Family & Education

Susan Reuben: Pas devant les enfants: how to lie to your kids

Mummy, what’s a virgin?” — “It’s the name of a phone company,” I replied, without missing a beat.


Mummy, what’s a virgin?” my eight-year-old son asked me, as we sat in the doctor’s waiting room. His high-pitched voice rang out through the silence.

None of the other patients moved a muscle, but I could feel the atmosphere in the room was transformed. Everyone had sprung mentally to attention, agog to see how I was going to field this question.

Now, the thing is, in the privacy of our home I would have been completely up for giving my child an honest, age-appropriate answer — it’s not something that fazes me particularly. But not in public, in a room full of listening strangers!

“It’s the name of a phone company,” I replied, without missing a beat.

The tension washed away as the patients turned their attention back to their phones and magazines. I noticed, though, that quite a few mouths were twitching at the corners.

Should we lie to our children? Well… “Yes” seems to me to be the obvious answer. Selectively and sparingly, of course. There are occasions when telling the truth would be mistimed, counterproductive, inappropriate or just plain inconvenient. Anyone who thinks that you must never do so is either a) not a parent or b) superhuman.

This is admittedly not a key piece of advice in the popular parenting books — but then there are lots of things that parents do to get through the day that aren’t part of the received wisdom on modern child-care techniques. Letting the kids stay on the iPad for two hours straight, for example, because you’re just too tired to take them to the playground. Or pouring yourself a stiff whisky at 5pm, so that the chaos of supper, bath and bedtime takes on a gently remote feel as if it doesn’t quite have anything to do with you. I think that most of us manage to be really great parents some of the time — but not all of the time.

As far as lying to your children is concerned, often it’s more a case of “controlling the information they hear” by working out ways to communicate with other adults without the kids understanding. It’s all about damage limitation and managing expectations.

When our children were very small, doing this was easy. “It’s b-a-t-h night,” one of us would say to the other, and the kids would be none the wiser. Then it started to become clear that spelling things out was ideal for their literacy development. It was very much in their interest to learn to spell in order to keep one step ahead of the game.

Once this no longer worked, we moved on to speaking French. The trouble with that was that my husband Anthony only has GCSE level French whereas I have a degree in it — so he never understood anything I said. These days if we try it, the kids just shout, “Stop speaking French!” so it’s not particularly effective.

I like the idea of texting each other — clean and simple. The problem, though, is that unlike me Anthony is not surgically attached to his phone, and so probably wouldn’t notice that I’d sent the text until some time the following week.

So, these days, we have had to resort to straightforward linguistic obfuscation — using such arcane and hi-falutin vocabulary that the kids have no idea what we are saying. “I think the hour for the ablutions of our younger offspring is at hand,” one of us will remark. Or: “Are the progeny aware of our impending evening absence?”

It’s very important not to tell your children two contrasting lies at the same time. I recently said to my husband, “Shall we have some gelato this evening?”

“What’s ‘gelato’?” my daughter asked.

“It’s a type of yoghurt,” Anthony replied, at precisely the same moment that I said: “It’s a topping you put on pizza.”

A friend tells me she tries to communicate secretly with her husband using mime — with limited success: “We wriggle our eyebrows violently and stare at objects meaningfully. We then become furious that the other party did not understand the obvious message that Child 1 had two biscuits, but Child 2 must never know this because Child 3 is coming for a play date and then all three children will need the remaining six biscuits during their break from play.”

A survey of methods other parents use revealed a whole host of foreign languages (Hebrew and Yiddish scoring highly), the Nato alphabet, mouthing silently, and a variety of nonsense languages such as Avgav.

The constantly recurring comment was that these techniques were all effective for a time, until the children learned to interpret them. This makes me wonder whether the language teaching profession is missing a trick. It should, perhaps, dispense with verb tables and vocab lists, and just have teachers sitting around talking about something as if they really don’t want you to understand what they’re saying.

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