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A is parent of B, let's say in primary school age. A invents fake profiles of n realistic, inspiring characters and starts sending anonymous letters from each of these n characters to B, at different times, with different styles, such that each character behaves according to their own profile and each with their own story to tell; B starts a private correspondence with some of them without realising A is behind them.

A makes use of these correspondences for genuine educational purposes (i.e. A is not a psychopath). Let us assume no actual manipulation is involved: each of the n characters will actually behave independently and without any hidden goal apart that of being B's good friend and having some good time together.

Of course, these characters may decide to uncover their true identity, more or less gradually, more or less explicitly, entirely or just partially, perhaps maintaining the correspondence and continuing it as a "game".

A's behaviour presents obvious ethical dilemmas (starting with children's right to privacy, their right not to be deceived/misguided). Can it be ethically acceptable or is there a way to make it ethically acceptable? Is it even legal?

Is that worse than parents pretending to be Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?


EDIT Following answers by jker and Ines, I try to clarify my question

What is the purpose of these correspondences? Expose the child to great personalities, fictitious but realistic, inspiring, able to communicate with the child and teach them something in a context that is outside what the child perceives to be "family" or "school".

Why, can't A do the same without this bewildering trick? Yes, of course, A can play one character: the parent. Unfortunately parents are not enough: all children need many good quality one-to-one interactions with as many different educators as possible, and from as many different cultural backgrounds as possible; however educators, relatives and friends are usually not able or not willing to engage, cooperatively with the families, in activities so much tailored on the needs of one single child. This trivial trick would allow the child to interact with astrophysicists, musicians, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, neuroscientists, etc. - and these would not be just "mum" or "dad", they would have an aura of magic, they would be fascinating - which parents cannot usually be. And having real pen-friends is such a great educative experience for children of that age, expanding so much their normal, little microcosms.

It seems necessary to highlight that the purpose is cultural, not psychotherapeutic.

Genuine educational purposes are perfectly compatible with having a good time as friends - I feel a bit uncomfortable having to state that.

Why secrecy? Because children need lots of good educators, and school educators, relatives and friends are not good enough, they are not astrophysicists, musicians, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, neuroscientists, etc. Often they don't even have time for individual children. For parents it can be much easier, they just need to get to know their child, pick some good book from the local library and write few pages per week in interaction with the child, mostly following the child's interests. If there is no secrecy or at least some degree of complicity from the child, the game cannot work.

"Genuine educational purposes" might count as a "hidden goal" (?), what is important is that the parent behaves ethically and does not attempt to manipulate the child in any unethical manner. An example of the latter would be a parent trying to extort information from the child or exert psychological pressure on them: that would be very, very, very unethical.

How long would the "deception" last? It depends on the maturity of the child (weeks, I would say, perhaps few months, just the time to conquer the child, convince the child that the game is fun). The deception can be removed very easily and the game can continue with more awareness (and more fantasy/imagination on the side of the child who would try to attempt impersonating their own fictitious characters, great exercise).

By the way, yes, I confess I do believe that children have the right not to be deceived/misguided, at least to some extent that is not easy to define/quantify.

Also, Santa Claus is a false persona, and I can't see any educational value in it, it seems to me a triumph of conformism. Children can be distracted from falling teeth in many ways other than the Tooth Fairy tale.

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I'm not sure that children have a "right" not to be deceived or misguided do they? In the same way that privacy is a privilege not a right for their own protection. Children are deceived regularly in some way or another whether by lie or by omission and parents would certainly claim it is for the child's benefit. –  James Snell Jul 25 at 12:15
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If parent 'A' wants to expose child 'B' to interesting and inspiring personalities, I'd suggest the biography section of the local library. –  DA01 Jul 26 at 5:43
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Santa Claus (et al) is different in some respects. Santa Claus does not develop a personal relationship with your child. Santa Claus is also an annual cultural experience which parents choose to engage with because it is a shared cultural experience. Rituals and traditions like Santa have value in grounding people in shared experience. –  MJ6 Jul 27 at 13:53
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OK guyz He just asked your opinions on his/hers idea. no need for downvote IMHO, more so, since this person is co-operating by editing/clarifying his/her stance. So the downvotes are totally uncalled for. –  9kSoft Jul 27 at 21:56
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@user9452 Out of curiosity how did this start? Did the child seek out the role models by attempting to contact them first and not get a reply from that person? Did the characters contact the child? If so what reason did they give for contacting the child? If the answer is that the child is exceptional then I would be careful that they do not come to expect special treatment in the future. –  kleineg Jul 30 at 14:11

7 Answers 7

I think the question needs to be asked... what is the purpose of these letters? I honestly have a hard time imagining a situation where this could be justified for such trivial purposes as you mentioned.

