What Bull-Fighting and Santa Have in Common: Why Parents Lie

This week, a very old chicken came home to roost. My daughter, who is 22, did our family’s equivalent of discovering that your parents lied about Santa. She discovered that bulls are actually injured and then killed in the ring.

When Kassie was very young, she was an animal lover, anxious and empathetic to an extreme that seemed pathological. Seeing a picture of a hurt dog would keep her up all night. So when she first asked about bull-fighting, I panicked. She looked at me with horror and tears in her little eyes, seemingly pleading with me to tell her that what she heard wasn’t true. As I looked into her watery grey-blue eyes, I knew that for months she would obsess and agonize and have nightmares if I told her the truth.

So, I told her that bull fighting was just play fighting. I explained to her that the bulls were trained to act injured and play dead, just like you can train dogs to play dead. I told her that they actually loved playing in the ring with the guy with the matador and his red cape. In fact, the bulls argued over who got to go out and play. About a year later she asked me again, and from her screwed up face and anxious voice, I could tell she wasn’t ready still. So I showed her WWF wrestling and explained that like people don’t get hurt in that (slight exaggeration) no one really gets hurt in bull-fighting unless the matador trips over his cape.

And then I promptly forgot about it. So when she got older, I never told her the truth.

This week in her college Spanish class when a student delivered a report on a famous matador, she confidently explained to them that it was all faked. They showed her graphic and horrible images on their cell phones and everyone laughed so hard she ended up leaving the class sobbing. She had her first (and hopefully only) full-fledged panic attack in the car on the way home.

It was pretty devastating for her. It was like finding out that there is no Santa, at 22, in a college classroom. She had to confront two truths at once: People sometimes torture animals for sport and her mother lied to her. One of those facts is horrifying. The other is just a part of becoming an adult.

I think it would have been a lot easier on her if I hadn’t been so scrupulously honest about other things. When she asked about Santa, the Easter bunny and the Tooth Fairy, I told her the truth. I tried to be honest with my kids at every step of their lives.

But in this one instance, it felt like the truth was just too big of a burden for such an anxious, sweet little girl to carry. Frankly, I am starting to wonder if my real mistake was that I did not lie to them more. Perhaps if they had grown up believing in Santa, learning that I lied about bull-fighting wouldn’t be so painful.

This all has me wondering about honesty in our relationships with our kids. Is it ever okay to just flat out lie? Should a little lying be a healthy part of the relationship? What do you think?