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MAUGHAN: My mom thinks that I am the greatest.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: is it wrong to lie to children?

DUCKWORTH: Wait, does the Easter Bunny only shop at CVS Pharmacy?

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, the other day, I was texting with my mom and my sister, and we were texting about lying.

MAUGHAN: Like, you were lying to each other or you were just texting about the concept of lying?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t remember how this came up, but we were talking about whether we lie to our children, because we’re all now parents, and does it matter? Now, before you say anything, can I just say that since we are going to talk about lies that we may or may not have been told by our parents, that this may be something that any parents listening to the conversation may want to listen to on their AirPods. I mean, the funny thing about my childhood is I cannot recall a single occasion on which my parents lied to me.

MAUGHAN: Or that you knew they lied to you. Right?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, okay, that’s true. Surely they must have lied to me, but I, to this day, cannot think of a time where that happened.

MAUGHAN: I will say I’m roughly in the same boat, with the exception of maybe the most glaring and obvious examples that are kind of ubiquitous in culture of Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, stuff like that. And I will just lay it out on the line here. I think that those are very good lies to tell. 

DUCKWORTH: What? Tooth Fairy lies.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. I do. But I think that there is something really beautiful about this idea of childhood, and fantasy, and imagination and the excitement that that brings. And I know there are others who disagree, and I know that there have been some who, you know, it rocks their world when they find out that their parents have lied to them. But I think that there’s also, generally speaking, a beauty to it. What do you think? I mean, did you tell your children that those fictional beings exist?

DUCKWORTH: Let’s see. Santa Claus, yes. Easter Bunny, yes, maybe for fewer years. I think they were, like, wise to the absence of the Easter Bunny a little sooner — probably because they could see that everything in the Easter basket was from CVS. You’re like, “Wait, does the Easter Bunny only shop at CVS Pharmacy?”    And then, Tooth Fairy, oh yeah, we kept that going for a long time. And sometime after texting Annette, my sister, and my mom, I was asking Jason if we lied to Amanda and Lucy, and he was like, “Well, I have many fond memories of sneaking into their bedroom and sneaking that one dollar bill under their pillow, and then — that part was easy, but getting the tooth out, right? Because you had to, like, kind of feel around for it without your kids waking up. So, we did perpetuate those three lies. For as long as we could, by the way. We didn’t want to break the fiction. So, you were told these three lies when you were a kid? 

MAUGHAN: Of course, and I’ll — I’ll even tell you how I found out all three were not true.

DUCKWORTH: Was it all on one day?

MAUGHAN: No! That’s what’s so shocking, maybe, is I was like, “One down, the other two must be real.” I don’t know.

DUCKWORTH: I know, isn’t that funny? Like, it took years for my kids to be, like, “Oh, wait. Hold on.” But anyway, go on. Tell me the story.

MAUGHAN: So, Tooth Fairy, I was suspicious, and so I did put a tooth under my pillow without telling my parents.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s such a good test.

MAUGHAN: And night one went by, and night two went by, and night three went by. And finally I said, “Hey, mom and dad, there’s no Tooth Fairy. I put the tooth under my pillow and nothing’s happened.” And they said, “Well, Michael, we have to call the Tooth Fairy so she knows to come.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. Parenting genius!

MAUGHAN: Defending the lie with a lie.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, were you convinced? Were you like, “Oh, right, you have to call the Tooth Fairy”?

MAUGHAN: No. I was not convinced.

DUCKWORTH: You were already old and cynical, Mike.

MAUGHAN: Well, I, I hope I wasn’t cynical, but I think I was maybe investigative. I will say one of my brothers talked about how with his kids he — he has repeatedly said that the tooth fairy got caught in a snowstorm. So, lies upon lies. 

DUCKWORTH: I think these, like, um, tall tales are kind of adorable. Again, I can’t remember my parents, like, perpetuating myths that they thought would make me feel good. But I know for myself, there was — for years, every Christmas, Jason and I would let the girls put out a cookie and a glass of milk for Santa.

MAUGHAN: Of course.

