Should we tell children nothing but the truth?

Hi there, here’s one issue for you to think about – a prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, has caused a bit of a stir in the UK by suggesting that “anti-scientific” stories about magic and witchcraft, such as the Harry Potter series, should be investigated for any negative effects on children. But is he right to be concerned?

Do myths and fairytales affect a child’s future ability to think rationally? This columnist thinks the myths and fairy stories we hear as children do have relevance to the real world and this atheist blogger disagrees with Dawkins and thinks fairytales are harmless fun.

A new survey of 3000 parents suggests that UK parents tell their children “white lies” at least once a day to keep them well-behaved. So when does telling ‘white lies’ become harmful?

But what about the trickier questions that might not have a scientifically-provable answer, such as when a child starts asking about death? This agnostic mum has made the decision not to tell her children about heaven. By telling the bare scientific facts would parents be protecting children or just themselves?

25 Responses to “Should we tell children nothing but the truth?”

  1. 1 Jennifer
    October 28, 2008 at 01:29

    I see no harm in parents telling their children fairytales. I don’t believe that it would affect the child’s ability to think rationally in the future!

    I think the agnostic mom deciding not to tell her children about heaven is just protecting herself from having children who make develop any sort of religious beliefs that she might have to consider. I think it’s a cheap way out………

  2. 2 Kelsie in Houston
    October 28, 2008 at 01:33

    So you’re equating heaven and religious belief with fairytales? That’s not the Christianity I practice.

  3. October 28, 2008 at 01:35

    I find Dawkins one of the most irritating people that I have ever had the misfortune to listen to – even though he is backing Barack.

    Look – I write novels, books, a blog – the blog is factual even though biased. My books, novels are pure fiction. Fiction is something that we, as adults as well as children, need. I can write about a scene, about how I feel or how the character feels – hell the one I am writing now is all about fairies, elves and goblins!

    It is a fantasy that people can reach into to just read – what does he want – everyone just to read newspapers!?

    He has a problem – I don’t know what it is. Children have always, long before time was a real concept, loved stories. They love a tale – and keeping them in the dark about the adult world out there can only be a good thing – they are adults long enough. Children would surprise Mr Dawkins. They can tell the difference when they are mature enough.

  4. 4 Kelsie in Houston
    October 28, 2008 at 01:38

    Children would surprise Mr Dawkins. They can tell the difference when they are mature enough.

    Right on, Will, right on. This patronisation of children does them extreme disservice. They’re precocious, intelligent little human beings, by and large—I dislike this patronising, offhand attitude towards children’s ability to think.

  5. 5 Kelsie in Houston
    October 28, 2008 at 01:53

    The more I think on this post, the more absurd it becomes…Mr Dawkins should exchange his atheistic evangelist garb for a UNICEF tee, step out in the field with us, and interact with these little people he so blithely assumes can be duped with offhand ease.

    Children amaze us constantly because we invest such small faith in them.

  6. 6 Luz Ma from Mexico
    October 28, 2008 at 02:02

    I agree with Will and Kelsie.

    Children love stories and tales. Fantasy is part of their world. It is simply outrageous to take out fantasy from childhood. As a child I loved to play “make-believe” and invent stories and games with my sister and friends. Those are my best childhood memories.

    My perception is that Mr Dawkins doesn’t know children, and like many adults, underestimate their ability to think and develop their own ideas.

  7. 7 Count Iblis
    October 28, 2008 at 02:03

    Actually, we don’t tell children the truth at all. Fairytales would do less harm if children were also told about how the world works. Unfortunately, society doesn’t think science education should be a priority. If you follow the regular school curriculum, you leave school with very little knowledge about math and physics.

    This makes it very easy for children and grown ups to be indoctrinated by religion or other ideologies that contradict basic scientific facts. This can lead to dangerous situations, e.g., in Pakistan there are madrassas were children are indoctrinated with extremist ideas.

  8. October 28, 2008 at 02:13

    Re: fairytales

    I don’t think there is any trouble reading children fairytales… but, pretending that you the parent believe in them isn’t cool.

    Parents who pretend to believe in Santa Claus for example end up having their kids wonder why they lied to them for years? Often there is a feeling of being ashamed that their parents would trick them.

    My kids were early readers… because we read to them, and read ourselves. We read all of the normal books of the times, Dr Sues, and Russel Hoban’s, “The Mouse and His Child,” piles of children’s books. But my children never believed that rabbits could talk, pigs could fly, or that some people could heal by touch.

  9. October 28, 2008 at 04:14

    Well, I do not know about not telling fairy tales, but, I do have my opinions about Satan Clause and the bunny too.