There is a psychotherapy technique that involves a similar method, but that's a different question entirely... and such things should probably involve mental health professionals.


There is a bit of a contradiction between:

A makes use of these correspondences for genuine educational purposes (i.e. A is not a psychopath).

and

without any hidden goal apart that of being B's good friend and having some good time together.

As annoying as it may be, "genuine educational purposes" do count as a "hidden goal" here, and, frankly... are inadequate to justify the deception (to my mind). What educational goal is being furthered by the secrecy?

The second quote begs the question, "Why can't you be a good friend and write letters to each other... knowing who the other person is?". What is being accomplished by the deception?


A's behaviour presents obvious ethical dilemmas (starting with children's right to privacy, their right not to be deceived/misguided). Can it be ethically acceptable or is there a way to make it ethically acceptable?

Honestly, it fits more in the category of "bewildering" than "unethical". (On a side note, I think teaching children that they have some sort of "right" not to be deceived or misguided is almost as foolish.)

My bigger concern is that systematically lying to someone over a period of years for no particular benefit does not seem like a good thing for a parent-child relationship. There can be good reasons for a long-term deception, but usually they are limited to softening emotional blows until a certain maturity level.


Is that worse than parents pretending to be Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?

This is a different situation. Here parents are positing that a particular fantastical being exists, knowing that a child will eventually learn that they do not. This is different from actively creating and playing false personas for the parent's purposes.

The ruse for the Tooth Fairy is a way of distracting a child from the otherwise rather frightening experience of their teeth falling out (usually at least somewhat painfully).


Post-EDIT:

Nothing in this edit makes me more supportive of this idea. If anything, it makes me much less supportive.

Expose the child to great personalities, fictitious but realistic, inspiring, able to communicate with the child and teach them something in a context that is outside what the child perceives to be "family" or "school"....

Unfortunately parents are not enough: all children need many good quality one-to-one interactions with as many different educators as possible, and from as many different cultural backgrounds as possible

So, the point is to give the child the idea that they're hearing a number of points of view, when in reality the world around them is being manipulated as if they were playing a tabletop RPG with mommy gamemaster who maintains absolute control over every 'different' voice.

however educators, relatives and friends are usually not able or not willing to engage, cooperatively with the families, in activities so much tailored on the needs of one single child. This trivial trick would allow the child to interact with astrophysicists, musicians, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, neuroscientists, etc. - and these would not be just "mum" or "dad", they would have an aura of magic, they would be fascinating - which parents cannot usually be. And having real pen-friends is such a great educative experience for children of that age, expanding so much their normal, little microcosms.

With far less effort involved in this sort of trickery, you actually can expose your children to actual scientists, musicians and artists. (neuroscience and mathematics are... honestly... not all that fascinating for a pre-teen) This is the age of TED talks and stackexchange, youtube and the arXiv.

You are underestimating the power of a child's imagination, and substituting role-play in where none is needed.

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Upvoted - context is everything. Also I wonder if inviting a child into 'secret correspondence' (as safe behaviour) might establish a pattern of behaviour that could be taken advantage of by would-be abusers? –  James Snell Jul 25 at 12:25
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For musicians our local symphony puts on a children's and a toddler series and the preshow involves some of the symphony's musician showing their instruments to the kids etc. I'm sure many areas have similar offerings –  Ida Jul 25 at 17:48

I see two major problems with this:

  1. Parents shouldn't be interacting with their own children on a peer level. Tricking your child into being "just friends" could lead to some very awkward situations. Like what if your child says something to you while being tricked where you feel you need to intervene as a parent? You'd probably break the ruse then, and then it'd add to the upset feelings of the child as well.

  2. It can end up being a major betrayal for the child. What will happen when the child discovers they don't actually have another friend? What if the child confides in the "friend" things that they would not confide in their parent -- like crushes, for instance? That would be horribly embarrassing to the child.

Santa I see as different, because the kids don't usually form a friendship with him like that -- he's presented as an adult, not a peer -- and an acquaintance only, not as someone they talk to on a regular basis and confide in. Parents don't typically act as Santa in person to the child either. That is usually done by another adult, where the parent can be there and supervise as a parent.

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What makes A think they could succesfully pass off as an astrophysicist, a musician, an artist, a philosopher, a mathematician, and a neuroscientist? The only things the child could get out of this are gross misconceptions about what all those people do.

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In a recent study, I saw a report of, children were able to catch lies of omission. I found the study interesting, because it basically showed that if a parent or other authority figure lies to a child, the child will trust them less. It's main focus was that it was not just direct lies, but lies of omission - but I think that it tell us how children reacts to being deceived: Not well.