DUCKWORTH: Of course. And then, every Christmas Eve, Jason would literally drink the milk. I guess he could have poured it down the drain. He felt somehow that would be un-Christmaslike. But he would drink the glass of milk, and then eat the cookie but leave some crumbs. I think that was just for, like, a poetic finesse. So, it wasn’t even, like, passive lying. That’s, like, kind of, like, full-on, active, “I’m going to pretend that this is true when it’s just not.”

MAUGHAN: Well, look, I think that early in my childhood, my parents were much more careful about maybe the cookie or we would leave out Easter eggs for the Easter bunny, which I don’t know how that makes sense, but we would have some eggs —.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, you left out eggs for the bunny? They’re supposed to leave eggs for you.

MAUGHAN: I think it was more, “Here’s the beautiful art I’ve created for you out of an egg.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh, okay. Okay. Got it.

MAUGHAN: But here’s the thing. My parents, who are amazing, maybe got a little lazy when it came to some of these things, because I remember going to the fridge and the exact hard boiled egg I had left out the night before for the Easter Bunny was back in the fridge. And that was my first clue. I was like, “Wait a minute, the egg I decorated and left for the bunny is back in our fridge. Maybe something’s up here.”

DUCKWORTH: That would have been my dilemma, because I’m like, on one hand, I want my daughter’s childhood to stay pure and innocent. On the other hand, I don’t want to waste a perfectly good egg. That’s the moral tension that would be right there for me. Well, look, I think this broader topic of parenting and lying — and of course the even broader, broader, broader topic of like, when is it okay to lie, if it’s ever okay to lie, to people we care about? — is so interesting. There’s this very recent idea in parenting psychology. It’s called “parenting by lying.” Have you ever heard of parenting by lying?

MAUGHAN: No, but I’ll tell you my visceral reaction to it is “that sounds terrible.” As much as I’ve just defended ying, like, that sounds awful.

DUCKWORTH: So, the paper that I was reading — and it’s in my favorite journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science. So, the authors are at different universities. I noticed that two of them are from Singapore — and I bring that up because there is this Asian dimension of parenting by lying, which I’ll explain. But they define parenting by lying as, quote, “A practice in which parents lie to their children to influence their emotions or behavior,” unquote. So, it’s on purpose, manipulative.

MAUGHAN: And what’s the context of the lies? Is this like, “Hey, you’re really good at this” to encourage a child to continue to develop in that area?

DUCKWORTH: So, to be clear, parenting by lying has one of two goals; you’re manipulating your kid’s behavior or you’re manipulating their feelings. So, here are some examples of parenting by lying when the parents are trying to get their kids to do something. Parents have said things like: “If you continue to mistreat your sister, I will call the police to put you in jail. If you don’t finish your rice, you’ll grow up to marry someone with pimples all over his face.” And here’s the last example from the article, “If you finish your homework, I’ll take you to Disneyland.” So, these are three example lies. This must be from their interview research. I have to say, I read those and I was like, “What?!”

MAUGHAN: I mean, those all feel, like, pretty extreme.

DUCKWORTH: They’re, like, kind of unbelievable.

MAUGHAN: I just wonder if there are ways to get one’s child to do something or feel something without going to the extreme. For example, if you tell your child, if they do this, you’ll take them to Disneyland, they can tell really well if you took them to Disneyland or not and so you get one shot at that lie.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know, it doesn’t seem like a scalable solution, as they would say in today’s parlance. Like, how does that work more than once? I mean, any of these things seem, like, pretty house of cards-like. How do you keep up this pretense? Here, let me give you the examples of parenting by lying where the goal is to influence how your kids feel. And again, this is from the article that I was reading. Parents might say, “That was beautiful piano playing,” when they think that the piece was played terribly. Or your pet dies and like, “Kitty went on to live on a farm.” Like, you know, whatever it is that they say to make the child —.

MAUGHAN: “Can we visit kitty?” “No, it’s a very far away farm.”

DUCKWORTH: “It allows no visitors.” Like, “Oh, we’re going to flush this goldfish down the toilet so that it can get to the river.” You know, these are all ways to, I guess, spare our children’s feelings, in a way. And you might argue that these myths about Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus are all so that we can make our kids happy, you know, for, like, one more precious, innocent year, where they can believe in beautiful, untrue things. So, that actually is a little less unbelievable, don’t you think?

