A lot of the lies we tell to children are meant to protect them. Philosopher Amy Kind says she used to try to help her son avoid nightmares by spraying "bad-dream spray” into his bedroom before bed. She would imply that a special substance was in the bottle, not merely water, and this ruse helped him go to sleep. With this kind of lie, effectiveness requires a poker face. You can’t play around, speaking in the tone of make-believe and planting seeds of doubt, if you want your lie to have its intended benefit. You have to either go all in on the lie or not tell it.

You could do the same thing for adults. Suppose your husband is having trouble with insomnia. You go to your local natural food emporium and buy him a vial of Groggy, with claims on the label about its value as a sleep aid. In addition, you tell him you did a Google search and learned that Groggy is quite effective. (In reality, you did a Google search and read that it’s ineffective.) You know the placebo effect is powerful, so know his beliefs about Groggy could actually make taking it helpful.

Many of us are going to say “yes” to the bad-dream spray lie and “no” to the Groggy lie. In the case of Groggy, there’s something condescending about the lie. You’re approaching an adult as if he didn’t have the wherewithal to solve his own problems, and couldn’t thrive in the world as it really is. This deliberate diminishing of his understanding might be well-intentioned, but it underestimates him.

By contrast, bad-dream spray doesn’t underestimate your child, if at age three he truly can’t get over the tendency to have nightmares in any reality-based fashion. But imagine this strategy continues until the child is five, and then eight, and then ten, and then thirteen. At some point, clearly you’re underestimating the child’s personal resources. Or, even worse, you’re failing to help the child develop those resources. So the age of the child does matter. In an article about lying to children, Amy Kind defends lying to her son this way:

Children, especially young children, are not yet fully persons; they have not yet exercised the full potential of their rationality. Even when we’re being entirely honest with them, parental conversations with children can never be the mutual engagements of personhood that take place in conversations between adults. Thus, we can’t violate this mutuality by lying to them.

The Groggy lie would violate the mutuality between my husband and me.

It’s hard to say when we need to tell our children protective lies. When do we need to invent things that make life more pleasant, or deny things that make life difficult? Should we tell them exactly where babies come from, as soon as they ask? Should we let them know about life’s horrors? I very much doubt anyone takes one consistent approach, whatever the issues. I found telling kids where babies come from easy, even when my son asked how exactly sperm got into a woman’s uterus. How to discuss the end of life was much less clear.

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