    I was about 7 or 8 yrs old when I awoke to my parents having a conversation at the kitchen table that happened to be about 30 ft from my room. They were discussing this very issue. Should we be lying to our children on religious holidays. It was in listening to this conversation that I found out there was not Santa and no Easter Bunny. My first thought was, “what else had they lied to me about.” “what about this guy that died and came back to life and walked on water and guided us to the world after we die? He doesn’t even bring me stuff. Why should I believe in him.” Needless to say, I have been an atheist since 8 yrs old. It occurred to me as I got older that if this Christianity and religious stuff was true, why would they have to “candy coat” it in order to get kids to listen to it.

    If you use a lie to make kids behave, when the lie is unveiled, the foundation of why they learned they shouldn’t act as they had in the past is gone. Subconsciously there is a hole left unfilled.

    Telling a child a story that they are informed is a story is one thing. But flat out lying to them is another all together.

  10. 10 jamily5
    October 28, 2008 at 04:42

    The world of pretend is a very important part of childhood.
    They know that they are pretending, yet they enjoy doing it. Most children don’t believe that animals can talk or that humans can fly or that a certain kind of magic exists. Yet, it is fun to pretend and they do.
    This kind of play increases the imagination and gives the children a social framework for working out certain situations.
    But, you are right, when Parents try to supporting lies. This is a different story. But, you can’t count religious beliefs among them because usually when parents tell their children about God and Heavin, it is that they also believe in such things. So, they are not attempting to perpetrate a lie.
    The real problem with Santa Clause is that some children seem to receive everything that they ask for and other children do not. they must ask themselves “why?” and only conclude that they were not “good enough.”

  11. 11 parth guragain,nepal
    October 28, 2008 at 04:58

    what i want to say is children mind is very raw we need to make them intellegentby giving them knowledge.during if we tell any story to children in very boring way they will avoid it.so to make it intresting we add ghost ,god,demons in the story so that children will be intrested.as children grow up they will find out the truth by themselves.

  12. 12 Lei, UK
    October 28, 2008 at 07:10

    I do believe it’s wrong to lie to children. Even when they ask about difficult topics we should tell them the truth, in a way they can understand and accept. If you don’t want to answer the question, or if you don’t believe it will be good for them to know, just say, “I don’t know”, or, “I don’t think you’re old enough to understand”. But don’t lie.

    As for Dawkins, he just makes a bigger idiot of himself every day, doesn’t he? Children know stories aren’t true. If a parent were insisting that Harry Potter is true, then I would be worried. But nobody is – it’s just there for enjoyment and escapism.

    I will tell my children (when I have them) about heaven, and God, and Jesus. Because I believe them to be truth. They’re nothing to do with fairytales. The fact that God not “scientifically-provable” is irrelevant. Science has assumptions, and one of them is “God does not exist”, so you will never prove God with Science. But we would be foolish to ignore all the other ways God shows his existence.

  13. October 28, 2008 at 12:32

    The very question implies we lie to our children. Shame on us all.
    I think the question is ‘Why do we lie to our children?’
    Perhaps because the adults have made such a rotten mess of everything it’s a bit embarrassing.
    These children, who are manipulated, lied to and generally ripped off are going to be here long after we are all dead. Cleaning up the mess. I don’t envy the job.
    I often wonder why people have children at all (I am responsible for 5).
    Yes, the state of affairs is a bit embarrassing.

    Stop lying to the kids, of course, but most important, stop lying to yourself!


  14. October 28, 2008 at 12:39

    btw. the best lesson in Harry Plotter is that vast amounts of money can be made by churning out complete twaddle! It’s only saving grace is that it has a cloak (pun intended) of originality. The depressing bit is that no doubt the kids will be still spoon fed this rubbish 70 years down the line, as is with Batman (born 1939 – still going strong).
    I wish I had thought of it!


  15. 15 Bob in Queensland
    October 28, 2008 at 13:08

    I read fiction and know it’s fiction. Why shouldn’t my children?

    You’d be surprised how, even at a young age, they can tell the difference between reality and a good story.

  16. October 28, 2008 at 13:08

    Now that I made my point about Santa Clause, I must admit that about 13 or so I discovered Tolkien. It was a saving grace. There was no “lie” to it. I knew that most people believed “Middle Earth” didn’t exist. (I am not one of them, lol). I read that series about every 2 to 2-1/2 years then until I was 25 and reread it the 6 months before the series was to come out.

    It was a story filled with all kinds of lessons about friendship, determination, the damage of lies, tolerance for other races, judgment, priorities, good and evil, and the grey area that exist between them. So many of the charaturistics in the world we see today can be seen in characters of those stories.