MAUGHAN: Oh, I have a story for you. I cannot sing. I am not a singer. So, I was singing in the kitchen. I couldn’t have been more than, like, 10, 12, maybe younger. And my mother, bless her soul, runs into the kitchen. I mean, I remember the urgency and force with which she ran. She slid on her feet, and says as I’m singing, “Is that Luciano Pavarotti?” And I legitimately believed. She sold it so well. I thought that my mother thought that I was Pavarotti.

DUCKWORTH: You were Luciano Pavarotti.

MAUGHAN: And I was like, “Wow, I am so good that she mistook me for one of the greatest opera singers of all time.” And I now, as an adult, feel so stupid that I believed it. Maybe I was so eager for validation, I don’t know, but I was all in. And I was like, “Man, my mom thinks that I am the greatest.”

DUCKWORTH: See, that’s the thing. I think when you think of these examples, and you, or one, quickly passes judgment — like, “Oh, what parent would tell their kid, ‘If you don’t finish your rice, you’ll grow up to marry someone with pimples all over his face?’” And I can say with confidence, I never said that to Amanda or Lucy, but, like, you know, when you really start to think about these edge cases — I mean, especially when it comes to making your kids feel confident or happy, but maybe even these, like, false threat lies — I mean, you have to admit that the parents probably had, in some ways, a defensible motive. “You have to do your homework. I want you to finish your vegetables.” Like, I don’t know, maybe there’s an argument that parenting by lying is not that different from parenting by honesty.

MAUGHAN: Yeah. I think “parenting by lying” needs a rebrand. Let me share with you one thing that I thought was helpful. It comes from a woman named Melanie Wenner Moyer. She’s a journalist who covers parenting, science, and medicine, and she wrote an article called “The Santa Lie” in Slate. She’s also the author of a book called How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t A******S Good goal for anyone. She basically, in this article in Slate, makes a differentiation on good lies and bad lies. The good lie pile is something that parents invoke for the benefit of their children. And so maybe that is: there are some adult concepts that they’re too young to understand or to maybe emotionally process, and so we’re doing that on their behalf to protect them. Then, on her bad lie pile, that is where you’re just deflecting blame or avoiding responsibility. For example, “Hey, we can’t go to the playground today, it’s closed,” but really you’re just too lazy to get off the couch.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, but here’s the thing:   all of the examples of parenting by lying, you know, are essentially, quote-unquote, “for the good of the child.” I mean, not even just quote-unquote. Like, they are — I am not saying they’re good. And by the way, the research is pretty clear: it’s bad. Like, parenting by lying predicts lower attachment to parents and all kinds of terrible outcomes for children, including kids lying themselves and having downstream problems with their social adjustment and so forth. But, it’s really hard to go all the way back to the beginning and saying, like, “Well, was the intention good or bad?” Because I can’t think of many of these lies that don’t at least have some positive intent for the child.

MAUGHAN: Here’s where I would reframe it a little bit. I think that the whole, like, “You’re going to marry someone with pimples,” or “I’m going to call the police” — I just think those are bad regardless, because it’s, like, a threat.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, there’s, like, a real sense of coercion.

MAUGHAN: Right. On the other hand, I do think there’s something different about, like, “Oh, Santa’s elves are watching” because, in my mind at least, that goes to this idea of fantasy, creativity. Now, I will just say this: what Moyer talks about is that most children grow up with the ability to differentiate and so the idea that Santa Claus is not real was not so traumatic that they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. I’ve been lied to my entire life.” I think what Moyer is talking about here, which I think is interesting, and she’s referencing some work by Jacqueline Woolley, who’s a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin — typically, children learn the truth, and they understand difference, and can differentiate between these types of lies, and generally speaking, they don’t resent it. They don’t resent their parents and they don’t suddenly think that, like, all lying is okay, because children have the ability as they age and grow up to recognize, “Oh, that was a fun lie that made Christmas, or that time of year, more exciting, and accessible, and joyful.” Because I think that there is sometimes this worry in a parent’s mind that a child’s going to wake up one day and be like, “You’ve lied to me about everything. None of it’s true.” And I think what Moyer is writing about here, what Dr. Woolley is talking about, is most children, on average, on balance, they get it. They figure out the differentiation and it’s not traumatic.

