themselves about things just as big (great myths and all that) that “matrix” feeling is probably going to continue to be an experience for a lot of people, in particular, people who are positively deviant in critical thinking aptitude from their surrounding adult community. For me the classic scene isn’t when Neo takes the pill in the matrix, but rather when Roddy Roddy Piper puts on the sunglasses in They Live!

  • Silas

    josh: I’m referring to the scam of wine and beer reviewing. Obviously, totally different kinds of liquors are going to taste different, but being able to discern quality etc. to the precision that connoisseurs claim just can’t be substantiated by double-blind tests. And we’re just not supposed to bring that up in polite company.

  • josh

    I agree that the differences are probably exaggerated; a fifty dollar bottle of wine is probably not much different from a twenty dollar bottle. However, a 300 dollar bottle of wine definitely tastes different than an 8 dollar bottle. Likewise, anyone can tell Miller Lite from good beer, and the plastic bottle tequila we used to drink in college is about 100 times more likely to make someone gag than Patron, which actually tastes and smells pretty good.

    Your probably right about the degree to which connoisseurs claim they can differentiate.

  • Morgan


    “Society strikes early when the individual is helpless”

    –B.F. Skinner

  • Josh,

    I’m extremely curious — exactly how does a $300 bottle of wine taste different from $8 wine? Are you very confident that if I bought a bottle of wine for $300 and one for $8, that you could tell which was which?

  • Michael

    josh writes: “…as people can’t distinguish alcoholic beverages in double blind tests”

    I’m very suspicious of this claim. Which people? I can’t find any study to this effect, and there are several studies to the contrary when I search “wine tasting” on ScienceDirect (i.e., people really can distinguish between different wines).

  • josh


    Depends on the kind of wine, but expensive wines are generally made in such a way that they taste different. When young, they are highly tanic, almost undrinkable. This is so they can age. If you taste an expensive aged wine, it will still have some fruitiness, as well as the obvious sign of aging which totally changes the texture and flavor (if you’ve ever had an aged wine, you know I’m not BSing, aged wines are weirdly mushroomy, and silky in your mouth.) On the other hand, if you try to age an inexpensive wine, it will have no fruitiness left. If will just kind of taste sour.

    The concentration of flavor is another factor.

    If, for example, you taste a boutique Napa Valley Cabernet is will be MUCH intensely flavored than the $8 version. I’m not even saying that the $300 version tastes any better. All the stuff about nuance and character may be overblown, but they really do taste completely different. There is really no way you could mistake one for the other.

  • “but they really do taste completely different”

    Peeps, I don’t know about some wines by pure price, but certainly you can tell a Sauternes from a Cab Sauv tasting blind, yes certainly. I personally find coffees easier – but that may because I have trained a lot on coffee with my Lenoir. It’s important to recognize that if you are a taster, you can train yourself. You’d be surprised at how much these senses can be taught!

  • Lord

    And when did you come to realize these are not lies at all, only metaphors of truth? Or did you not?

  • michael vassar

    I was raised with and never starkly broke from a vague “god is whatever you want it to be” non-theology which shaded cleanly into continuing efforts to really understand first cause, so for me the surprises went in the other direction. At about age ten I was frankly disbelieving, and was eventually shocked and horrified, when a six year old convinced me that yes some kids actually believed in Santa. Then at age 14 I had similar experiences with Jesus and people who were of my socio-economic status (I had known vaguely about fundamentalists and TV preachers as something primitive and far away).

    I had noticed that most adults were foolish in many ways previously, but Jesus etc seemed to just be another level of insanity and I wasted MANY hours arguing about it over the next four or five years.

  • ColinDC

    I don’t even remember ever believing in Santa Claus, but one thing that did have a huge impact on me was death.
    My parents never outright deceived me about death but it was never really talked about with them, school, books, or television. When talked about it was usually religious (heaven/far far away/ghosts/etc.). The emotional impact never really hit me until high-school where, one day, it hit hard and fast.

    Another (slightly off-topic) one is lies in school. I can’t remember any from elementary so here’s a couple from university:
    The Coriolis effect determines drainage direction.
    George Washington was not the first president of the united states.
    (psych 101, not kidding, we were tested on it).
    I don’t think most of the class took the second one to heart but the first one is a lot more subtle and widespread; this goes to show that just because we’re adults also doesn’t mean we’re now safe from their lies.
    (Insert reference to “One Lie” post here)

    BTW: Hi everyone! hope this wasn’t too terrible for a first post…

  • Valter

    Caledonian writes:

    “Lesson taught [from Santa Claus gift-giving]: fall for the lies that society wants you to and you will be rewarded.

    I suppose that is a valuable lesson for the sorts of societies people like you create. But it’s not a society I wish to live in.”

