Lies to Children

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 over simplified; for instance, while atoms are usually described as a proton-neutron nucleus with electrons orbiting it like planets round a star, in reality they don't 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.

This is 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."

Truth in Television as the atom example above shows. Considering how much we don't understand of the universe, science itself is this to a degree. (Stewart and Cohen have come pretty close to saying that all human knowledge will always be like this, because no description of reality is the same thing as the reality itself.) That said, only add general Real Life examples, please. (ex: "the atom looks like a solar system.")

See also Phlebotinum Analogy. May pop up while giving The Talk. Compare Layman's Terms. We're pretty familiar with it here on TV Tropes, due to Reality Is Unrealistic.


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    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. (Of course, this being the Marvel Universe, all of those things actually do exist in some capacity.)
  • The Chick Tract "Fairy Tales?" is an extended rant against this type of thing, stating that even if it seems harmless, a lie is a lie, and it will still hurt. Of course, this being Jack Chick, he makes this point in the most hyperbolic way possible...
  • Gleefully subverted with Lies To Tell Small Children by Andy Riley (the author of Bunny Suicides), which contains such facts as "Milk feels pain", "Wine makes mummy clever", that there are things living in acoustic guitars that eat fingers, and that every year Scotland is towed southwards so as to have a summer.

  • 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 tried 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 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."
  • Robert Enrico's last film, Made In Winter, has a divorced father of three barricading himself in his farmhouse with his kids after their mom got custody. Similar to Life Is Beautiful, he tells them this is just a game, and keeps them thinking that right through the police negotiations and up until the armored security forces and SWAT teams arrive bristling with military hardware, and he shoots the kids and himself. This is based on the real-life Andre Fourquet tragedy in 1969 in the village of Cestas in southern France, although Fourquet was honest with his children.
  • This is one of the core themes of Finding Neverland. Sylvia is dying, but hides her condition from her sons and herself, or plays it off as a "chest cold". She also denied the seriousness of her late husband's illness, so now the kids are on guard, especially Peter. J.M. Barrie encourages them to use imagination to create reality through plays and stories. But where do fantasies end and lies begin?
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen subverts this in the scene with the King and Queen of the Moon, who have detachable heads. At one point, the Queen's disembodied head begins making suggestive noises and expressions, prompting the Baron to awkwardly tell his Kid Sidekick that the King is tickling her feet in bed. Turns out the King is literally tickling the Queen's feet in bed.

  • In The Science of Discworld series, Lies-To-Children are not only explained in the non-fiction portions, but also used in-character (Ponder's Lies-To-Wizards and Hex's Lies-To-People) in the fiction segments.
    • The Lies-to-Darwin, since telling him the actual truth would be far too much of a Mind Screw.
    • In Night Watch, a history monk explains an aspect of time travel to Vimes using a metaphor involving jumping off a mountain as opposed to climbing it. Another monk complains that this is incredibly inaccurate, but the first doesn't care so long as Vimes understands what he needs to.
    • In Hogfather, Death explains to Susan that telling children little lies about such "non-existent" beings as the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy helps train them to believe in the "big lies" — abstract concepts such as justice and mercy.
  • 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."
  • In Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol", an instructor tells the recruits that they can get it because they come from industrialized eras; a Roman could not handle the idea of machines, and as for Babylonians, they have to be fed a line about a war between gods. When one recruit asks what they are being told, the answer is "the truth, but only as much as they can handle".
  • In Letters to His Son by British statesman Lord Chesterfield: "The good Protestant conviction, that The Pope is both Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, is a more effectual preservative in this country against popery, than all the solid and unanswerable arguments of Chillingworth. [...] And that silly, sanguine notion, which is firmly entertained here, that one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen, encourages, and has sometimes enabled, one Englishman in reality to beat two." (letter 64)
  • In Little Star, Lennart convinces Theres to not leave the house by telling her that the world is full of "big people" who want to eat up the "little people" like her to the point that she is terrified of going outside.
  • Ma tells Jack a complex set of lies in Room, creating an entire cosmos. Once she confesses to him that television often shows "pictures of real things", she has to "unlie" about everything else.
  • Prior to surgery for urethral cancer, five-year-old Deborah Blau sees right through the doctors' cheery lies in Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. The lies are so ongoing and obvious that she comes to believe they're planning to kill her.
    "Now just be quiet. This won't hurt a bit," they had said, and then had come the searing stroke of the instrument...
    "What is this place?" she had asked.
    "Dreamland," had come the answer, and then the hardest, longest burning of that secret place she could imagine.
  • In The Dresden Files, Demonreach the Genius Loci commiserates with Bob the knowledge spirit over the fact that Bob has to explain the temporal ripples of a potential future catastrophe so terrible that its possibility is damaging the present using the analogy of a thrown rock. Harry Dresden, who had thought he had a fairly solid grasp of magical theory, is a bit put out.
  • In Oryx and Crake, the protagonist is left guiding the clueless, innocent, genetically modified humans called Crakers After the End. He really doesn't try to tell them the whole story of how the corrupt world of original humans was destroyed and what their creator Crake had to do with that (and died along with the rest), but instead goes straight for happy lies and mythological explanations, for example pretending that he too was created by Crake — as if Crake was God rather than a Mad Scientist.

