Is it okay to lie to kids?
- Merriam-Webster defines a lie as “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive,” and “to create a false or misleading impression.”
- According to Cambridge Dictionary, a ‘white lie’ is “a lie that is told in order to be polite or to stop someone from being upset by the truth.”
- The 2018 Exeter Santa Survey found that 72% of parents are “quite happy telling their children about Santa and playing along with the myth.”
- According to a 2022 survey, American adults tell an average of four lies per day.
Despite telling their children that lying is unacceptable, parents themselves have been known to tell lies. And that’s not okay--even if it’s just a ‘harmless’ white lie.
According to the principles of the Respectful Parenting movement, there’s no need to lie to children. Children need to know the truth about the world around them as long as it doesn’t traumatize them. Therefore, made-up stories involving Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy shouldn’t be part of their upbringing. As harmless as these lies may seem, four out of five experts believe children may be devastated upon learning about their parents’ deceit.
In fact, any act to withhold the truth--even if it’s to protect children themselves--decreases the level of trust in the home. It makes children feel disconnected from their parents, preventing them from functioning as a team. Further, the damage seeps into their future friendships and relationships, inflicting lifelong harm.
Parenting by lying also sends the message that lying is an acceptable habit, making children embrace it rather than honesty. And this has been proven by a 2017 study. According to researchers, young adults exposed to parents who lied admitted to frequently lying to their parents themselves. The same study also revealed higher levels of psychological maladjustment when children of lying parents reach adulthood. Researchers detected depression, emotional difficulties, aggression, and antisocial personality problems in study subjects. These issues were most substantial when parents were the targets of dishonesty.
So, with so much at risk in the present and future, parents must always be honest with their children.
While lying is generally viewed as bad in our society, there are times when obscuring the truth is necessary, and many of these involve children. Our adult brains are more fully developed than our children's, and we can process complex and nuanced information that could prove too difficult for them. When topics such as death, war, or violence come up, we rightly withhold information that is not age appropriate. For instance, we may explain that war is a disagreement--without mentioning genocide. By stating these lies, we help protect our children from pain and potential damage to their development that could come from exposing them to extreme violence or sexually inappropriate material. Simply put, children are not fully developed cognitively, and it is suitable for us to lie to them at times in order to protect them.
Further, sometimes lying to children is the sensible thing to do. Maybe the grocery store aisle isn't the best place for a full and frank discussion of whatever random question a young child has asked--as children are known to blurt out whatever questions come to mind. If a child spots someone passed out by the convenience store, fully explaining the ins and outs of addiction probably isn't appropriate. Simply lying and saying they're sleeping may be a more reasonable response. In these cases, little white lies allow us to keep moving through our days.
Finally, sometimes lying to children is just plain fun and allows us (and our children) to enjoy the innocence of childhood, such as when we tell them about Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. Surely no one would call these lies harmful or damaging.