DUCKWORTH: Do you know what “as if” thinking is? It’s, like, pretending. You imagine, like, “As if I were a dinosaur.” I think little kids are actually better at it. As we get older or we get, you know, sort of burdened by, you know, realistic thinking. But I wonder whether, when you tell kids about the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, I wonder whether there is a part of them that knows you’re not serious. I just wonder whether kids, in some ways, are wise to the lie from the very beginning. I don’t know, I’m just speculating.

MAUGHAN: I think I would hesitate to say from the very beginning, but, obviously, as one grows up. Maybe at two, and three, and four Santa Claus is so obviously real. But, look, by six, seven, probably by eight is when Moyer was writing in this article that most kids kind of have reached the point of not believing in Santa Claus — eight years old.

DUCKWORTH: There’s actually been research on this?

MAUGHAN: Yeah. Eight is the age she referenced. But I think kids go through this process, right? I did. You start to wonder. But I think, to your point, we want to believe, because it’s beautiful.

DUCKWORTH: We want to believe and then maybe you’re right. Like, as you get a little older and you’re starting to fit the pieces together, you start to not believe the literal thing, but maybe it’s gradual, right?  Well, Mike, I think you and I would both love to hear the thoughts of our listeners about when and if we should lie to children. Do you remember any specific lies that your parents told you as a child? How did those lies affect you? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email us at Maybe Mike and I will play it on a future episode of the show — but maybe not. I won’t lie about that. Also, if you like No Stupid Questions and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend about it. Spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: should Angela’s parents have lied more when she was a kid?

DUCKWORTH: My dad would open a present, unwrap it, hold it up, look at it and say, “I don’t want this.”

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about lying to children.

DUCKWORTH: I think when I remember my dad in particular —  I was trying to search my childhood memory bank for times that he lied to me, and I could only think of times where he told me the glaring truth and that it sucked. Honestly, like, you know, I would get him presents for, like, Father’s Day or for Christmas. I didn’t have a lot of money. I was just like some little kid. And there was this, like, five and dime store called Woolworth’s. You are too young to remember Woolworth’s, are you not?

MAUGHAN: I do not remember Woolworth’s, but my mother played these albums my entire life by a woman named Nanci Griffith, who is kind of a folk singer, and she sang about Woolworth’s all the time. So, Woolworth’s has a very deep, soft place in my heart.

DUCKWORTH: You know, that makes me feel even older. It’s like, “Yes, but there was a black and white silent movie in which we —.” No, Woolworth’s was great, Mike. You know, it’s a little bit like a dollar store today, right? It’s just, like, aisles and aisles of stuff that was manufactured overseas and probably immediately destined for landfill. And I would, you know, wander these aisles looking — with this little pocket change I had in my little plastic purse, or whatever —  to buy my daddy a present. And what could I have bought? I think maybe, in a very good year, it was like soap on a rope from Old Spice or something. I mean, you know, admittedly, not great presents. But my dad would open a present, unwrap it, hold it up, look at it and say, “I don’t want this.” And I was crushed. But I think it just reveals to me the complexity of lying versus honesty. I mean, it’s clearly a case where everybody would have been better off with, like, a tiny white lie.

MAUGHAN: Absolutely. I think there’s this idea that sometimes some people feel so strongly about honesty that they forget to feel strongly about empathy or about kindness. There are a balance of virtues, and it’s okay to look at that balance and say, “Hey, in this moment, empathy is more important.” I think that’s the same thing we’re talking about, too, with when is lying okay to kids? And it’s not just Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but there are times when there’s trauma, right? There’s divorce, there are crimes, there are different things that you kind of want to omit something for a child in order to make sure that we can preserve, sort of, the innocence that they have. There was an article by a woman named Laura Wheatman Hill, a journalist, who wrote in CNN, “Should You Always Tell Your Kids the Truth? It Depends.” And she refers to this psychologist, Amy Stoeber, who specializes in trauma in children and talks about: setting boundaries based on age, maturity, and your child’s personality is not a lie. And so, when parents are getting divorced, for example, most divorcing parents choose to leave out details about infidelity, about abuse, about addiction, because you don’t need to tell the whole story, pending, you know, how old your kids are and the situation. It’s interesting though, in this article, Hill also talks about: we need to be mindful that the truth usually comes out. Kids are not dumb. They tend to fill in the gaps. You don’t want them to distrust you, etc. So, it’s not about lying to them, but it’s about giving them age- and personality- and maturity-appropriate information for what they need to know then. But then they don’t feel lied to in the end when the truth does ultimately come out.

