Alice's Academy

Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor

"Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!"
The Liar as Educator in Children's Literature

David LaBounty

David LaBounty is a children's playwright and author. His critical essays have appeared in Extrapolation and The Five Owls. Presently, David is the publisher and coeditor of the literary magazine The First Line.

Lying, being taught not to lie, and learning when, where, and how to lie are all essential elements in growing up, at every stage of childhood and adolescence. Lying in all its guises pervades children's literature but until now has largely avoided the attention of critics as a subject in itself. David LaBounty begins what should become a fascinating research thread in children's literature by looking at one aspect of lying in several classic works.


Whole Duty of Children

A child should always say what is true
And speak when he is spoken to,
And behave mannerly at the table;
At least as far as he is able.

Robert Louis Stevenson - A Child's Garden of Verses (1885)


Some of the most famous characters in children's literature are liars. Some tell lies to entertain, some tell them to escape harm. And some characters tell lies that are harmful. The ability to show a character's actions, and the consequences of such actions, is a key advantage writers have in teaching children about liars. The longer the reader observes a character, the better they are at making a decision about the character's veracity, and in turn observe how the character's actions affect their surroundings.

Take, for instance, a few of the most didactic tales in children's literature -- Aesop's fables. Many of Aesop's fables deal with honesty and lying. Three of the most well known, "Mercury and the Woodman," "The Cock and the Fox," and "The Shepherd Boy and the Wolf," are almost always reprinted in children's collections of the tales. Each fable shows the effects telling lies have on the main character. Each fable stresses the maxim that honesty is the best policy, going as far as to state that at the end of "Mercury and the Woodman."

But is honesty always the best policy? As adults, we certainly don't practice what we preach. We would like our children to be truthful, but we tell them all sorts of lies for all sorts of reasons. Not all lies are harmful and have bad consequences, and not all children's tales are that straightforward when it comes to the role of lying in society. Through classic tales in children's literature, writers take on the role of educators, showing children how lying functions in society, and in doing so, how to lie correctly.

Astrid Lindgren created one of the best liars in Pippi Longstocking. The lies Pippi tell are tall tales, and are entertaining and educational at the same time.

In The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature , Carolyn S. Brown defines the tall tale as a "fictional story which is told in the form of personal narrative, or anecdote, which challenges the listener's credulity with comic outlandishness" (11). Tall tales are told to young children primarily for entertainment purposes, and they rarely have any moral or educational value. Tall tales play on the sense of wonder most children have naturally.

Tall-tale tellers have two things in common; the first is that their tales are not true, and second, they tell them in such a matter-of-fact way as to try to make the reader believe every lie from their mouth is the truth. David Simpson, in his article, "Lying, Liars, and Language," points out, "all that is necessary for lying is that the liar presents himself or herself as believing something, and as being sincere in this presentation" (631). This means tall-tale tellers are some of the biggest liars around.

Lindgren endows Pippi with a tremendous imagination and encourages her to use it. She believes the tall tale should be encouraged in children because it is not only told for entertainment, but also told to foster one's imagination and sense of wonder. In his book, A Pack of Lies , J. A. Barns points out that in Peru, the Quechua-speaking mestizo group use lies as a form of play, to exercise the imagination, and children are rarely, if ever, punished for lying (103).

Yet, while Lindgren uses Pippi's lies to entertain, she also speaks through Pippi to teach children that you shouldn't believe everything people say. At one point in Pippi Longstocking Pippi confronts a child who questioned one of her stories.

"What's the matter? You don't really think that I'm sitting here telling lies, do you? . . . "
"Oh, no, indeed," said the girl terrified. "I don't really mean that you are lying, but--"
"No?" said Pippi. "But it's just what I'm doing. I'm lying . . . You must know that's a lie. You mustn't let people fool you so easily."

Barns also points out in his book that in rural Greece, parents "deliberately lie to their young children as a way of teaching them that other people's actions and words should not necessarily be taken at face value" (2).