    I often use allegories to demonstrate a point. A good work of children’s fiction should be a long allegory. You know like the bible.

  17. 17 gary
    October 28, 2008 at 13:41

    I’d like to say “Yes, tell them everything you know to be true,” because, that which is not true is not knowledge. But, then I remembered conveyance of knowledge is two dimensional: The teacher must know the truth before they can speak the truth. Most of us pass to our children, without much objective analysis, that which we were told or that which we imagine to be true, so error propagates as readily as truth.
    There isn’t a conclusion to be drawn, or an improvement to be made. They can handle the truth; but we can’t.

  18. 18 John in Salem
    October 28, 2008 at 13:50

    The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Dolittle and Winnie the Pooh are more than just stories – they’re tools. Children learn about the real world through metaphor, through concepts they can grasp and characters they can relate to.
    Take away myths, fantasies and fairytales and you’re left with The Waste Land of pointless struggle and a meaningless existence.
    No thank you.

  19. 19 Maurice
    October 28, 2008 at 14:10

    Mr. Dawkin, you are my mith!

  20. October 28, 2008 at 15:53

    You know, or you should know, the kids can’t be fooled.
    They will look with disdain at what the ‘adults’ did with their planet.


  21. 21 Jessica in NYC
    October 28, 2008 at 18:32

    I am weighing both sides of the arguments made by PortlandMike and Will Rhodes, but agree with Bob. I don’t think it’s safe to allow children to live in fairytale and fantasy world as suggested for the sake of innocence, but there is also nothing wrong with letting children believe in magic.

    I’m not sure when it was I stop believing in Santa, but I was never told he did not exist. My parents discovered I knew he was fake when I was about 7. How could Santa only visit Christians, but not for Jewish kids? That was the question I asked my 2nd grade teacher, before I blurted out that Santa was “pretend” and not real and “grown ups” used him to try and get us to behave for presents.

    I enjoyed my share of fantasy as a child and appreciate a good sci-fi/fantasy story as an adult. Kids are smarter than they are given credit for; if reality is allowed to co-exist in a child’s development with that of a fairytale, the child will distinguished between reality and fantasy.

  22. 22 Pangolin-California
    October 28, 2008 at 23:28

    What kind of cruel parent would tell children nothing but the truth. I raised my kids with fat infusions of fantasy and lies early and often until the age at which they became aware of sexuality.

    Then, I tell them the truth about sex, jobs and politics with the exact same intonation, rythm and pace that I would read Winnie-the-Pooh.

    Works great. Both kids are straight-A students so far.

  23. October 29, 2008 at 00:50

    Hi WHYSers!

    I recently had a very eye-opening discussion with some members of my choir (at church), one of who insisted that she had to get married to Catholic in the interests of her children. I disagreed that that was an absolute requirement and suggested instead that people of various faiths, or not faith at all (by the ways, I agree with that Sister on Outlook, recently, that the very argument about “having faith” is a dubious one!), could get married and be perfectly happy.

    I now see, however, from the questions above that that might not be as easier a response. Parents have to decide for themselves the values and beliefs they wish their children to adopt. I have nothing against encouraging children to believe in fiction, so long as they are aware that that is what it is.

    The problem sets in where issues related to death (and some of these other more complicated/ existential issues) are treated either as strictly spiritual/ religious issues, or scientific. I find that those divides are not as clear cut as suggested by the questions above.

    There are scientific explanations for the death of the human body. However, for those who accept that death is but a part of the journey of the soul in its evolution to (pure) energy such a response is inadequate and does not address the bits that science leaves (?) out. Still, parents have to determine for themselves what values and beliefs they wish their children to accept.

  24. 24 Jennifer
    October 29, 2008 at 04:23

    @ Rawpolitics

    I have also thought about the what ifs of marrying someone who was not Catholic. I feel that there are many values that I would like instilled in my children and I would also want my significant other to feel the same way. Someone trying to be purely scientific and someone religious? I don’t know about that…It would depend on the willingness of both people to ensure that they were at least on the same page in some way with regards to what is important to them.

    As a parent, I would like to give my children the choice to make up their own choices regarding things like heaven, death, etc. I could only tell them the truth as I believe it to be. They would have to decide for themselves what they believe to be true.

  25. 25 roebert
    October 29, 2008 at 06:15

    Richard Dawkins is that surprisingly inappropriate counterpart to the modern religious fundamentalist fanatic: the modern scientific fundamentalist fanatic. Most of what Dawkins asserts can therefore safely be disregarded.

    Of course children should be told the truth, and there are many truths in the Harry Potter stories. That’s why they resonate with kids (and grown-up kids).

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