Parenting Beyond Belief: Pants On Fire Parenting


July 29, 2009

(HNN's Parenting Beyond Belief column provides a forum for humanist parents and parenting experts to share their wisdom, advice and knowledge of parenting and family issues. Edited, and sometimes written by Dale McGowan, the monthly column features guest writers who provide information and support about issues affecting freethought parents and children in the 21st century.)

"Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself."–economist Vilfredo Pareto, referring to the errors of Kepler

(Editor's Note: Johannes Kepler was a 16th century astronomer, mathematician, theologian and philosopher who is known for formulating Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion. His first law states: the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.)

In 1847, around the time Pareto was conceived, an obstetrician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that pregnant women in his hospital were much more likely to die if their babies were delivered by doctors than by midwives. He then noticed that doctors whose patients died had usually come straight from autopsies. Semmelweis asked the doctors to humor him by washing their hands before delivering a baby. Maternal mortality in the hospital dropped below two percent.

It took another generation for the medical establishment to accept germ theory as fact – but once they did, the average human lifespan in Europe nearly doubled overnight.

Fast forward to the early 21st century, where we've over learned the message. Thanks to air filters, airtight homes, and antibacterial everything, our environments have been so thoroughly scrubbed that our systems are losing the ability to deal with the germs and irritants that abound in the world outside our doors.

Among other things, the result has been a spike in serious childhood allergies and infections. According to an NPR story on studies supporting this conclusion, "An emphasis on hygiene means we are no longer exposing children to enough bacteria to help trigger their natural immune systems."

With the best of intentions, we so thoroughly protect our children from an admittedly bad thing that we do them a disservice.

I think the same idea applies in many areas of parenting – among them the attempt to scrub "nonsense" from our children's lives. I've heard the assertion that "we must never lie to our children" from many nonreligious parents, always intoned in the kind of hushed voice usually reserved for sacred pronouncements.

Actually, I think it's terribly important to lie to our children.

I'm not endorsing the serious whopper, now.  Mustn't tell them that batteries are delicious or that it's great fun to read under the covers by candlelight.  I'm advocating the playful fib, which can work wonders for the development of critical thinking.

Many nonreligious parents, in the admirable name of high integrity, set themselves up as infallible authorities. And since (like it or not) we are the first and most potent authority figures in our kids' lives, turning ourselves into benevolent oracles of truth can teach our kids to passively receive the pronouncements of authority. I would rather, in a low-key and fun fashion, encourage them to constantly take whatever I say and run it through the baloney detector. To that end, I sprinkle our conversations with fruitful errors, bursting with their own corrections.

When my youngest asked, "How far away is the Sun?", I said, "Twenty feet," precisely so she would look at me and say, "Dad, you dork!!" When my kids ask what's for dinner, I often say, "Monkey lungs, go wash up." When the fifth grader doing her homework asks what seven times seven is, I sometimes say 47, because she should (a) know that on her own by now, and equally important, (b) know the wrong answer when she hears it.

Yes, yes, I make sure they end up with the right answer when it matters, and no, I don't do this all the time. They'd kill me. But pulling our kids' legs once in a while is more than just fun and games. For one thing, if every word from my mouth was a reliable pearl of factuality, they would get the unhelpful message that Authority Always Tells the Truth.

Again-please don't whip over to the cartoon extreme of Dad lying about whether a car is coming as we cross the street ( "All clear!! Heh heh heh.") I'm talking about fibs of the harmless-but-useful variety.  And yes, as I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief, I for one include Santa in that.  Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one, and handled properly, finding our way out of the one can prepare us to find our way out of the other.

Knowing that Dad sometimes talks nonsense can prepare them to expect and challenge the occasional bit of nonsense, intentional or otherwise, from peers, ministers, and presidents. The result in our household is this: When I answer a question or make a statement, my kids don't swallow it without a thought. They take a moment to think about whether the answer makes sense. By seeing to it that their childhood includes nonsense, and that some of it even comes from authority figures, I'm building their immune systems for a lifetime swimming in the stuff.


Dale McGowan, Ph.D., holds degrees in the arts and sciences from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Minnesota. He is the editor of the 2007 book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.