    I’ll let the insult pass, since you were so hurt by the SC lie and I am sorry to have touched a topic that is so sensitive for you. But your rage seems to be obfuscating your judgment.

    The gift-giving is not a way to reward believing a lie – in fact it continues even after the lie is discovered. Or did your parents stop giving you gifts after you learned the truth about SC? That, I agree, would be counterproductive – and downright mean.

    The gift-giving is a way to sugar the pill of the SC prank, which (as you felt) may be taste bitter. I think the prank is useful as a life-lesson (don’t believe everything you hear, not matter how many times you hear it) and it probably has to hurt a bit to sink in. But I insist: it is a gentle prank and should be taken with a sense of humor.

    (I wonder at what age you learned the SC truth; if the prank continues for too long – say, until age 10 – then it is not longer a gentle one. I guess that if the kid still buys the story after age 7 or 8 parents should worry a bit and start giving better hints.)

  • Dynamically Linked

    How did the Santa Claus deception get started, does anyone know? Paul Graham’s article explains the rationales behind many of the lies we tell children, but not this one. The amount of of coordination involved in creating such a conspiracy would be extremely costly if someone were to attempt it today. So how did Santa Claus get started in the first place? And why?

    • He originally was real person who got ‘generalized’/’abstracted’ into being a myth. But once he was a myth, Coca-Cola turned him into a way to market their product.

      Wikipedia bears this much: claims Nikolaos of Myra, of the 3rd century was a real person, who did give gifts. ( ).

      However the latter half of this is disputed by Snopes: — they claim that everything about Santa Claus was present before Coca-cola got their maws on it, and that they just used the meme successfully.

      Regardless of how much was consciously cultivated, It’s a microcosm of the broader picture of how gods are created — someone does something worthy of being remembered, so worthy that it seems bigger than human in retrospect — and in effort to remember him, the myth grows with every passing generation.

      But one thing that definitely affects myths is when you can have one official version of the myth that everyone is exposed to:

  • Wendy Collings

    I remember believing in Santa Claus, but don’t recall how or when I discovered the truth. Nor was there any “moment of truth” about the Christian beliefs I was brought up with; it all just leached out of me like dye that was never colour-fast.

    Reading people’s different reactions to the Santa myth, I get the impression that some people have something like a digital on-off switch for belief-disbelief, while others have more of an analogue doubt dial.

    P.S. I’m not sure the Jesus myth qualifies as a lie, since the people passing it on fully believe in it themselves. Untruth + deliberate deceit = lie.

  • I tend to fall on the side of transparency.

    I don’t believe at all that the smartest people I know are the ones who are aloof about evil. Those might be the academics, but in that regard they’re ignorant about what really makes the work tick. In fact, they often throw their weight behind evil people because they don’t know any better.

    I do however think there is a prisoner’s dilemma involved. When you cross the line and tell the truth, people turn on you. I’ve been there and it can get vicious.

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  • Maybe this is just my own experience, but I grew up in a world where, some strangers and maybe the soviet union notwithstanding, I could trust adults. Teachers, priests and other authority figures tended to know what they were talking about. It wasn’t until I started unraveling little lies like the SC one that the picture started to become in question. I would suggest many children are in similar situations, where the default is to trust their surrounding — if they cannot trust their mother, or some kind of provider, they’re going to have issues with basic survival and language acquisition, so some degree of trust is required even just to get that far.

    Children might be seen as having big imaginations, but in fact their imaginations are truly and utterly limited by the narratives and experiences that they have available to them. They may be able to crystalize into new narratives and find new patterns with which to measure the world around them very easily but they are still only using what they have to work with, and I would argue that for the vast majority of normal children this does not include the kind of wide-ranging conspiracies that actually exist. You need practice in seeing lies, in seeing well-meaning mistakes, in seeing and interacting with social situations that usually only experience can give, especially experience where you have skin in the game. Sometimes you get lucky by seeing an internal inconsistency and recognizing it for what it is, but more often children rationalize it away as being a mistake that *they* made in interpreting the situation, something they are typically still doing a lot of as they experiment and grow.

    So it’s not necessarily that they don’t *want* to see the truth, it’s that they are not expecting a truth to be where they need to look in order to find it. Conspiracies are often “unknown unknowns” to children.

    Sometimes though they’ll choose to ignore the situation, if it’s uncomfortable in the right way. In those cases then yes, they do ‘want’ to not know. I tried to ignore the sex subgame of life and everything involved with it for a long time. And to some extent this propensity to seek or ignore conflicting information might depend on a cultural value on truth — if your culture does not support truth seeking your children may not care to look as much. But as others in this thread have pointed out — children are practically by
    default curious, and will look at evidence presented to them in the right way, then quickly take it for granted that “everyone knows” that there is a conspiracy in this topic and move on to the next thing.