Once my kids were teenagers, the issue about lying that came up most often was not whether to lie to them, but whether to lie for them. This sometimes comes up in the context of school-excuse writing.

The public schools in our community take a hard-and-fast approach to absences. Administrators will excuse an absence for any school field trip, even the orchestra trip to Florida that involves days off for sheer entertainment—trips to beaches, malls, and Disney World. But they won’t excuse adding a day to Thanksgiving vacation so you can visit museums in Washington, DC with your family. Students are excused for any religious holiday, no matter how minor. But they won’t be excused if a presidential candidate comes to town and you think they would get something out of attending the rally. It’s excusable to miss school when you’re physically under the weather to the smallest degree, but not excusable when you’re overwhelmed with homework. To make it worse, unexcused absences can have serious repercussions; for example, some teachers waive final exams only for students who have unexcused absences under some number.

What’s a parent to do? It’s easy, if you’re prepared to lie. You can have the educational trip to Washington excused if you just write a note saying "My child was ill,” even though she wasn’t, and likewise with all the other justifiable but unexcused absences. Assuming that lying is not always wrong, there’s at least room for considering this option.

One way to think about it is to home in on the fact that lying in this context is not just lying for anyone, but lying for your child. This is a special case, because you have special prerogatives when it comes to your child’s whereabouts and well-being. It would be different if one student was lying for another, or one employee was lying for another. Parents have a little more leeway to lie for their children than they have to lie on behalf of others. But parents don’t have unlimited freedom to lie. It would be wrong of a parent to lie on immunization forms so that an unimmunized child could go to school or avoid being quarantined. So the special prerogatives of parents don’t settle every question about lying for kids. We need to think about the lies parents want to tell one by one, considering which are justified and which are not.

In the classic case of justifiable lying, lying to the Nazis was permissible (in fact, obligatory) because though disrespectful, it prevented a much greater act of disrespect. Of course the stakes are vastly lower in our school-excuse example, but it’s also true here that, however disrespectful it may be to lie, doing so can in some cases prevent a greater act of disrespect. Though it’s bad to lie in an excuse, it seems worse for a child to be punished by the school for missing school when there was an objectively good reason for the absence. So what should we do?

Whatever the choice, it complicates matters that we’ll carry it out with our children’s knowledge. If we do send them to school with false excuses, we teach them to lie (but only in the kind of situation in question). If we don’t send them to school with false excuses, we teach them to succumb to mistreatment. We could avoid the dilemma by not letting them take any days off to begin with, but that could mean missing out on some educational opportunities, or enduring too much stress.

Should we lie for our children in any case where the lie prevents something even worse than the lie? Some will say lies are pretty bad, so it’s not common to be in that situation. Things worse than lying can happen if you don’t lie, but often it’s not so clear that’s the right assessment. It’s hard to be confident that a lie is "worth it” because of the comparative badness of what it prevents, except in extreme cases.

I find myself feeling uncertain in these situations, so I tend to look for escape routes. I may write an excuse that doesn’t actually lie, but may nevertheless achieve the desired result. For example, the trip to Washington and the political rally are presented vaguely—as an “educational trip” or a "family occasion”—in the hope this will somehow sound like a legitimate excuse. The child bombarded with homework who needs a day to catch up is typically a sleep-deprived emotional wreck. It’s true she “isn’t feeling well,” though I grant that’s not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Nevertheless, I have written letters saying my child wasn’t feeling well under such conditions.

Writing an excuse that’s more misleading than outright false at least gives a nod to the imperative to tell the truth. Judge my misleading school excuses if you wish. Just as I may have erred in the direction of too much truth when discussing death with toddlers, I may have told a bit too little truth when it comes to school excuses for teenagers. (If you have done the same thing, perhaps we’ll meet in hell some day and we can discuss it some more!)

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