    Live Action TV 
  • Occasionally used in Doctor Who as ways to reassure companions.
    • For instance, in "The Eleventh Hour":
      The Doctor: You know when grown-ups tell you "everything's gonna be fine", you know they're probably lying to make you feel better?
      Amelia Pond: Yes.
      The Doctor: Everything's going to be fine.
    • The Fourth Doctor's education of Leela is pretty much entirely made up of this, since due to her extremely primitive background and absence of any education, even basic scientific principles seem like magic to her. It's bad enough when he's trying to explain to her what a robot is, so of course, when he's trying to explain genuinely mindbending Magic from Technology like how the TARDIS is Bigger on the Inside, things quickly get absolutely nonsensical.
  • On Community, Troy finds out on his 20th birthday that he's actually turning 21 because his mother told him that everyone's ten for two years, because fifth grade is hard for everybody.
  • In one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Q brings some individuals from Earth's history to the ship for a judicial hearing (long story), including Isaac Newton. Janeway tries to explain the concept of being transported in time and gets some blank looks in reply, so she changes tack: "You're having a very strange dream."
  • In How I Met Your Mother, Loretta repeatedly lies to her children, including telling Barney his father is (amongst others) Bob Barker.
  • The Andy Griffith Show:
    • Inverted and Played for Laughs, as Andy is accused of this by Barney after telling Opie that David's sling was made of leather. Barney insists that Andy is filling his son's head with lies; leather has no snap to it and any slingshot MUST be made of rubber, despite rubber (and slingshots — slings are a different invention) not existing in King David's time.
    • Also Lies To Adult Drunks, when Andy told Otis that thunder was clouds bumping together.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Calvin and Hobbes:
    • This is a running gag with Calvin's Dad from 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 the strip the page quote comes from. After a Beat Panel, we get Calvin commenting to Hobbes about how "The trees are really sneezing today." Calvin himself decided he didn't care to hear the true, complicated answer.
    • He hilariously lampshades the Trope and plays it straight in one strip where he tells Calvin that the reason he knows so much is because once you become a father, you get a book that explains everything in the world, which leads to this exchange:
      Calvin: Can I see it?
      Dad: Nope.
      Calvin: Why not?
      Dad: It tells you what it's like to have a kid.
      Calvin: SO?
      Dad: You aren't allowed to know that until it's too late not to have one.
    • Both of Calvin's parents had some pretty unique ways to get him to eat his dinner. Early in the strip, when he wouldn't eat, his dad told him "that's a good idea, Calvin, because it's a plate of toxic waste that will turn you into a mutant if you eat it." He couldn't finish fast enough. While his mom objected to it that time, she did it herself in later strips, telling him that stuffed peppers were "monkey heads", that the rice in soup was maggots, and that her casserole was "spider pie". (Unfortunately, while such methods convinced Calvin to eat, they made his dad lose his appetite.)

  • In "The Matrix as Metaphysics", philosopher David Chalmers argues that people unknowingly trapped in a Lotus-Eater Machine or other simulation wouldn't necessarily be wrong in most of their beliefs about the world, because we're not said to be wrong either even though most of what we believe is only lies-to-children. If we're not totally mistaken in thinking there are real, solid objects around us, when they're really made up of atoms made up of weird quantum stuff — then why would people thinking they're interacting with real objects be wrong just because those objects are at the bottom parts of a simulation? Sure there is something they don't know about the ultimate constituency of the objects they're interacting with, but is that different from how people in the past didn't know about atoms and quanta and how solid objects are mostly empty space? Of course, it depends on the details; if, for example, the people in the simulation had only recently been put there and used to live outside it, they'd be wrong in thinking the objects they see are real in the same way as what they experienced before. But if they'd always been there, the simulation would in some sense be what they meant by "real".

