Well, I think we should first take off the table from the get-go the "little white lies" we tell to spare someone's feelings -- like "you always look beautiful" or "of course I can tell that chicken scratch is a loving portrait of our family" or "no, the little bits of green in there are herbs, not spinach, now just eat your pot pie please".
I think we all have versions of the little white lie that we use in our daily lives, some maybe more than others, some maybe not so little, but for the most part, they can't really be considered lies as much as they are buffers to the truth.
Potato, potahto, I know, but there you go.
The rest of the lies we allow ourselves to tell our children seem to me to fall into 3 big buckets.
1) To avoid conversations that make US uncomfortable (sad, awkward, hurtful) -- maybe about death, divorce, transvestite hookers, for instance.
Being a lesbian latina couple born and bred into fairly traditional Mexican Catholic families, we made a concerted decision very early on to not lie to our kids about real-life situations. Too much of our own lives were affected so negatively by "well-intentioned" lies in the past for us to justify the hypocrisy and perpetuate unnecessary pain. It's not always been easy, for certain. And we have to remind each other often that the truth is really okay to say out loud. But children are surprisingly accepting of the world as it is, of people as they are, because truly they don't come with those predefined social filters built in. Those are inherited.
Depending on their age and understanding of the concept, though, we will provide more or less detail about a certain topic. Do they need to understand what HIV and AIDS are? Sure. It's so prevalent in our society today that they are bound to hear about it from one medium or another, from a child at school, or because they know someone or are someone who is infected. But do they need to know what sharing drug needles and having unprotected sex actually entails? God, no. At least, not yet. They're only 6. But we will have to be ready. Which leads me to #2.
2) To protect our children from things they're just not ready for developmentally. This one's a little harder to judge, I think, because very often parents will put lies that actually belong in bucket #1 into bucket #2, at which point I do think it's doing more harm than good because now the parents are actually lying to themselves, too.
That our children's moms have chosen to spend their lives together as a family has nothing to do with sex. Therefore, explaining homosexuality to children is no different than responding to, "Mom, why is Karl's skin so much darker than mine?" Because that's the way they were born, and this is the way I was born, and everyone's different, and that's what makes the world such an amazing place.
3) To perpetuate fairy tales we may recall from our own childhood that hold fond memories or warm places in our hearts still. I think Santa, the tooth fairy, and the Easter Bunny all kind of fall into this one. I don't think it's such a big deal either. I do agree with fostering children's imaginations (to a point). Completely disagreed, for instance, when the kids wanted to build a leprechaun trap this week so that they could take his gold. But not because I didn't think it was ok for them to believe in little green men who bring luck and good fortune to the world -- just don't really condone the whole theft and abduction scheme.
But I also agree with the method some moms have alluded to of turning it back around on the children, so that they do determine on their own when it no longer makes sense for them to believe in these imaginary characters. Having been in their shoes, I think most of us can agree that at some point, we do grow out of it. But storytelling and the employment of metaphors and analogies to respond to questions about why the sky is blue, where rainbows come from, how the seasons change, why the wind blows, how the stars got into the sky, or any other infinite number of "why, why, whys" has been a part of most cultures since the beginning of time. They're traditions, customs, rituals. And while I'll concede that they're not always necessarily educational, they're certainly not hurtful. I would insist, however, that they could be more informational, and that we as parents could probably do a better job of providing more background information about the origin of "retail holidays" so that they're not stripped entirely of their true meaning and commercialized just for the sake of commercialization (ala "Festivus" from Seinfeld).
Cultural variations of these myths and fairy tales exist all over the world. Maybe it would be a fun family project to research the way another culture celebrates or recognizes a particular holiday and incorporate some of those customs into our own to create a holiday that isn't just a distant echo of something real, but something new and real that we've created together?
So, lying to our kids? Eh, to each his own, I guess. All I know is I'm not gonna be the one to tell them their birthday wish isn't gonna come true this year. And I'm okay with that.
What do you think?