Ooh, I like this question. It’s relevant to all parents. It’s potentially controversial. And, best of all, there is a really obvious answer. Which is: lying to your children is 100%, completely and utterly, not okay. Job done. Question answered. Case closed. Post published. Pulitzer almost definitely in the post.
But wait. Now that I think about it, I mislead my son all the time, my wife regularly makes up stuff about “the TV being broken” or “the shops being closed” and my mates are always telling their offspring fibs. And that’s before I even think about the “mummy will be back in ten minutes” tripe I hear at the nursery door.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us trying to work out how to lie my son into bed so we can binge-watch Taskmaster. Only joking. It leaves us seeking clarification around the situations where it is wrong, but acceptable to lie to your children, and the situations where it is just plain wrong to lie to your children. And do you know what? We are not alone. Newsweek, Today’s Parent and The Atlantic have all recently debated this hot topic.
“There are no hard and fast rules about what is and isn’t okay to lie to your kids about,” social worker and family therapist Jennifer Mansell told Today’s Parent. “Instead, it’s important for parents to examine the intent behind their lies.”
Which rather nicely brings me to my first sub-heading.
Why are you lying to your children?
Well go on, then – ask yourself why you are telling your children porky pies? Fine, I’ll go first. I’ve lied to my son to make my life easier. I’ve lied to him to shield him from pain. I’ve lied to him to prevent a tantrum. I’ve lied to him because he’s not old enough to comprehend the answer to the question he has just posed. I’ve lied to him because I’m tired and can’t be bothered to put together a proper explanation. And I’ve lied to him because he already has loads of toys, so definitely doesn’t need another ridiculously expensive fire engine.
On the face of it, these all seem to be legitimate, guilt-free reasons for lying to your children. But here is the thing, or actually two things.
First, family therapist Jennifer Mansell states that: “Helping children come to terms with and learning how to manage disappointment is one of a parent’s most important roles.”
Second, top psychologist Victoria Talwar told Newsweek that parents who bend the truth are more likely to raise little liars. “If the parents’ lie, the kids will pick that up more as a strategy,” revealed the researcher into children and lying. “They learn it as a way to manipulate and get what they want or conceal things they want to get out of.”
Whoa, so you’re saying: a) that lying to our kids could hinder their emotional development and b) that the more we fib, the more likely our kid is to return the favour with interest? Yup, and worse still, Talwar’s studies have discovered that children as young as three can tell when someone is lying to them.
So what lies are and aren’t acceptable?
Unsurprisingly, but somewhat annoyingly, experts refuse to put their neck on the line and say, “Pretending the restaurant has run out of chips is acceptable, but claiming you’re going to take back your kid’s favourite toy if they don’t behave is not.”
Instead, they suggest asking yourself whether lying in really necessary and weighing up the risks and benefits of telling the truth. BO-RING! I agree, but let’s give it a shot using a couple of personal case studies.
Father-Hood Lie 1
The issue: I don’t want our son to feel abandoned when my wife misses the bedtime routine due to playing sport or going out for dinner.
The lie: I tell him my wife is still at work
Is it really necessary? When he’s screaming “mummeeeeeee”, I feel like the answer is yes. Right now, I feel like the answer is no.
The benefits of the lie: He cries less when he thinks mummy is not there because she is at work.
The risks of the lie: We grow to depend on it, my son could begin to dislike the idea of my wife going to work, when he gets older it could prompt some difficult-to-answer questions that require more lies (e.g. why were you working in sports gear?), the lie prolongs the issue rather than dealing with it in a swift and satisfactory manner.
Conclusion: Although this lie seems harmless enough and rewards me with a short-term gain, it is not strictly necessary and could lead to problems in the long run.
Father-Hood Lie 2
The issue: We don’t want my son to worry about the fact I have to take daily tablets for a blood clot in my leg.
The lie: We tell him the pills are making daddy stronger.
Is it really necessary? Yes, as a 2-year-old could be deeply affected by discovering his dad has a long-term medical condition.
The benefits of the lie: We are able to make my son aware of my pills, without giving him the gory details or making him extremely concerned.
The risks of the lie: The little man overhears someone saying something about my leg that makes him think it’s more serious than we have been letting on.
Conclusion: Given my son’s age, the benefits of the lie exceed the risks and thus it is worth keeping it up.
Two lies, two different conclusions, bingo! The system works.
Well, don’t just sit there. Go through the same process with all your little white lies and conclude whether they are or are not acceptable. If they are, happy face – you’ve got the all clear to keep lying how are you currently lying. If they aren’t, sad face – you need to make a change that will benefit you and children in the long term.
Until next time…