That would be my main concern, that this would backfire on the parent.

I also think that the child has a right to know if a conversation is private - they may not have a right to privacy, as in the parent may require to read their phone text messages - but it should always be stated so they know it.

I think this could work if the child knows the person is fictional on some level - lots of kids have 'imaginary friends'.

(I personally don't like the Santa deception either, or telling that babies comes with the stork or whatever. )

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I wonder, if (1) A does not have any friends of his/her age, that he/she needs to fake friendships with his/her child... or (2) B does not have any friends, and B tries to "help" with imaginary friends...

To answer your question: yes, I think it is worse, than pretending to be Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

The other question about becoming ethical acceptable... I cannot answer it, because I dont get the whole sense of lying to your child in that way.

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Your idea of a parent building a small world of "magical" but credible and educational characters to introduce their primary school child to richer cultural environments is valid. And, as you openly acknowledge, the parent’s gamemaster role has the potential for ethical dilemmas which should be wisely considered and planned for before embarking in the game.

Here are some hints to make the idea both ethically and educationally OK.

  1. When a character sends a letter to the child, the parent should deliver it or announce it to the child. The child should not have secret friends/contacts, especially among adults.

  2. The parent should offer to assist the child in replying to each character. Young children should not be left alone texting with strangers. The parent should seek the child's consent, of course; in the unlikely event they could not obtain it, they should be clear about children not being allowed to communicate with strangers alone.

  3. The parent should not openly deceive the child, just allow them the time and clues to realise that the letters come from the parent who has started a challenging game with them: it will happen naturally and the gradual discovery can be made pleasant, intriguing, funny. My primary school teacher used to do this all the time, ages ago: she would very theatrically open an imaginary letter from some witty character and engage us in magical quests: unforgettable, exhilarating, enthralling.

  4. Characters should not become too intimate with the child and should avoid encouraging the exchange of confidences. The characters should be friends with the child, the parent should not.

  5. The parent should make sure that the child has access to library resources in order to allow them to explore the worlds disclosing before them. The parent should adequately research before creating a character.

  6. The basic goals of this game should be to enlighten and amuse the child, make the child enthusiastic and knowledgeable about fascinating worlds. The parent should make sure that, when the child realises that the parent is behind these characters, the fascination for the real side of the story remains vivid: this depends on the quality of the cultural experiences and of the relationship itself between child and characters (the child should not feel teased or deceived, just part of a game where she has an active role).

  7. A parent should never expose young children to the risk of a real correspondence with unknown people online - no matter what unknown people online say. It is not safe and almost never enriching/inspirational: in the unlikely event they are not predators, chances are they can’t even read a simple text. Unknown people online are as uneducated and disrespectful as the people you meet offline, there is no way around it.


Just a couple of references to children's right to privacy.

  1. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 16

    1. No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.

    2. The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

  2. Anne Stonehouse, A matter of respect: Recognising young children's right to privacy

    The importance of respecful relationships between educators and children is a cornerstone of the EYLF and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, on which the EYLF is based. Respect includes taking into account a child's right to privacy, which may be undermined when adults, including educators and families, do not understand or recognise these rights.

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A's behaviour presents obvious ethical dilemmas (starting with children's right to privacy, their right not to be deceived/misguided).

If you genuinely believe that children have a right not to be deceived/misguided (as per the update/edit) then to follow the proposed course of action is in exact opposition to that viewpoint. The activity outlined involves creating not one, but a number of, relatively elaborate deceptions with no reasonable justification to back it up from the child's perspective.

Can it be ethically acceptable or is there a way to make it ethically acceptable?

To establish that I'd ask: Is setting an example which demonstrates that it's acceptable to lie to people without something they'd see as a good reason likely to upset them? Probably.

Equally, is establishing a behavioural pattern that says it's ok for children to converse with 'strangers' in secret going to promote healthy relationships? Probably not.

Is it even legal?

I am not a lawyer, you should neither act, nor refrain from acting on any legal advice or opinions I may offer.
There are members of religious cults who tell much bigger lies to their children and are allowed to keep them. You'll be fine.

Is that worse than parents pretending to be Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?

Kids do recognise them as legend from a young age. The tooth fairy is a character (Santa is real, of course!) but they will 'play the game' because it is a collective ruse shared with their peers and they gain from it. They know it is a game more than we give them credit for, and it is fun to play along. We are the same; when we go to a magic show we are complicit in the deception. We know what we saw was a trick even if we don't know how it was done and if we weren't complicit then many tricks would be quite unsettling.

Making use of that collaborative behaviour is the only way I can see an idea like this working without risking unintended consequences. Maybe through puppets or something like that depending on the age of the child so that it's obvious it's you behind it all?

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