DUCKWORTH: So, the moral of that story, or the take-home advice is: it’s not that you should never tell a lie. It’s really complicated because honesty comes into conflict with empathy, or with generosity, or something else.

MAUGHAN: Right. I will say I thought this was super interesting. There was a Reddit thread that said, “What lies did your parents tell you that you believed and how did you find out it was a lie?” There are a lot of funny ones, and interesting ones in, you know, sort of the bad lie category of, “My parents were lazy and didn’t want to do XYZ.” One that I thought was really beautiful, though, said, “My mom somehow kept up the facade of us being financially comfortable, although my father wasted our money immensely. I always felt kind of rich until I found out that my mom sometimes went years without buying anything for herself so my brother and I could grow up without having to worry about money at all.” Now, tragic in its own way, but it reminds of  this incredible movie that you may or may not remember, Life is Beautiful. I think it won best actor, best director, something like that, with the actor Roberto Benigni.

DUCKWORTH: Oh! Wait, wait, wait. Is there a bicycle in it?

MAUGHAN: Yes, there is a bicycle in it. But it’s about the Holocaust and how he basically is convincing his son that the entire thing that they’re going through is actually a game. And so, he’s lying to his son the entire time to protect his son from feeling immense fear. And so, that’s where I would say, like, I don’t think that the conversation of, “Is it okay to lie to your child or not?” is black and white at all, because of these competing virtues and because of this idea that there are some things that it is okay to protect one’s child from. And I think this child in — it’s a movie of course, but in Life is Beautiful, would probably look back on his father’s lies and say that was the most beautiful gift he could have given me, because he gave me a feeling of security. He gave me a sense of love in a world that was filled with pure evil at that time.

DUCKWORTH: Well, this may be why it’s so prevalent. You know, these researchers who I think coined the term “parenting by lying,” they cite this study from 2013 where they surveyed parents on whether they lied to their kids, and 78 percent of American parents said, yes, they engaged in parenting by lying of some sort.

MAUGHAN: And the rest of them lied about —.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I know. I was going to say, like, I don’t know about the other 22 percent. Okay, 78 percent was for the American parents. What percentage of Chinese parents admitted to engaging in their parenting by lying?

MAUGHAN: Well, I’m gonna guess it’s higher, because you were insinuating that maybe in Asian cultures it was more predominant. 95 percent. 

DUCKWORTH: 98 percent

MAUGHAN: Wait, so you’re saying your parents were in the 2 percent who didn’t lie to their children?

DUCKWORTH: Oh, definitely. You know, there was this guy that I met named George Lin, and I met him when he was switching from medical school to — he wanted to get a Ph.D. in psychology. And, you might think, like, “Okay. Whatever. Like, he wanted to switch from being an M.D. to being a Ph.D.” But he’s Chinese, and for his family, and his mom in particular, this was, ugh, this was not what he was supposed to do. And he’s a full-grown adult, actually doing very well in this track of, like, eventually becoming a physician. And, oh my gosh, he was so torn up about it. And actually, when he met me, he was asking me about how he could become a psychologist so that he could study tiger parenting. So, so, if you ask George, you know, why it might be that the prevalence of parenting by lying is higher among Asian families compared to American families, I’m not sure George would say it’s all about just being more honest. And by the way, it’s not like all Asian parents are tiger parents, but certainly there are many. It’s a kind of parenting where you love your kids, but you are trying to control them. There is this sense — and I will even say this of my own childhood, though my parents didn’t manipulate me by lying, but there was a sense that, in a way, you were, like, the hand to the arm of your parents. You were, like, just an extension of them. And there wasn’t a real boundary. And so, in that sense, you know, we don’t feel like we’re lying to our bodies when we take Tylenol when we have a fever, because it’s just ourselves, and we’re just doing it for our own good. But because there’s this lack of a boundary, there’s this like, “Sure, I can control you. I can tell you to be a doctor. I can tell you who to marry. I can tell you that you have to finish your rice, no matter whether you’re hungry or not hungry, and I don’t care what you want to do or how you feel about it.” You know, again, I don’t want to stereotype all Asian parents, or even all Chinese parents, but I do think this tiger parenting approach has this element of, like, it’s okay to manipulate your kids by any means, including lying, because they are not just the next generation; they are just part of who you are.

