Some of the lies parents tell are neither protective nor entertaining— they are simply told to make life go more smoothly. A case in point is the so-called Christmas “tradition” of the Elf on the Shelf (seasonally available at stores near you). This might be seen as a fun bit of make-believe in the same spirit as Santa Claus, but it’s also a substitute for expensive surveillance cameras! You’re supposed to set the elf figurine on a high shelf and tell the children that they’re being watched, and the elf will report any naughty behavior to Santa. That way, even when you’re in another room, the child won’t take the candy canes off the Christmas tree, pull the cat’s tail, or do anything else naughty. The lie about the watchful elf has to be told with a straight face, or the child won’t take it seriously and will misbehave anyway.

Because this lie is so preposterous, I imagine when children believe it parents think it’s very funny. This sets up a kind of interaction that’s very common in the lives of children, and bothersome to many of them. Kids often know adults find them amusing and many of them detest not knowing why. As kids get older and more selfconscious, I think this becomes increasingly aggravating. They start to be bothered in just the way an adult is bothered when he or she is the object of inexplicable laughter.

So as for the preposterous expedient lie, my verdict is “no.” But what about the nonpreposterous expedient lie? Would it be okay to say the mall is closed even if it isn’t, simply to avoid a protracted argument about why there won’t be a trip to the mall today? It would seem a little too moralistic to condemn every exhausted parent who has ever resorted to this sort of a shortcut, but this type of lie is harder to justify than the protective lie.

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