For Lindgren, learning the difference between a harmful lie and a lie told to entertain is a point of development in children. In Pippi Goes Onboard , Pippi's friend Annika points out, "It's not nice to lie . . . Mommy says so." To which her brother responds, "Oh, how silly you are, Annika! . . . Pippi doesn't really lie. She just lies for fun" (115). After Tommy explains Pippi's lies to his sister, Pippi "looked thoughtfully at Tommy. 'Sometimes you speak so wisely that I'm afraid you will become great,' she said" (116).

Although the debate arises among psychologists and philosophers whether children are naturally truth-telling creatures, all types of lies are not available at birth. No matter how they acquire the ability to lie, it is likely that children are only able to express certain types of lies as they pass through at different stages in their development. For example, in his book Gentle Measures in the Training of the Young , Jacob Abbott points out that very young children will first lie "to give pleasure" (218). He uses the example of the mother asking her son if he shared his cake with his little sister. The son says yes, even though he did not. This is because he knows that saying no will displease his mother.

The other side of this issue is the idea that children first learn to lie in order to avoid punishment. Sissela Bok spends the majority of her book, Lying , exploring the lies people first learn to tell, the lies they feel the most justified in telling. Her chapter, "Lying in a Crisis," examines, among other lies, the lie that is told when there is a prolonged threat to survival. These may include lies that are told in self-defense, or to protect an innocent person from physical harm. Justification for telling these types of lies is that they "appeal to the most powerful aspect of the principle of avoiding harm--the battle against personal extinction" (112). The function of the survival lie is shown in Aesop's fable, "The Cock and the Fox." In this tale the fox tries to lure a cock out of a tree by telling him that "All the animals have agreed to live in peace with one another" (82). The cock, however, says he sees a pack of hounds headed in their direction, at which point the fox becomes nervous and says that he has to go. When the cock reminds him about the peace plan, the fox replies, as he runs away, "maybe those hounds haven't heard it yet!" The moral for the reader is: "The best liars are often caught in their own lies" (83).

But both the fox and the cock lie. The basis for the moral revolves around the fox's lie (which can be considered a survival lie, albeit malevolent in that it is told to harm another). And although the story never mentions the veracity of the cock, one can assume that he really didn't see any hounds, that he just said so to catch the fox in his own lie. When the cock lies about the hounds, it can be considered a forgivable lie, because it is told to protect himself from being eaten.

If the survival lie is innate in Nature, then simply telling children all lying is bad goes against survival instincts. However, children still need to be taught how the survival lie should not be abused. L. Frank Baum does this in his classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz .

Upon being unmasked, the Wizard, who only sees "honest" people (86), explains that when he landed in OZ, everyone thought he must be a great wizard, so he "let them think so, because they were afraid of [him], and promised to do anything [he] wished them to" (142).

Bok comments that "especially where survival within the institution is the only alternative, continuous lying may be at stake" (118), and that is certainly true for the Wizard. He admits to Dorothy and her friends that he has been trapped in his own lie. The longer he lives in Oz, the more he has to keep up the lie that he is a great and powerful wizard. Otherwise, if the people find out he is just a common man, "they [will] be vexed with [him] for having deceived them" (154).

There is a sort of freedom in finally being able to tell the truth. Unfortunately, Dorothy and her friends are never convinced that the balloon man cannot give them what they want, and they threaten to tell everyone in OZ that he is a phony. To save himself, the Wizard is forced to lie again, giving the travelers what they think they want. The reader can almost sympathize with the Wizard when he remarks that it is hard to live the life of a man who is forced to "do things everybody knows can't be done" (151).

The reader may, at first, side with Dorothy and her friends when they discover the Wizard of OZ is a fake, but when he is forced by the foursome to keep up false appearances, the reader may begin to wonder if the Wizard is really a bad character. The Wizard lies for fear of being caught and cast out of society. The reader may feel sorry for the Wizard because he is truly trapped in a life that is not his own -- a life that began with a simple lie.

However, Baum doesn't let the Wizard, or the reader, off that easily. The Wizard is not truly trapped. The way for the Wizard to escape his lies is to leave society, which he eventually does. The Wizard resurrects his balloon, leaving the reader to wonder why he did not do this earlier. If he was so upset about keeping up the lies, he could have left. By not leaving, the Wizard seems to be saying that he is happy just where he is. He never would have been in his dilemma if he had simply told the truth when he first arrived in OZ. Yet he does not seem to take great pains to leave OZ earlier.