MAUGHAN: And I think that’s — I don’t know. To me, that’s just not a healthy way to do it. Like, kids need to grow up and be who they want to be.

DUCKWORTH: I know you’re probably being hesitant because you don’t want to pass judgment on, like, another cultural practice. Do I sense this kind of like, “Well, that doesn’t sound so great, but who am I to judge?” Because you want to judge less and love more.

MAUGHAN: Exactly. Doesn’t feel like something that I would want to have in my family.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, look, let me liberate you a bit, because I think the need for autonomy is actually universal. I think you have a need to feel like you have freedom to do, and think, and feel the things that you want to do, think, and feel. And that has been shown, in many research studies, to be one of the primary human motives, whether you grew up in Asia, Africa, Australia, anyw— it doesn’t matter. So, I think, Mike, we don’t have to be too hesitant to say, like, “That’s not great.” I may be saying this because I grew up in the United States and I can’t even imagine actually having that level of manipulation. I do think, though, that maybe you don’t want to raise your kids by, like, “no B******T, no secrets,” but, at the same time, when you tell the truth to your kids, there is a kind of unequivocal respect for their freedom to make their own choices and to figure out life however they want to, as opposed to just, like, giving them the version that you want them to have.

MAUGHAN: I think that is very fair. At the same time, again, going back to this idea that there are different virtues that are important, I think that it’s okay and you should lie to your children when they give you a gift that you don’t love, because what you want to communicate and foster is love.

DUCKWORTH: You’re going to put a stake in the ground. You’re like, “Okay. Let me make this really clear. You get a gift. Be delighted.”

MAUGHAN: Yes, because the point isn’t the object itself. The point is the giving of the gift and the receiving of the gift.

DUCKWORTH: Look Mike, I think as we wrap up this conversation about lying, I’d like to open the aperture a bit. I think there are now more households with pets than there are households with children.

MAUGHAN: Are you serious? I guess that makes sense, but wow.

DUCKWORTH: I think it might even be households with dogs in particular. I’m going to have to ask for a fact check on that. But yes, we’re having fewer kids, and we’re getting more pets. Not everybody has to grapple with the question of, you know, whether to lie about the tooth fairy or not to lie about the tooth fairy. But I think everybody has to grapple with the question: Is it okay to lie to people we care about — whether they’re our children, or our friends, or our coworkers, or our bosses — if it’s for their own good? And I think, if I have you right, you’re saying: Yes, if there is a higher virtue that trumps honesty. Is that the Mike Maughan position on lying?

MAUGHAN: I will say that in a business context, in terms of doing any sort of deal, in terms of negotiating, I do have a very hard and fast rule that I won’t lie to people. I think that is very different than what we’re talking about here. But I’m going to admit something that just will forever put me in the pantheon of nerds. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, go. Do it.

MAUGHAN: I have a really good friend, Mike Wheatley. And Mike Wheatley took philosophy our freshman year of college. I didn’t. And he sent me some of his papers. This is when we’re 18-year-old freshmen, and I read them, and I thought they were fascinating. So, the summer after my freshman year of college, just for fun, on my own, I wrote a 17-page paper that I entitled “The Morality of the Greater Good.”

DUCKWORTH: You, as a voluntary activity, wrote a long-typed paper on this question of ethics.