  • 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. A common criticism is that this idea doesn't actually mean anything, since none of the terms can be defined. For example: "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao."
  • "Children's Bibles" are frequently guilty of this, trimming down some of the nastier material, particularly in the Old Testament, often to the point of outright misstatements.

     Tabletop Games 
  • One thread on the Mutants & Masterminds messageboards portrayed Freedom City's Daedalus as strongly disapproving of these, ever since he warned his son that if he flew too close to the sun his wings would melt, and Icarus found that, if anything, the higher he got the colder it became, so obviously it was perfectly safe...

    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.
  • Another sad example in Fallout: New Vegas: Honest Hearts. Randall Clark, an old, weary survivor, leaves gifts of food and medicine for a group of starving children, watching over them from a distance and keeping them safe. When they begin to regard him as an angel or a God-figure, he does not want to shatter their illusions and leave them worse off when he dies. Thus, he leaves one final gift, and a note saying that he must depart deep into the mountains, but that he will always be watching over them. He then becomes known by those children's descendants as "The Father in the Cave".
  • Dark Seed II 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.
  • In Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, the entire mess got started when Espella's father didn't want her to ring a big bell because he wanted to save that for a special occasion, so he brought up a witch from local folklore and told her that if she rings the bell, the evil witch would possess her. This backfired when the bell was rung and it did cause disaster, causing the poor traumatized girl to believe she was possessed by a witch.

    Web Comics 
  • From Adventurers! at a magic school:
    Ardam: Sir, is that really how summoning works?
    Teacher: No, but it'll do until the practical course next year.
  • xkcd:
    • Strip 803 gives us the airplane wing, and several options for what to do when a child confronts you with the lie.
    • The very common analogy that gravity is like objects "pressing down" on a sheet, shown very well in strip 895. And subverted in strip 1158.
    • 1818: Rayleigh Scattering has someone explaining a child that the sky looks blue because air is blue and reflects blue light, same as any other material. (The kid doesn't get any Fridge Logic about how come air doesn't look blue.) When another adult tries to explain it's more complicated, the first retorts that there's a more complicated mechanism behind every colour, so why do you have to go all quantum with this one? The other adult concedes the point — but less so when the first one starts saying planes are kept up by lots of little birds.
  • 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 Wicked 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 Wicked Stepmother feared and obeyed.
  • Subverted in Girl Genius here and here, when a young Agatha asks about her locket. Barry tries to tell Agatha one of these lies, but she starts questioning how illogical it is.
    Barry: Um... it's science.
    Agatha: Ah. You mean you'll explain when I have a sufficiently advanced background education.
  • In Freefall, explaining failed. So Florence told Helix that he has to keep Mousie company in sleeping.
  • Original Life has Fisk tell a young Janie that babies come from Wal-Mart.
  • In Dragon Mango — how do you keep a little girl who can teleport out of a fight? Tell her she has to watch the chickens, which the attackers are probably after.
  • Reality is Out to Lunch in Awful Hospital, so the beleaguered protagonist has to grope at understanding the infinite weirdness of the Perception Range with children's books as references. Justified in that a being's subjective experience — including the content of some books — is limited to what they're able and willing to perceive, and Fern has to start from Square One, but it leads to situations like Fern being knocked unconscious by a picture-book Tome of Eldritch Lore that describes a reality warping Eldritch Abomination in terms of a solipsistic undead cake.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: Oversimplifying things comes from several sides:
    • Sigrun has to simplify combat-oriented things for Emil both because of him being new to the whole combat thing and not being a lover of big paragraphs herself.
    • Tuuri takes advantage of the fact that she needs to translate everything to Lalli to tell him about only the part of the bigger picture he needs to know about to do what's expected of him, and tends to oversimplify even that due to his Ambiguous Disorder. She also settles with letting Lalli's new Flat-Earth Atheist friend think he's sick in a mundane way when a Power-Strain Blackout leaves him bedridden.
    • Mikkel frequently simplifies things for Sigrun because of the "not a big paragraph woman" aspect of her personality, to the other members of the crew both due to them being much younger and there not being much time for complex explanations in an emergency, and to Reynir because his circumstances are bad enough without him being aware of the full range of things that can go south.

