If you lie to your children, Jack Nicholson wins

Explaining how the universe works to your children can be like explaining how the United States Marine Corps works to Tom Cruise. They want the truth but you’re pretty sure they can’t handle it. So you tell them what you think they need to know, and you tell yourself that you’re doing it for their own good, but really you just don’t want them to find out that you killed a guy.

One night, I took my two year old daughter outside to look at the moon. It was shiny, and she was impressed; so much so that the following night, she wanted to go outside and “see oon” again.

But when I took her out the second time, the moon wasn’t there. It was a clear and cloudless night, and the little stars were all twinkle twinkling but the moon, that unreliable scoundrel, was nowhere to be found. I haven’t seen my little girl that disappointed since Dora the Explorer was arrested for shoplifting.

She wanted answers and I wasn’t sure what to tell her, since the truth involved concepts that she wouldn’t understand. But she was quite upset, I felt responsible, and some of the shadows in the front yard were starting to freak me out, so I did what any parent would do to resolve the situation quickly. I lied.

I told my daughter that the moon had gone to sleep. Yes, I’m officially one of those parents now. And the moment the words tumbled out of my mouth, I realised that what I’d said was wrong on several levels.

Firstly, of course, my explanation was factually inaccurate, at least according to the current scientific consensus.

Secondly, it didn’t even make sense within the boundaries of the child-friendly analogy that I was trying to create. The moon hadn’t gone to sleep. If anything, the problem was that it hadn’t gotten out of bed yet.

Thirdly, it was an insult to my daughter’s intelligence that I had resorted to an analogy in the first place, without even attempting the genuine explanation.

As we headed inside, I decided that children are never too young to start hearing the facts, and that I would undo my earlier misstep by telling my daughter the truth about the moon. It was unlikely that she’d understand what I was talking about but I felt like I owed it to her to give it a shot at least.

So I dusted off our globe, grabbed a golf ball to use as a substitute moon, sat my daughter down, spun the globe around, and held the specially-designed-for-extra-distance moon out in the imaginary sky above Sydney in preparation for my demonstration. It was at this point that I realised I didn’t know anything about the moon.

That’s not entirely true, of course. I did know a few things about the moon. I knew that it orbited the earth in some fashion. I knew that its shape appeared to change over the course of a month but really it stayed the same. I knew that shadowy factions within the United States government had commissioned Stanley Kubrick to film a fake landing on it during the sixties, and had used the resulting increases in NASA’s operational budget to fund a top-secret space station manned by Bigfoot.

The other thing I knew about the moon was that it kept an irregular schedule, and that occasionally I would see it up in the sky during daylight hours and think “Silly moon, you’re not supposed to be up there.” But I didn’t know enough of the details surrounding its behaviour to be able to demonstrate to my daughter, using a globe and a golf ball, precisely why it was that she could see it last night but couldn’t see it again at the same time tonight.

Fortunately, she had well and truly lost interest by this point and just wanted to bounce the moon on the floor. So I cut the lesson short and shuffled her off to bed. As I did so, I thought about why parents lie to their kids.

Sometimes we lie because we don’t know the truth and we’re just too damned proud to admit it, or too damned lazy to look it up on Wikipedia.

Other times, we know the truth, or at least think we do, but we believe that it’s beyond our child’s comprehension. So we make something up to act as a placeholder; a temporary explanation that we intend to replace one day with a real one.

It’s a tempting way to drip-feed the complexities of the universe to your child. Deception may be a tangled web but the truth can be just as messy. Every answer reveals new questions, and rest assured that your children are going to ask them all. If you’re following the path of truth, you’ll have to seek out the one true answer to each of those questions. If you’re prepared to wander from that path a little, answers can be easier to come by.

For example, anthropomorphising the moon, as misguided as it may have been, has put me in a position where I could now, if I chose to, blame anything that I don’t know about the moon on its personality. “I don’t know why it does that, miss. The moon’s just a jerk sometimes.”

But the problem with creating and perpetuating a believable place-holding lie is that it can sometimes turn out to be more appealing than the truth. So when you do finally decide to be honest with your child, it can be difficult to clear the mound of bullshit with which you’ve buried the facts.

The night after the sleepy moon incident, we tried again. This time, we stayed up a little later to wait for the moon to get out of bed. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in at the last minute and obscured our view. I could still see a sliver of the moon through the cloud cover but enough of it was hidden that it was unrecognisable to a two year old’s eye.

“The moon’s still there, miss,” I said. “It’s just behind the clouds, see.”

“No,” she replied, in a tone of resigned disappointment that’s impossible to capture with words. “Oon not there. Oon go sleep.”

Now, whenever she sees a picture of the moon, she lapses into the same semi-depressed state and says “Oon not there. Oon go sleep.” It’s very sad. In my haste to escape a mildly awkward situation, I’ve turned the moon into a source of constant disappointment for my daughter. That’s not a good result.

So now honesty will be my policy. I can already see that it’s going to be a humbling experience to realise and admit exactly how much I don’t know about how the world works but I think it’s going to be good for me and my kids. If I know the truth, I’ll explain it as best I can. If I don’t know the truth, I’ll look it up. If I don’t understand what I find, I’ll tell them to ask their mother. And if they ask about sex or Santa, I’ll point at something behind them and run away.

Is honesty your policy? Or do you lie like a dog? Leave a comment and tell me all about it. And don’t forget to subscribe for more hard-hitting parental commentary direct to your Inbox or RSS feed.

One Response to 'If you lie to your children, Jack Nicholson wins'

  1. Mark says:

    Personally I try to tread a middle path. In rough terms, I do lie to my 3 year old but I tell her that I’m lying, and that I will give her a better explanation when she is older. Sometimes I illustrate the point by giving my best adult explanation just to prove that it exists.

    Otherwise, same as you. I’ve spent the last three and a half years walking around being quietly horrified at my fundamental lack of understanding of how the world works.

    And worried about the accuracy of Wikipedia.

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