For the Wizard, lying is a weakness. The last words out of his mouth are a lie. As he is preparing the balloon, he tells the inhabitants of the Emerald City that he is going off to visit his brother in the clouds. Why doesn't the wizard just tell the truth here? He is leaving, and it would seem that there is no chance for retaliation from the masses. There are two possible reasons for the Wizard's last lie. First, it may be that the Wizard has lied to these people for so many years, that he no longer knows how to tell the truth. The second reason may be that the Wizard is sparing his followers undue hardship with his lie. The people of Emerald City are already disappointed that their Wizard is leaving. How would they feel to find out that they have been lied to for all of these years? This lie may be told to spare them more pain, which is something a parental figure would do to a child who may not be at the point in their lives where they can fully understand what is happening. The Wizard may also understand that by keeping up appearances (continuing the lie), he can easily establish the Scarecrow as the new leader, a leader the Wizard may believe will be better than he ever was. It is these types of complex issues that help the reader begin to wonder understand what it means to lie to spare someone's feelings, or your own life, while, at the same time, realizing that a constantly lying is not always justification for survival.

When it comes to reaching children the art of lying, no author does it better than Carlo Collodi. His puppet, Pinocchio, is arguably the most famous liar in children's literature, and it is understood that only when Pinocchio stops lying and becomes a good little puppet can he become a real boy. On the surface, Collodi's tale resembles the way we, as adults, would like it. Most adults would hope though that the reader will learn, like Pinocchio, that the less harmful the lies you tell, the more believable, or trustworthy, you become, so when you do tell the truth, you will be believed. Actually, Pinocchio does learn the value of truth telling, but he never stops lying, and, in fact, becomes a boy because he learns how to lie correctly.

The journey of Pinocchio's transformation to boyhood begins with Collodi's education about the worst types of liars -- harmful liars. The Fox and the Cat are two devilish creatures who meet Pinocchio on the road while he is looking for a place to buy clothes and school books. The Fox, who is so lame he has to lean on his blind friend, the Cat, tells Pinocchio that he had become lame from studying too much. The Cat then tells Pinocchio that he is blind because of too much studying. A white blackbird, who has been perched on a nearby branch, yells out: "Pinocchio, don't listen to those liars! If you do you'll be sorry!" The Cat pounces on the bird and swallows him whole. Then he closes his eyes and "pretended" (66) to be blind again. Like the Cricket, who had warned Pinocchio earlier in the story, the bird represents wisdom, possibly that which comes with age or experience.

The Fox and the Cat are harmful liars -- liars of the worst kind. Every reader knows that, because of how the writer portrays them. Collodi could have kept the bird out of this scene, but if he had done so, the reader might (like Pinocchio does) fall for the Fox and Cat's tricks. Collodi wants to make it very clear for the reader, and for Pinocchio, that these are bad characters, characters who cannot be trusted. But poor Pinocchio is a little wooden puppet without a brain, and is easily deceived. The reader sees this and is elevated to a position of knowledge that Pinocchio does not have, enabling readers to feel smarter than a puppet and to feel a little sorry for the puppet at the same time.

Another device Collodi uses to show lying is Pinocchio's growing nose. When Pinocchio lies to the Blue Fairy, his nose grows. The growing nose shows the reader and Pinocchio when he is lying. However, Pinocchio's nose grows seemingly without rhyme or reason.

When Pinocchio is confronted by murderers demanding his money, he shakes his head as if to say he does not have any. Pinocchio tells a lie, but his nose does not grow. He eventually escapes and comes upon the Blue Fairy's home. Pinocchio tells her everything that has happened to him to this point. When asked where the gold coins are, Pinocchio replies, "'I've lost them!' . . . But that was a lie. He had them in his pocket" (98). Then Pinocchio's nose begins to grow. When asked where he lost the gold coins, Pinocchio lies again, and says that he lost them in the woods. With the second lie, his nose becomes even longer. The Blue Fairy says they would go to the woods and look for them, but Pinocchio says that he actually lost them when he drank some medicine. Because of this third lie, Pinocchio's nose is so long that he cannot turn around in the room. The Blue Fairy begins to laugh at Pinocchio, and this is when he learned a very important lesson in life.