    Web Original 
  • This example from Not Always Right. Carefully explain the whole concept of digital media to someone who doesn't get it and isn't listening, or claim that SD cards use tiny film?
  • Theoretically invoked in this Vlogbrothers video by John, averted once Hank made this response.
  • In Worm, Tattletale describes the supervillain Night's powers to Skitter this way.
    Tattletale: Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she's got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see. Maybe because she's so ashamed of being seen like that. When nobody's looking, though, she's a monster. Lightning fast and all sharp.
    Skitter: That's...
    Tattletale: Not even remotely close to the truth. But it's the best I can offer you. Don't take your eyes off her.

    Western Animation 
  • South Park:
    • When Kyle 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 episode "Crack Baby Athletic Association" does something similar... only instead of Santa, it's Slash. Yes, that Slash.
    • The main focus behind Butters in "Sarcastaball". Butters is led to believe that his sperm is the product of his most inner and pure emotions; leading him to spread it to others. To drink. The episode ends with Butters having an erection, and being Butters he summons his dad for answers; his father tells him that it's a friend compass, it points towards his friends. Right now it points towards upwards, towards Jesus. ... Damn.
    • Another episode parodies the issues of what to tell kids about drugs as mentioned in the Real Life folder below. A corporation exists in that episode to set up a fake time-travel scenario where an actor playing a future version of the child shows up, claiming to have somehow traveled back in time. The "future" version of the child talks about how after trying drugs, he became a total loser. The episode also mentions anti-drug organizations exaggerating the connection between drug providers and terrorist organizations. In the end, Stan's parents decide that he's old enough to understand a more complicated explanation about drugs.
  • 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: Most of the stuff Orel is told could fall under this category (Children's Crusades being successful due to their innocence, etc.).
  • In The Spectacular Spider-Man, when Venom webs up Gwen to a Thankgiving parade balloon, a little boy notices and points it out to his mother. She's visibly shaken, but in an obvious attempt to keep her son calm, she says, "She's so lifelike!"

