Lies to Children

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Calvin: Dad, what causes wind?
Dad: Trees sneezing.
Calvin: Really?
Dad: No, but the truth is more complicated.

When things are strange and complicated, people like to explain them by analogy. Sometimes, this analogy is actually not all that accurate; for instance, atoms are usually described as a proton-neutron nucleus with electrons orbiting it like planets round a star, but doesn't actually resemble the solar system at all. However, it is still useful because it gives the listeners a simple concept they can grasp, while a more accurate explanation would confuse them or simply go over their heads. Once they've learned the analogy, they can continue to more complex topics that will eventually lead to the truth of the situation—or to another, more complicated set of Lies to Children.

This is, of course, likely to backfire if the listener takes the analogy too literally.

The term was coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, and used in the book The Science of Discworld. Discworld books occasionally make an odd analogy, then, when taxed, say, "no, it's nothing like that, but it's a lie you can understand."

Very much Truth in Television, particularly, though not exclusively, with regard to science. (Hell, considering how much we don't understand of the universe, science itself is this to a degree.)

General Real Life examples only, please. (ex: "the atom looks like a solar system" analogy)

See also Phlebotinum Analogy. May pop up while giving The Talk.

Examples of Lies to Children include:

Comic Books

  • In Runaways, Gert lampshades the fact that their parents never told them they were supervillains by listing all of the things parents lie to their children about: Santa, The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and God.


  • Addams Family Values. One of the jokes has normal children telling the Addams kids about the stork—Wednesday responds by explaining where babies really come from.
  • In Miracle on 34th Street, Mrs. Walker is trying to avoid this with her daughter, Susan, by telling her the truth about everything, in this case the reality about Santa Claus. The argument the movie makes is that kids can become rather bland and lack imagination if this is all they are taught.
  • In Ink, the soul of a little girl, Emma, is kidnapped, leaving her body in a coma. A Storyteller, captured while trying to rescue her, tries to explain what is happening and make the girl less afraid. "You still look like a little girl, but as soon as you came into this world, you started turning into a lioness." Emma replies, "You're full of it."


  • In the Judy Blume book Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Sally asks her mother how babies are made. Her mother mumbles something about how the husband plants a seed in the wife; ten-year-old Sally wants more details, so Mrs. Freedman buys her a book about it. Later on, her unmarried teenage neighbour gets pregnant and Sally asks how that's possible, since the book told her sex was something only married people did.
  • Merlin Athrawes in David Weber's Safehold series possesses enhanced abilities far beyond the human norm because he is a machine known as a PICA. However, the residents of the planet Safehold are trapped in anti-technology Medieval Stasis and lack the foundation to understand this. Merlin explains his capabilities by comparing them to those attributed to legendary heroes called seijin (Japanese for "holy men"). In particular, his access to high tech surveillance allowing Merlin to spy on just about anyone, anywhere, are explained as visions that allow him to see the present, but neither past nor future.
  • Great Lies To Tell Small Kids by Andy Riley is partly this, and partly just trolling your children or younger relations: "Wine makes Mummy clever!" "Slugs are snails that couldn't pay the mortgage".
  • Flatterland is meant to be an educational, but also entertaining, Spiritual Sequel to Flatland; unlike that of the prior work, the author doesn't stand on detail if it would get in the way of the story. Both stories are about inhabitants of mathematical spaces, so the premise has the potential to get quite technical is Lies-to-Children are not employed.

Vikki started to pick up the junk that had tumbled across the cellar floor, stuffing it back into the now rather battered boxes. She had almost finished when she noticed a tattered book. (More properly, it should be described as a scroll, for on Flatland books are written on lines, not flat sheets, in a kind of Morse code; and the way to store a line compactly is to roll it into a spiral... I can’t keep explaining this kind of thing to you, my Planiturthian readers. So if I use a Planiturthian term that seems not to make sense, for instance, having Vikki—who is a line, for heaven’s sake—pick something up or carry something, you’ll just have to assume that there is some Flatland equivalent.

Newspaper Comics

  • This is a running gag with Calvin's Dad from Calvin and Hobbes, as the page quote illustrates, but always taking it so far from reality it can hardly count as helpful. He also explains the workings of a lightbulb and vacuum cleaner as "magic".

Calvin (turns lamp on and off): "Look, mom, magic!"
Calvin's mom: "That's not magic!"

    • Lampshaded in one comic in which Calvin gets fed up and asks for the real answer. His Dad responds by asking if he'd like to hear the much more complicated truth. After a Beat Panel we get the above exchange.
    • And inverted once. Calvin's dad uses a vinyl record to show that a point on its circumference moves faster than a point near the center, even though they both make the same revolutions per minute. The punchline panel is Calvin, tormented by insomnia, trying to wrap his head around it.

Live Action TV

Rory: How can we be outside the universe? I thought the universe was everything.
The Doctor: Imagine a big soap bubble with a lot of smaller bubbles around it. Well, it's nothing like that."


  • Many branches of theology or religious philosophy, Christian or otherwise, would say that it is impossible to speak of the divine or transcendental in any other way than through analogies that will always be imperfect. Others would say even that is impossible and that it can only be "described" through negations, stating what the transcendental is not but never what it is.

Video Games

  • Metro 2033: A very sad example is shown in the first station, where you see a boy and a father talking with each other. The boy asks when his mother will return from some journey, and his father only replies, "Soon," and mentions if only she could see how much he has grown up. Given the nature of the setting, it's safe to say his mother is probably lying dead in a tunnel somewhere.
  • Darkseed 2 uses one as an odd plot point. Years ago, when Mike had nightmares of monsters coming out of his closet, his mother pretended to lock it. It's not locked. It contains a portal to the Dark World. Yet Mike is incapable of opening it until someone reveals the deception to him. When confronted, his mother barely remembers it and can't believe he never figured it out.