"Why are you laughing?" asked the puppet. He was extremely worried, for his nose by now was quite a sight as well as being so uncomfortable.
"I'm laughing at your lies, dear."
"What makes you think I have been lying?"
"People's lies, my dear, are easy to recognize, because there are only two kinds. Either they're lies with short legs or lies with long noses. Your lies have long noses."

Although Collodi never tells the reader what lies have short legs, Pinocchio's lie to the Fox and the Cat, when he concealed his coins, might be considered one, a lie that is told for survival, a lie that the reader may understand as being justified. When he lies to the Blue Fairy, his nose begins to grow, showing the reader that this is a bad lie. Curiously, even though the reader may realize that the Blue Fairy is a kind soul, Pinocchio, who has just survived an attack, and might be wary of telling anyone where his coins are, may have felt a sense of justification for telling the Blue Fairy a lie. Pinocchio is punished for lying, which shows that he should trust the Blue Fairy. But is Pinocchio really sure he can trust her?

The next stage in Pinocchio's development is learning to tell the truth. When Pinocchio tells the Blue Fairy he is tired of being a puppet and wants to be a man, she explains to him that in order to become a man, he must first be a nice boy, and to be a nice boy he must do as he is told, to which Pinocchio replies,

"I know. I never do as I'm told."
"And nice boys love to study and work, while you--"
"While I, on the other hand, am lazy and waste time every single day."
"And they always tell the truth."
"And I always tell lies."

Through the entire story, to this point, Pinocchio has been told to tell the truth. When he lies, the reader sees the consequences. But when Pinocchio starts telling the truth, he is punished. When some boys pick a fight with Pinocchio at school and a small boy is knocked out with one of Pinocchio's books, all the other boys run away but Pinocchio, who tries to wake the wounded boy. Two policemen arrive on the scene and ask who hurt the boy. Pinocchio tells them that he did not do it, which is the truth. They ask him what caused the wound, and Pinocchio points to his book. They ask him who the book belongs too, and Pinocchio tells them that it is his. Three questions, three truthful answers, yet Pinocchio is still arrested and would have been taken to jail had he not escaped by running away.

What is the author trying to say to his readers? Is the author telling the children that there are times when it is okay to tell the truth? Or maybe the author wants the children to see how foolish it is for Pinocchio to run away from the policemen. Maybe if Pinocchio had gone to jail, he would have been set free when the police found out that he was telling the truth. The ever-present narrator, however, does not even make this suggestion, so the reader, left believing that Pinocchio did the best thing by running away, may begin to doubt the idea of always telling the truth.

So, Pinocchio is still a puppet, even though he has told the truth. His adventures continue, and he gets into more trouble. Eventually, he rescues his father and in the end becomes a boy. But Collodi adds one more twist to Pinocchio's education in lying.

Because Geppetto cannot swim, it is up to Pinocchio to save them after they escape from the belly of the shark. It is a long way to the shore and Pinocchio notices that Geppetto is shaking as if he has malaria. Pinocchio tries to comfort him by saying that they are very near the shore. But Geppetto cannot see any land. Pinocchio says that he has eyes like a cat and that the shore is very close -- which is a lie. But Pinocchio's nose does not grow. The lie Pinocchio tells Geppetto is not a harmful lie; in fact, it is a lie that was meant to keep the old man's spirits up. This could have possibly been another of the lies that the Blue Fairy had meant by lies with short feet; however, nothing happens to Pinocchio's feet. What does happen is that Pinocchio tells a lie when a lie is what is needed to be told. Telling Geppetto the lie that land was near, to calm him, actually brings Pinocchio closer to being a boy -- the lie shows his growing understanding of what it means to be humane. He has reached a point in his development where he realizes that it might be okay to stretch the truth, as long as it benefits one, while not doing any other harm. His reward, of course, is the gift of becoming a real live boy. The reader's reward for learning this lesson is the chance to becoming a better liar, like adults.

