Should You Lie to Your Kid? The Great Debate

Kids are nothing if not curious, peppering their parents with questions from the moment they’re able to form them. The older they get, the deeper they seem to probe, and the harder it gets for moms and dads to tell them harmless fibs without fear of getting caught. From “where do babies come from?” to the more prickly “did you ever smoke pot?” and “why are you and dad fighting?” there are moments when every parent is tempted to tell a big, fat lie — or at least gloss over the truth.

Kids’ queries are not the only things that prompt parents to lie. Depending on the child’s age, there are plenty of situations that most experts and parents agree may actually call for a bit of dishonesty. Sometimes we do it to protect our kids from events we don’t think they’re mature enough to handle, such as a terror attack or a family member’s terminal diagnosis. Other times we’re protecting our own privacy (“What were you and Aunt Lucy talking about on the phone?”) or trying to spare their feelings (“Why wasn’t I invited to Beth’s party?”), and when they’re younger, we often do it to encourage good behavior (“Santa is watching.”)

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But when is it OK to lie to your kids, and when should you opt to tell the truth? And perhaps just as important, does lying to your kids do more harm than good over the long run?

What the research says

Eighty-four percent of Redbook magazine readers surveyed admit to lying to their kids about once a month, and more than 76 percent of them said they felt guilty about telling their kids lies.

OK, so we’re lying to our kids, but is that harmful? The answer may depend on a host of factors, including age, maturity level, and the nature and purpose of the deception. Here’s something to consider: A University of California, San Diego study found that the more children are lied to, the greater the likelihood that they themselves will cheat and lie. The takeaway seems to be to choose your fibs wisely and, for goodness’s sake, space them out.

Another research study, this one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that kids can tell if parents are committing “sins of omission” — that is, only telling half-truths, prompting children not to trust them. “This shows that children are not just sensitive to who’s right or wrong,” lead author Hyowon Gweon told Time magazine. “Children can also evaluate others based on who’s providing information that is enough or not enough for accurate inference.”

What the experts say

“There are no hard and fast rules about what is and isn’t OK to lie to your kids about,” social worker and family therapist Jennifer Mansell toldToday’s Parent. “Instead, it’s important for parents to examine the intent behind their lies.” Most experts seem to agree that there isn’t a need for chronic lying, nor for lying simply for the sake of it. When it’s to preserve a tradition such as Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, for example, the benefits of the lie will likely outweigh the costs until kids reach the appropriate age. “When your kid starts questioning the likeliness of these characters, it’s time to come clean,” Mansell says.

What about more difficult subjects, such as whether you experimented with drugs or alcohol as a teen? “Part of your job as a parent is to cater what you divulge to the age and development of your child,” Michele Borba, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know, told Redbook. “Often, it’s smarter to tell just a little part of the story rather than the whole messy truth.” For example, maybe you tell your generally responsible 16-year-old that you tried alcohol, but a mischievous and rebellious teen (or tween) is told an entirely different story. Manipulating the truth a little is sometimes the most responsible thing a parent can do.

What if you’re caught in a lie? Chances are your kid will be upset and you might feel a bit foolish, both of which will usually quickly pass. But if it happens a lot, your child may start questioning everything you say and stop trusting you altogether. “Kids need their parents to be a rock of certainty, and each lie is a chip off that certainty,” Nancy Darling, professor of psychology at Oberlin College, told Redbook. You don’t want to lie so often that kids become chronic fibbers themselves, nor do you want to lie to the point that you miss opportunities to discuss difficult subjects, such as sex or illness. “I think your children look to you to be their protector and guide and instruct them,” psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, PhD, told CBS News. “The more [lies] we tell, the less likely they are going to be to trust you — and trust other people.” This can backfire when those teachable moments arise and it becomes critical that they not only hear what you have to say, but trust your words too.

What the parents say

“I have a younger sister who loves to tell tales to her nieces and nephews about when their parents were young and the mischief we got ourselves into. Now that my kids are in their teens, I think it’s about age-appropriateness. It’s probably not a good idea to tell my teenage son that I snuck out of the house after bedtime to meet my friends. However, sometimes a little white lie might make the world a happier place for everyone, and it’s in the best interest of the child not to know the truth.” — Julie Sheehan Bergin, Lynbrook, N.Y.

“I want my sons to feel like they can trust me, but at the same time, they don’t need to know every little thing. Otherwise they will worry about things they can’t control. If a parent loses a job, for example, that can sound scary to a 9-year-old. It’s a delicate balance.” — Jeffrey Downey, Columbus, Ohio

“I recently lost a very dear friend to breast cancer. It was a long and painful six-year battle. The family chose not to tell the daughters (ages 6 and 13) until the weekend before she passed. This haunts me. I have no idea when you tell your children this horrible news, but both are very bright and watched her body be taken over first by chemo, then cancer. I wonder with a grief-ridden, torn heart what that has done to their childhood — to their trust. There is no easy answer.” — Melissa Bilash, Wayne, Pa.

The bottom line

You’d be hard-pressed to find an expert who will tell you that lying to kids about whether the zoo is open is going to harm them, especially when they’re young. But if you do feel the need to lie, you probably want to tailor the lies to their age, telling them as much of the truth as your instincts deem necessary at the moment. If you do tell a few lies here and there when you feel it’s appropriate, don’t feel guilty about it, but try not to do it often. Over time, kids may begin to distrust you, and you may end up missing out on opportunities to teach them important life lessons.

Ama Connery

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