    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. In one specific case, 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; 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. People's 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. Unfortunately, it is also complicated by the fact that many drugs' side effects are only obvious in the long-term; while the deleterious effects of methamphetamine abuse and addiction to various opiates and sedatives are fairly obvious within the course of a relatively short period of time, long-term abuse of many drugs can cause brain damage, cancer, liver failure, kidney problems, heart attacks, strokes, and other medical problems... a decade or more down the line, and not in 100% of users. This not only makes it hard to gauge how bad a drug is for you in the now, but also means that long-term studies of those who regularly use a given drug are necessary to demonstrate problems — a difficult thing to study when many drugs are illegal. Tobacco and alcohol are the two drugs with the most well-studied long-term impacts, and both are known to cause severe health problems in a significant fraction of their regular users.
  • In moments of crisis (for example, when someone dies or a natural disaster happens), adults tend to try to spare their kids from information that they perceive as potentially hurtful and try to sugarcoat or distract them from "hurtful" information. This, of course, usually serves to make the kid more anxious and less able to cope with the situation. For this reason, local authorities maintain teams of counselors and special advisers 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. A blogger who escaped with her family just barely ahead of Hurricane Katrina later wrote that she had told her kids they were going on vacation. When the kids asked about the huge traffic jams and crowds of terror-stricken people, she said "everybody's going on vacation today." One presumes she told them the truth once they got to safety.
  • There are various examples of this in education:
    • Early math classes. Expect to hear that one is prime, or 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. note 
    • History classes.
      • Children are taught over-simplified "facts", like "The Roman Empire was destroyed in 476 A.D. by the barbarian invasion". In fact, the Roman Empire in its classic form perished almost two centuries before that date, and was in the process of collapse even longer for various economical and demographic reasons much more complex than a single invasion. In fact, the eastern half of the empire continued on for another thousand years, only ending with the fall of Constantinople in 1453. And a last remnant, the Despotate of Epirus, made it to 1479. The Holy Roman Empire, which claimed to be a successor, lasted until 1806, while the "Third Rome" of Tsarist Russia survived until 1917. Such was the impact of the Roman Empire on historical memory that nations were claiming to be Roman Empires millennia after the Empire fell.
      • Other times, facts are fudged in the direction of giving people credit for things they didn't do. For example, everyone thinks George Washington Carver invented peanut butter. He didn't, but since peanut butter is the only derivative of that legume that the average person cares about, it's rarely corrected.
      • Still other times, facts are fudged to make history more clear-cut than it really was, with morally gray individuals and groups receiving Historical Hero Upgrades and Historical Villain Upgrades. Often this ties in with propaganda, but sometimes it's just intended to avoid having to answer tough questions — after all, no one wants to have to explain something like the Trail of Tears to a 5-year-old. Or it just makes for an easier story to understand.
      • Or simply the fact that in a history class you are told that this is how the things happened. As there is never complete information on a single event described in history available, one can only say how it most likely happened.
    • Physics classes, though these tend to be stated as simplifications.
      • "Spherical cows", which is a humorous term used in physics circles to describe the tendency to boil a complex thing down to its most basic components, in order to make calculations easier. The result is answers that are mathematically correct but inapplicable to reality. Comes from a joke where a farmer asked his physicist friend to come up with a way to make his milk cows more productive; the physicist indeed found a way but lamented that it only worked in the case of spherical cows floating in a perfect vacuum.
      • Frictionless surfaces. Again, refers to the tendency to over-simplify problems by removing troublesome variables, in this case the effect of friction. In reality, there is no such thing as a true frictionless surface — even a smooth surface with a high-grade lubricant on it will still produce some friction.
      • There's also the "paintbox" system, in which red, yellow, and blue are called the "primary colors". If we're not lucky enough to get a decent physics education by high school, we may take this to our graves. In fact, there are two separate forms of primary color: the colors of light and the colors of pigment. The primary colors of light are red, green, and blue, while the primary colors of pigment are magenta, yellow, and cyan. Which, granted, are KINDA red, yellow, and blue, but not quite.
      • Isaac Newton's laws of motion. While Albert Einstein's theory of relativity surpasses them scale-wise, they are still taught in high schools and lower-division college classes because they produce almost-identical results as long as you're dealing with masses and velocities in a familiar range, as opposed to things as small as atoms or things moving hundreds of kilometers per second. In fact, Newton's laws are such an accurate approximation over this range that our measurements can't tell the difference between the Newtonian and Einsteinian answers. And many high school teachers either don't understand Einstein's mechanics themselves, or if they do, feel that their students won't. It's only when you extrapolate to extremes (size, mass, velocity, etc.) that Newtonian physics start to break down and you start to observe Einsteinian rules. Indeed, in the real world, people use Newtonian mechanics vastly more often than they use relativity, just because they're much easier to calculate and give the same answers unless you're dealing with microscopic objects or things on a planetary scale — satellites are one of the few everyday objects that people deal with (thanks to satellite television and GPS) which actually have to take relativity into account.
      • Most visualizations of relativity, mostly because space is three-dimensional, and curving three-dimensional space is nowhere near as visually simple as curving a two-dimensional mat. Actual visualizations of relativity are possible, but are much more difficult to grok.
