The Ethical Dilemma: Helping Without God

Joan Reisman-Brill answers your ethical questions! 

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Little Lies for Little Kids: I suspect just about every parent resorts to “little white lies” to keep their children in line and minimize tantrums. I’m wondering where the line falls between little lies and big lies, and at what age (if ever) it’s appropriate to teach kids the value or rationale behind such fibbing?

—Shooting for Truth, Settling for Truthiness

Dear Truth,

It begins with closing the book and tiptoeing away as soon as the eyelids flutter closed, even though you promised to read the entire bedtime story. And it goes on (and sometimes on and on) from there.

I’m an advocate of as much truth as possible as early as possible—including explaining to children the rare but occasionally appropriate application of little white lies. Although purists may disagree, the ideal–full disclosure–is not always ideal. (I recommend Ricky Gervais’s film, The Invention of Lying, in which he, as the only person in the world who is capable of dissembling—spoiler alert—invents god to comfort his frightened dying mother.) Sometimes it’s very helpful and largely harmless to put a little spin on necessary evils or goods, whether it’s a doctor check-up, or an event the parents want or need to attend that won’t be enjoyable for the child. So we may exaggerate how critical the event is to our job security–and the ability to buy them stuff. Or instead of matter-of-factly announcing to a terrified three-year-old that the doctor will prick a nerve-dense fingertip causing brief but sharp pain, we say we’re not sure if a blood draw will be included (even though we’re quite sure it will), and promise there will be stickers and pizza, but only for calm, cooperative children.

The use/misuse of benign fibbing is subjective. Years ago, a friend’s pre-reading daughter declared she would only eat at a restaurant that served cherry Jell-O. Rather than explain that one volatile four-year-old was not the boss of several adults out for a gourmet meal, her mom falsely claimed the menu included that item–while the rest of us dreaded what would happen when it was time for dessert. Mom then proceeded to spin a tall tale about how that morning the waitress had dropped the entire batch of red cubes all over the floor, felt terrible about it, and would sob inconsolably if anyone brought it up. I was horrified, not only about the elaborate lie, but also about being roped into complicity. But it worked like a charm, and the mom stage-whispered, “Just wait till you have kids.” Eventually I did, and I never resorted to anything like that. I’ve had scenes that might have been averted with some clever dissembling, but honesty was my preference, just as smoothing things with fabrications was my friend’s preference.

Recently, however, I was chatting with that same little girl who is now in her mid-30’s and, to my surprise, I spilled the beans that her mother’s long-time live-in boyfriend had not left his wife and children before moving in with them. Whoops! The lesson, I suppose, is if you feel you must lie for whatever reason (i.e., not to admit to your daughter that you were a home-wrecker), be sure everyone who knows the truth has been clued in and is prepared to play along, forever. (Fortunately, it seems I just confirmed what the daughter always suspected. And I still haven’t revealed that cherry Jell-O was never on the menu.)

These tricks are not just for kids. Who among us hasn’t claimed to be busy because we don’t feel like schlepping to a wedding on the opposite coast, or assured a friend her butt doesn’t look big in those pants because there’s no time to change into something more flattering and she obviously loves them? But fibbing, even when rationalized impeccably, can be a slippery slope. While some of us stick to the truth because we’re really bad liars, others are so facile at falsifying that they automatically make things up when the truth would have served just as well, or because they are averse to whatever discomfort the truth might stir up. Such people may increasingly fail to face or even recognize reality, and find themselves mired in ever deeper, more consequential acts of deception.

The larger question is, why is a lie of any magnitude ever preferable to the facts? If we can’t justify the truth to children, adults, or ourselves, maybe we need to rethink what we’re doing or saying or believing, rather than cover it up with a cover story. In contrast to people who build their lives on a foundation of unbelievable beliefs, humanists–who view the world through reason and evidence—should err on the side of truthfulness, even when little lies are a little easier.


Community Service for Kids: My kids each need to do 25 hours of community service this year, one to qualify for her middle school honor society and the other as a requirement at his high school. We’re finding it surprisingly challenging to identify suitable venues. Some demand time commitments beyond what they can give; some require them to be over 18; some (like serving food at a homeless shelter) don’t seem appropriate for young kids (and frankly, my kids don’t want to do that). Furthermore, we’d like to avoid religious organizations, which seem to be where the vast majority of opportunities can be found. Any ideas how they can fulfill their service without supporting organizations we don’t support, and maybe have an enjoyable or at least educational time doing it?

—Helping Without God’s Help

Dear Helping,

It’s wonderful that your kids are encouraged or required to perform community service, and that they can choose how they do it. And although good works are good works even under the auspices of religious organizations you don’t want to associate with, your preference to keep it secular is commendable. And there’s no need for this to be an exercise in unpleasantness.

Have the kids check with their teachers, principals or guidance counselors. They may be able to assist with lessons with younger kids, organize a cluttered classroom, answer phones in the office when the secretary is out to lunch. Surely there are local libraries, hospitals, or other secular non-profits (e.g., thrift shops, playgrounds, animal shelters) where they could be useful. Or they could create their own gig—setting up a lemonade stand and donating the proceeds to buy art supplies for their school; organizing a car wash with fellow students to raise money for the sports or music program; identifying and responding to a community need, like turning a trash-filled vacant lot into a tidy garden. While they may be fulfilling requirements, there’s no reason their community service can’t serve them well by building their skills and confidence, broadening their awareness, and being fun—and even looking great on college applications.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.