Writers walk a precarious line when they set out to teach children how to lie correctly. They have to give children a glimpse of the varying shades of gray that are present in the adult world, while at the same time providing lessons through valid examples. Sometimes, even the best intentions to teach children about lying fall short. One particular instance of this occurs in Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy .

After schoolmates find her private notebook full of observations about themselves, Harriet becomes an outcast. In a letter to Harriet, Ole Golly tells her that in order to keep her friends, she must apologize and lie. She explains: "Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don't, or someone with a hideous new hat that it is lovely" (275-76).

Telling the reader that lying is sometimes okay is good, but the example used in Harriet's case leaves the reader with the wrong message. The sentiment is correct; little lies that make people feel better are not bad, but Ole Golly's advice in this situation is misguided and a little confusing. Harriet isn't a liar, nor is she a truth teller. Harriet is a writer who fills her notebooks with opinions and the truth as she sees it. She's very perceptive and an excellent reporter, but her observations are filled with opinions. Earlier, Harriet repeats one of Ole Golly's sayings: "Always say exactly what you feel. People are hurt more by misunderstanding than anything else" (171). Harriet writes what she feels, and people are hurt. Her only fault is not protecting her notebook.

Harriet eventually apologizes and in doing so lies, saying that what she wrote in her notebook "were unfair statements and besides were lies" (294). In the end, after her friends return to her, Harriet writes in her notebook, "Ole Golly is right. Sometimes you have to lie" (297).

The problem with Ole Golly's advice is not that she tells Harriet the correct way to lie. Even the best of friends lie to one another, telling "little lies" to make each another feel better. The problem is Ole Golly's advising Harriet to lie in this instance. Harriet's problem is too complex to be solved by one of Ole Golly's little lies. By lying, Harriet may make her friends feel better, but in doing so, she has compromised her principles and violated the spirit of her notebook. Harriet's lie is purely selfish in that she wants her friends back and borders on being harmful because it dupes her friends into believing something that Harriet knows is not true. Harriet isn't going to stop writing what she sees and feels, which means the continuation of their friendship is based on a lie. If her friends ever get their hands on her notebook, they will be even more upset than before. Ole Golly's solution of lying in this instance may lead to misunderstanding, which will lead to more pain. That is not the lesson the writer wants Harriet, or the reader, to come away with but is an unintended consequence of not teaching children to correctly.

Children's literature that deals with lying and liars, for the most part, teaches children that sometimes lying is wrong, and sometimes there is a need for lying. In his article, "Metaphorical Drive," David Brin points out lying serves a useful purpose, that "without it we would not be intelligent, self-aware, or even human at all," and "children who are lied to in the right way by their parents somehow turn out smarter, more inventive, happier than their unfortunate peers" (63). These children's writers lie to children " in the right way " because they educate, while fostering a child's sense of adventure, imagination, and humor. One hopes that children who read these stories will come to the point in their development when they can distinguish between the types of lies that may or may not be needed in certain situations, while still leaving them with a strong imagination that they can carry with them into adulthood.


Works Cited

Abbott, Jacob. Gentle Measures in the Training of the Young . New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871.

Aesop. "The Cock and the Fox." Aesop's Fables . Kingsport, TN: Grosset and Dunlap, 1947. 82-3.

Barnes, J. A. A Pack of Lies: Towards a Sociology of Lying . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of OZ . 1900. New York: Magnum Book, 1968.

Bok, Sissela. Lying . New York: Vintage, 1978.

Brin, David. "Metaphorical Drive: Or Why We Are Such Good Liars." Mindscapes: The Geographies of Imagined Worlds . Ed. George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989.

Brown, Carolyn S. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature . Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1987.

Collodi, C. The Adventures of Pinocchio: Tale of a Puppet . 1881. Trans. M. L. Rosenthal. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1983.

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy . New York: Harper &Row, 1964.

Lindgren, Astrid. Pippi Goes On Board . Trans. Florence Lamborn. New York: Viking, 1957.

---. Pippi Longstocking . Trans. Florence Lamborn. New York: Viking, 1950.

Simpson, David. "Lying, Liars, and Language." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52.3 (1992): 623-39.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child's Garden of Verses . 1905. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955.


David LaBounty

Volume 8, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January, 2004

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"'Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!' The Liar as Educator in Children's Literature"
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