It’s important to lie to your children. Not those well worn Santa Claus or Easter Bunny brand fairy tales, and certainly not the little white lies premeditated to preserve their innocence. I’m talking about huge, obvious, preposterous, outrageous, larger than life lies. In fact, it’s not just important to tell kids these lies, I believe it’s absolutely essential. That’s why I lie to my children every day.
I come by this dishonesty honestly. Like many fathers, my own dad lied to me incessantly. He’d tell me he had eleven fingers, that he could spell Mississippi with just one “i”, or that he could stick out his tongue and touch his nose. Even though he could prove all of these things, I knew I was being hornswaggled. “Dad, are you sleeping?” I’d ask. “No,” he’d lie,” I’m checking my eyelids for holes.”
He had me convinced that he could tell the sex of kittens by turning them over and looking at the bottom of their feet (I studied kitty paws for weeks without mastering that skill.) He was a patient man who was willing to wait years for a punch line to sink in. I couldn’t have been more than five years old the first time he exclaimed to me (after I had done something particularly inept) “Boy, I tell you all I know, and you still don’t know nothin’!” I was in my teens before I finally comprehended what he was saying.
I didn’t notice that this trait has been passed on to me until I found myself misdirecting my own children. When my 15 year old asked me how long he should cook a hot dog in the microwave, I suggested, “Two and a half hours.” The same child once broke a banana in half while trying to open it. “What should I do with it now?” he pleaded. “Throw it out.” I shrugged, “It’s no good anymore.” On a typical ride to the grocery store my 9 year old daughter asked me “How long till we get there?” “After your 13th birthday.” I reply. My grandson inquired how old I was and I smiled and retorted “I’m younger than your parents.”
It was my sister who first identified the motivation behind my prevarications, “It’s important to lie to children.” She said. “It teaches them judgment, and critical thinking skills. It also opens doors for some very long and interesting conversations.” She is exactly right. You see my lies are not meant to deceive – in fact just the opposite. Outrageous, implausible, impossible lies like these are designed to wake kids up, to kindle a fire under their brain cells, and compel them to use their heads for something more than just a hat rack.
I’ll often smile as I tell these whoppers, and then watch carefully as contemplation occupies their faces. It’s a wondrous moment – a chance to peer through a window at deliberation as reason forms from primordial goo. The children ask me questions, poke and prod, and carefully measure my responses. After some amount of parry and thrust they eventually make up their own minds about whether or not I should be believed.
And that is exactly the point. Sooner or later children simply must think for themselves. They must weigh the available data, interrogate their world for relevant models, and using their own reasoning ability, sort out the mystery of their world. When parents get this exercise right, children will abandon the practice of outsourcing critical thinking to Mom and Dad – or anyone else. Then we’ll know we have fulfilled our duty of preparing our children to face the world without us.
I now understand what my own father knew for so long. Our world is full of ‘experts’ who (sometimes malevolently, often not) lead the un-thinking down dangerous paths. Docile sheep accept as truth anything an ‘authority’ tells them. But independent thinkers – they question the experts, challenge the powerful, poke holes in sloppy logic, and correctly label the preposterous for what it is. Those are the members of the next generation that we want to hand over our world to. And the first step down that road happens with you telling a really big lie.
John Earl is a two-time Nobel Peace Prize winner, a world champion crocodile wrestler, and the author of the runaway best selling book The History of Tomorrow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by bellowing out your kitchen window.