Telling white lies to children

While I was working in a dental surgery yesterday I noticed that on the walls there were numerous posters encouraging children to brush their teeth and to eat non-sugary snacks. Three in particular caught my attention.

The first one was of Pippin the Dog, from the children’s TV programme ‘Come Outside’. Beneath the drawing of Pippin it said

Pippin the dog eats fruit and vegetables to keep his teeth healthy.

I don’t really know what kind of dog Pippin is, but from the drawing I would say some kind of mongrel. So he may be a very unusual dog, but I have never come across a dog that eats fruit and veg.

The second one was of Winnie the Pooh and some of his friends. Beneath the drawing it said

Pooh Bear and his friends only* eat fruit and vegetables between meals. (* my emphasis)

My knowledge of Winnie the Pooh is about fifty years old and my memory may be faulty, but my recollection is that Pooh’s favourite between meals snack was a honey (or Hunny)  sandwich, not fruit and veg.

The third one was of Snow White and beneath that drawing it said

Snow White only eats apples

I don’t know if Snow White only ate apples, but she definitely ate one, and a lot of good that did her.

I fully understand that the purpose of these posters is to encourage young children to eat healthier snacks rather than sweets, but is telling lies to children justified in the greater cause of healthy teeth?

Should we tell children that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, even though the fantasy doesn’t seem to do any harm, and most kids do not seem to be too traumatized when they find out for themselves?

Are any lies justified?  The current Wikileaks data dump seems to show that governments in general think that certain lies, or obfuscations of the truth are justified. I am in two minds about the disclosure, because I do think that there are certain things that it is legitimate for governments, private  organisations, or even families and individuals to keep secret. On the other hand a lot of the material that has been released is embarrassing , The Duke of Pork’s foul-mouthed rant for example, rather than threatening national or international security. And how secret can the data be when it is posted to an Intranet that about three million people, including a Private First Class, have access to?

Ultimately, I do believe that in private life, and government and corporate life, there are things that should only be shared within a small circle, kept secret in fact. However, the bias should always be to openness  and transparency, especially where the information is merely embarrassing. Strangely enough I feel that in the end concealment of embarrassing material ultimately leads to  more embarrassment than transparency. I think that last year’s M.P.’s expenses scandal is a case in point. A fully open and transparent system of expense claims would have never allowed the scandal to occur in the first place, but we did not have that in place and probably still don’t.  The thing that made the release of the documents worse, for the M.P.s involved, was the long and hard rearguard action that they put up in the attempt to prevent the release of material they knew was going to show them in a bad light.

Keep secret only what really needs to be kept secret, and make sure that if it has to be kept secret only the people who need to know have access, otherwise release it all into the public domain, most of it is probably pretty banal anyway. I don’t think that I have read anything on the Wikileaks release that either surprised or shocked me. Sorry I was mildly surprised at the extent of the Duke of York’s vocabulary, but then his father has previous.


4 thoughts on “Telling white lies to children”

  1. am shocked at those dental posters (I mean everyone knows that fruit is a crap snack for kids between meals tooth-wise!!!).

    Re father Christmas and the tooth fairy – we’ve got a new category with our kids, it’s “story real” – comes in handy for so many things; the magic in Mary Poppins, flower fairies… as opposed to stuff that’s ‘real real’.
    Surely dong the whole santa thing with them is just a form of play and you’d not expect them to categorise things as “true” or “a lie” when they’re crawling round on the floor making their T-rex sit on the naughty step


  2. To go all post-modern, I think it depends partly on what we mean by ‘truth’ / ‘true’. Since the Enlightenment, we tend to see it in very black-and-white terms, with truth equating to provable scientific fact, but I’m not sure that’s actually, er, true. Fiction, myth, poetry can all be ‘true’ despite not being historically or scientifically accurate, and often can be more deeply true than something purporting to be factual. So, for example, I can say that the Genesis creation story is ‘true’ (or truth-bearing) in an important sense, while not actually signing up to it as a historical or scientific account of what happened.

    Saying all that doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as lies – far from it, especially in politics. But not everything that isn’t ‘true’ in a scientific sense is a lie.


    1. I do agree with your premise that fiction, myth and poetry can all be as true as scientific or historical facts. In fact in some ways they can be more true, given that science and history are always subject to revision as more evidence is discovered.
      I was more concerned about the ‘facts’ that the powers that be feed to us as truth, such as:
      “Iraq can launch a nuclear strike within 45 minutes”;
      “Britain has no involvement in torture ” and the like and how we react when the actual truth comes out.
      My thinking behind that post was in the light of the Wikileaks revelations and was triggered by the dental posters I had seen that morning.
      I was also trying to work out for myself whether a full and frank disclosure of all the facts to the whole world was necessarily always a good idea. Especially as even when all the facts are available, which is rare, we tend to be quite selective of the facts that we accept, and that applies even to thoroughly open-minded individuals such as us.


      1. Yes, it’s a difficult one and I certainly don’t know the answer! I know I’m very easily capable both of being misled and of deceiving myself by only hearing what I want to hear, or by the interpretation I place on ‘facts’ or the meaning I read into particular combinations of events. I think this is an inevitable part of being human and the only thing we can do is be aware of it and do our best to counter it in ourselves. We need a lot of self-awareness and readiness to change our views, but that doesn’t come easy. And of course we all judge things according to the basic paradigm/worldview that we live by – whether that be Christianity, left-wing political beliefs, enlightenment rationalism or whatever.

        Psychologist M. Scott Peck distinguishes between ‘white’ and ‘black’ lies (or harmless and harmful lies, to be more PC) though I’d have to look up his distinction. He also points out that it’s not psychologically healthy to disclose all information to everybody. It’s not appropriate for me to tell most people about the details of my sex life or to give out my bank account details, however ‘true’ they may be. So being honest and open does not require one to tell everything to everyone, and I guess the same applies to governments. So then it’s a question of which things which people have a right/need to know and which things are legitimately private.


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