      • "Glass is a supercooled liquid." No, it's not. Glass is, well, a glass, which is a state of matter that doesn't fit comfortably into the solid/liquid/gas trichotomy (though to the extent that it does, at ordinary temperatures it is much more accurately described as an amorphous solid than a "supercooled liquid"). See "geology" below for another example of "we're calling this a liquid though it's really not."
      • Many concepts of thermodynamics and electromagnetism are largely simplified when taught in high school and (to an extent) early university semesters. This is because they don't take into account the boundary values, which provide the most realistic tools to study the true behavior of the systems and fields. Problem is, this omission is justified, since boundary values can only be implemented when partial differential equations are used, and these aren't taught until long after differential and integral calculus is. Thus, students will have to assume that the systems they study are fully isolated from the outside, even when they aren't.
    • Chemistry classes.
      • Like physics above, students learn several different models on how chemical reactions work, all inaccurate to various degrees but getting closer to the truth each time. Also like physics above, these models generally produce identical results as long as you're not getting too deep into the inner workings of a reaction.
      • The "Solar System-like atom" is still a common image and is generally presented to children when discussing atoms. And another thing about atoms — everyone is taught early on that atoms are the smallest things there are. That itself ignores protons, neutrons, and electrons, which are then said to be the smallest things there are. Then they tell you about quarks, which even escapes the realms of chemistry altogether.
      • Also regarding the "Solar System atom", it is known as the "Bohr atom" and was one of the earlier hypotheses when quantum physics was still being discovered. Unlike Newtonian mechanics, it's not an approximation that gives useful answers, but it's a heck of a good image. Bohr himself later insisted on the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics which insists that what the maths says happens really happens and we shouldn't use equivalent mental models (like "many worlds") to make it easier to understand. That is, the man who invented the "solar system atom" later objected to idea of using it as a Lie to Children.
    • Geology classes.
      • The mantle of the Earth flows under loads, has convection cells, and provides the buoyant force that the lithosphere (or crust) floats on. It is not liquid. It's a very hot, plastic solid called a rheid that can flow, but only on long time scales. It only melts into a liquid when the temperature and pressure are right. This is an understandable misconception because, first, kids are also taught that if it flows at all, it must be a liquid, and second, their only experience with the interior of the Earth is liquid lava shooting out of volcanoes.
      • In a lie-to-high-school-students, the convection cells in the mantle do bring hot material to the crust and cause things like hot plumes (like the one that created the Hawaiian Islands), but they don't account for the movement of the tectonic plates as they spread out, cool, and sink. Rather, the buildup of material at mid-oceanic ridges is pulled down by the Earth's gravity and pushes the plates away (ridge-push) and when a plate is subducted under another plate, it is literally sinking into the mantle and pulling the rest of the plate with it (slab-pull).
    • Biology classes.
      • Children are usually taught that there are two types of cells: Animal cells which are squishier and exist in animals, and Plant cells which have more rigid cell walls and chloroplasts and exist in plants. In reality, Animal and Plant cells are both examples of the many different Eukaryotic cells (which also include the likes of Fungi), and there are also a huge number of Prokaryotic cells. There is also variation within the different types of cell; for example, only green plant cells contain chloroplasts.
      • When learning immunology in high school, you'll be taught that the immune system has T cells and B Cells. In further education, students are taught that T cells actually come in two forms, "Helper" CD4+ cells and "Killer" CD8+ cells. Even higher level education teaches that there is an enormous variety of T cell subtypes, to the point where they cannot be easily grouped into distinct categories.
  • "North is up" when explaining how to read a map. While this is true for how the vast majority of maps are drawn (especially world maps), the orientation can really be any direction and it's best to check the compass rose on the particular map. Applying this misconception to world maps has also led to some vicious Eurocentric views going back to the 1400s, if not earlier.
  • All flat world maps in general are distorted, although admittedly that's unavoidable. note  People should be taught to understand this, though. Especially when the ones emphasising the northern hemisphere are still so widely used and very problematic considering the power imbalance between the two hemispheres. (The classic example is when Greenland looks as big as Africa. In fact, Africa is about 14 times bigger. That's how big the distortion is. Africa is always bigger than you think.)
  • The Abelson–Sussman Lectures, in the second part of the first lecture, not only gives an excellent example of how an over-simplified model can be used to give (adult) students a starting point for understanding a complex system, but explains that the model isn't accurate before presenting it:
    If we're going to understand processes and how we control them, then we have to have a mapping from the mechanisms of this procedure into the way in which these processes behave. What we're going to have is a formal, or semi-formal, mechanical model whereby you understand how a machine could, in fact, in principle, do this. Whether or not the actual machine really does what I'm about to tell you is completely irrelevant at this moment.

    In fact, this is an engineering model, in the same way that, [for an] electrical resistor, we write down a model V = IR — it's approximately true, but it's not really true; if I put enough current through the resistor, it goes boom, so the voltage is not always proportional to the current, but for some purposes the model is appropriate.

    In particular, the model we're going to describe right now, which I call the substitution model, is the simplest model that we have for understanding how procedures work and how processes work — how procedures yield processes.

    And that substitution model will be accurate for most of the things we'll be dealing with in the next few days. But eventually, it will become impossible to sustain the illusion that that's the way the machine works, and we'll go to other, more specific and particular models that will show more detail. [emphasis added]

"Man, the trees sure are sneezing today."

Alternative Title(s): Lie To Children