If you’re a parent – chances are you’ve lied. I have. Like the time I told my son “It’s really not that bad – just keep your hand on the papertowel and don’t move until we get to the ER,” when he fell from a tree and took a stick to his eye. Inside I was vomiting, screaming, and on the edge of parental sanity while on the outside my words, my emotions, and my body language lied and said I was calm and everything was good.
Why Do Parents Lie?
To protect their children from pain
I knew there was nothing in the van ride to the ER that the truth would provide other than anxiety. And my 8 year-old didn’t need to hear that he might not see again (thankfully his vision healed), that he might have scars (turned out to be true), and that it was very serious (yes, again).
These types of lies, according to experts, aren’t inherently damaging. Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle and we are just staying in the middle as best we can. The real, detailed, and drawn-out truth was that my son was lucky not to have a stick through his skull (so – in comparison it wasn’t really that bad). The truth was also that this was a very dangerous and scary thing. I opted for the middle road.
Because it is fun
Well – not the lying part, but the fun that goes along with it. Just for arguments sake, let’s say there is a Tax Day Blue Bird that supposedly delivers chocolate eggs every April 15th in honor of tax day. Maybe parents find that sort of tradition, rooted somewhere in historical facts that twisted and turned to look nothing like the original intention, to be a time for family joy. Family and friends gather and celebrate a bird that magically pays taxes, children have special moments of pure chocolate induced glee, and they don’t resent their parents later in life for hedging the truth. They thank them for indulging their imaginations and their sweet tooth. And by the time the kids start asking if the Blue Bird is real, it can be time to slowly and gently let them on to the truth.
To get out of awkward or annoying situations
These are the lies that tend to cross the line the most. Some can be socially good, others can lead down roads of avoidance. I know a mom who lies to her kids when she determines that the overall outcome doesn’t matter – the lie is saving the angst in between. In her house if the Girl Scouts troop is having a bonfire in the rain, this mom might lie and say the weather cancelled it and hope her kids don’t find out the truth (she just didn’t want to get wet in the rain). This is a dangerous path to take – because eventually the truth will come out for one of these lies and there could be an erosion of trust.
How Can I Avoid Lying and Build Trust?
Research shows that children are most affected by lies in childhood when these lies have long-term consequences, such as not telling your child that his father is ill and then your child grows up resentful that he didn’t know his time with his father was limited. Some parents believe that lying about things such as the Tax Day Blue Bird will erode the trust their children have with them, but psychologists generally feel that these types of miss-leadings and miss-directions are generally harmless. In order to build strong relationships built on trust with your kids, try asking yourself the following questions before you commit to a lie, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or something in between.
Do I really understand what my child is asking me?
- If your 4 year-old asks where babies come from, she isn’t asking about the mechanics. She needs an age appropriate answer, and often the simpler the better.
Do I need to divulge all of the details?
- Consider the ages of your kids and what their emotions and intellect are ready to process.
Am I shielding my kids from the truth because I truly don’t believe they are able to process it or because I want to shield them from the pain that the truth sometimes brings?
- It would be lovely if we lived under rainbows all of the time, but our kids develop life-long coping skills when we give them opportunities to learn to cope with bad news.
Can I redirect their question so that it contains the truth, but under a different light?
- If your child asks you if the Tax Day Blue Bird is real, it might be possible to respond with something like: Isn’t it fun to use our imaginations and believe in something as magical as a Blue Bird that delivers chocolate eggs and helps pay taxes? I wonder what kind of a nest the Blue Bird would make – what do you think?
Am I setting a good example?
- If you see that your kids are lying – about anything and everything – this might be the most important question to ask. Research shows that lying is normal – but we have our work cut out for us as parents to make sure that our kids are developing honest and honorable characteristics.