MAUGHAN: Yes, and it was — it was about when it’s okay to lie and when you should lie. And I used the example from Les Misérables when there’s this nun who is helping hide Valjean and she is well known as having never told a lie in her entire life. If you’ve read the book — it’s not as much in the play — but they come to her, they ask her where Valjean is. And so she says, “He’s not here.” And they just have to believe her because her reputation is such. Or there was a book called The Hiding Place about the ten Boom family who was helping Jews escape during the Second World War and during the Holocaust. And one of the sisters, Nellie — the Gestapo come into her home and say, “Are you hiding any Jews?” And she has this philosophy that you cannot lie, so she said, “Yes, they’re under the floor.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that is the dumbest time to be honest.” And so all of those instances were times when you might say, yeah, the greater good was to lie. And that is why I, as a total nerd — and then, I mailed it to Mike Wheatley, because this is back when you mailed things. And I just said, “Hey, here’s the paper I wrote.” And I was going out to visit for, like, a week that summer to go hang out in — he lives in D.C., in the Virginia area. And his mom was like, “Oh gosh, this guy’s going to be such a dork.” But I felt that strongly as an 18 year old.

DUCKWORTH: Look, I think that puts you in the pantheon of something —. but I don’t even want to say that it was a bad thing. Here’s where I want to end. We’ve talked about, you know, you’re unwrapping a Christmas gift, you know, your kid asks, like, is Santa Claus real? Okay. That’s one dimension of this question of when is it okay to lie. But there’s another angle on this, which is when you are the recipient, what can you do? What are your choices?

MAUGHAN: You mean when someone lies to you?

DUCKWORTH: Well, when you’re talking to somebody and you have a choice of whether you want to ask them for the full truth or whether you, in fact, would like them to not tell you the whole truth. So, a few years ago, I was visiting this company called Gong, like G-O-N-G. It’s, like, an A.I. platform. But I remember being very much admiring of their culture, because they had very intentionally cultivated a culture of fun and of always trying to do better. But they had this expression called “no sugar.” I wrote it down in my notebook. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I love this.” So, apparently at Gong, I can ask you for feedback “no sugar,” or it’s a bad day and I need a little sugar. And so anyway, I think you’re right. Sometimes in life, it’s the best thing to maybe elide the truth and sometimes it’s the best thing to leave no secrets. But I think the idea in this practice of no sugar is that you could also, on the receiving end, be a little proactive. Most days I can handle no sugar, and some days I can’t.  

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

The author of the 2012 Slate article “The Santa Lie” is Melinda Wenner Moyer, not Melanie Wenner Moyer. Mike got some details wrong in a story from Corrie ten Boom’s 1971 autobiographical novel The Hiding Place. When directly asked by the Gestapo whether a young woman hiding in her home is Jewish, ten Boom’s sister — who is named Nollie, not Nellie — admits that she is. Nollie tells her sister, “God will not let them take her to Germany. He will not let her suffer because I obeyed him.” The young Jewish woman is taken by the Gestapo to be transported to an extermination camp, but is rescued before reaching Germany.

Finally, Angela requests a fact-check on whether there are more U.S. households with dogs than children. According to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 26.6 percent of all households have at least one child, and 38 percent have a dog. However, kids still beat cats, which are present in 22 percent of households.

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on neuroticism.

Tim WHEELER: Hello, No Stupid Questions. This is Tim from California. In your podcast on neuroticism, I was struck by how the caller Amanda described her form of neuroticism, a sort of structured sensitivity and tendency to overthink. I wanted to recommend the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron to Amanda and anyone else who feels similarly. It gives very good explanations for the how and the why of her form of neuroticism, and above all, it underscores the many advantages of being highly sensitive. 

Susan ABRAMS: Hi, I’m calling in as someone who is probably seen by the world as being somewhat neurotic. I think it can be very challenging to make friends, because people don’t like the negativity, but I also feel like it gives me a tenacity to take in information and look for solutions on very big overwhelming problems like major public health issues and climate change, which are both issues that I like to spend a lot of time learning about and trying to solve. I have more tolerance and persistence with those issues than a lot of other people do. 

That was Tim Wheeler and Susan Abrams. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on lying to children. Were you lied to as a kid — or do you lie to your kids? What are the effects of those lies? Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: what does it mean to be cool?

MAUGHAN: I’ve never really cared about trying to be cool, but maybe that’s just because I felt like it was a hopeless battle for me.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

MAUGHAN: Oh, God bless editing, I’m so sorry guys.

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