Web Comics

Ardam: "Sir, is that really how summoning works?"
Teacher: "No, but it'll do until the practical course next year."

  • Xkcd gives us the airplane wing, and several options for what to do when a child confronts you with the lie.
  • Max and Zoey's dad from Paranatural. "You'd better be ready by eight o-clock, Zoey. In Mayview, they send tardy kids to the mines." She does call him out on it, though.
  • In Homestuck, Jake English's grandmother tells him that she chose that last name because it was the name of her Evil Stepmother's ex-husband, on the basis that Jake was too young to understand that it was actually the name of a powerful demon that said Evil Stepmother feared and obeyed.
  • Subverted in Girl Genius here, when a young Agatha asks about her locket.
  • Mountain Time on turtles.

Web Original

Western Animation

  • When Kyle on South Park learns the truth about the tooth fairy, he doesn't take it well.

Kyle: Dad, there is so a tooth fairy, huh?
Gerald What? Oh. Kyle, let's have a little talk.
Kyle: Oh my God! You did lie to me.
Gerald: No. Kyle, she's just make-believe. Like Peter Pan.
Kyle: Peter Pan, too??
Gerald: Kyle…
Kyle: What about Moses and Abraham?
Gerald: Well, they were probably real.
Kyle: Probably?! Is Atlantis real??
Gerald: Probably not.
Kyle: Wahahahah!
Gerald: Look, Kyle, adults make up those things because they're fun for children.
Kyle: Fun for children?! Fun for children?! Look at me, Dad! I don't even know what's real anymore! Weaaaah! [runs out the door]

  • The KaBlam! series of shorts "Life With Loopy" often had plots revolving around the lies Loopy was told. For instance, she confronted Mother Nature after being told thunder is just her bowling.
  • Moral Orel, episode "God's Chef".
  • A Looney Tunes cartoon starring Foghorn Leghorn starts with Henry Hawk talking to his father, who tells young Henry a bunch of wild stories about chickens, telling him that they're wild, ferocious beasts who live in caves. Later, when the elder Hawk goes hunting, he turns to the camera and says, "Hated having to tell the boy all a'them falsehoods about chickens, but it keeps him outta trouble." Unfortunately, it ultimately causes Henry to start trouble.

Real Life

  • Talking to minors about sex is an awkward issue, because you don't really want them trying to do it at a young age, but you don't want to ignore the issue and wait for the wrong person to tell them, or worse, show them. Peoples' views and methods on telling minors about sex varies a lot.
    • J.K. Rowling was asked exactly what Aberforth had done with goats at a Harry Potter Q&A session:

Fan: In the Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore said his brother was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms [JKR buries her head, to laughter] on a goat; what were the inappropriate charms he was practicing on that goat?
JKR: How old are you?
Fan: Eight.
JKR: I think that he was trying to make a goat that was easy to keep clean [laughter], curly horns. That's a joke that works on a couple of levels. I really like Aberforth and his goats. But you know, Aberforth having this strange fondness for goats, if you've read book seven, came in really useful to Harry, later on, because a goat, a stag, you know. If you're a stupid Death Eater, what's the difference. So, that is my answer to YOU.

  • Talking to minors about drugs is another awkward issue. If you tell them the facts that drugs make you feel really good and that some are okay in moderation, they'd likely run off and do them instead of doing their schoolwork. But telling them that all drugs are evil and the same runs the risk of them sneakily trying one drug, surviving and enjoying it, then thinking that all drugs are fine and then doing a harder drug that ruins their lives/kills them. Peoples' views on telling minors about drugs varies a lot, but most choose to exaggerate the dangers for the sake of having a sober child, which to some is a Necessary Weasel. Not that this is an exaggeration to everyone; the view that all illegal drugs are ridiculously more dangerous than the legal ones (like alcohol) is still strongly present in culture, even though it's at best a lie-to-children.
  • In moments of crisis (for example when someone dies or a natural disaster) adults tend to try to spare their kids from information that they perceive as potentially hurtful. And tries to distract from or sugarcoat information. This of course usually just serves to make the kid more anxious and less capable to cope with the situation.
    • Of course, sometimes adults tell these lies to children because they don't know how to explain it to themselves.
    • For this reason, local authorities (at least in the UK) maintain teams of councillors and special advisors who are sent into primary schools where a traumatic event has recently taken place- part of their job being telling the teachers how to tell the kids what has happened. (They also deal with parents who try to insist that the teachers enforce this trope when it's impossible...)
  • The sun is white, although it falls into the classification that used to be called "yellow dwarf". Indeed the spectrum of light that reaches us from the sun defines what it means for light to be white.
  • This happens a lot in early math classes. Expect sentences like "You can't take the square root of a negative." or "You can't subtract 5 from 3.", or even that division comes after multiplication in order of operations, while in reality it is done with multiplication in the order they appear.[1]
  • The "Solar System-like atom" used so commonly while representing atoms, also used as commonly to talk to children about them.
  • Earlier, Atoms are the smallest things there are.
    • Protons, Neutrons and Electrons are the smallest things there are.
    • Quarks are the smallest things there are.
    • Subatomic particles are even 'particles' at all.
  • The very common analogy that gravity is like objects "pressing down" on a sheet, shown very well by Xkcd here
  • Spanish 1st semester: "Me gusta" means "I like it." (It actually means "It pleases me", which is important to understand when you need to construct a more complicated sentence about liking.)
  1. While in reality, it's only a convention for writing down expressions, and has nothing to do with math. Heaven help you if you try to explain that distinction to young children.