If you’ve ever stretched the truth to get your kids to behave, you’re in good company. According to a study published in the International Journal of Psychology, 84% of American parents they surveyed reported lying to their kids to get them to stop unwanted behavior or encourage good behavior. It’s safe to say that lying to children is common. Still, it could come with some guilt and you may wonder whether it does any harm. We’ll give you some professional guidance on building trust between you and your kids and encouraging their good behavior without resorting to lying.
Why do parents and caregivers lie to children?
Parents lie for convenience. One of the most common reasons adults lie to children is to get them to comply. This sounds like, “Put on your socks and shoes or your feet will freeze solid,” or “If you want to stay at the playground, I guess you’ll have to sleep here because I’m leaving. Bye!” or “We’re all out of fruit snacks,” (when you still have plenty of fruit snacks). With all the decisions and transitions parents manage day in and day out, this type of lying is understandable. When a caregiver is short on time or patience, a lie seems like a convenient solution.
Parents lie about kids’ talent or ability. The intent is good. Caring adults believe the best in their kids and they want kids to believe in themselves, too. Exaggerating about children’s abilities sounds like, “Wow, your science fair project could win a Nobel prize,” or “You’re the best artist in the world.”
Parents lie to kids about uncomfortable topics. If a kid asks a question a parent is unwilling or unable to answer, bypassing the truth is a common out. A classic example of this is answering the “Where do babies come from?” question with “The stork brings them,” but uncomfortable topics can vary as widely as families are different. Giving a false answer is an attempt to stop a child’s line of questioning.
Parents lie to preserve childhood traditions. Many caregivers pass along traditions to their kids that they were given by their own families, such as believing in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy. The wider culture often reinforces these traditions for the sake of shared fun, celebration and magic.
Is lying to children harmful?
When it comes to the effects on children, not all lies are created equal.
Lying to preserve childhood traditions like Santa have not been proven to cause kids’ harm. That means parents can continue the fun of make-believe with their children as long as it seems enjoyable for everyone involved. The only catch is that fictional characters shouldn’t be relied on as a threat for bad behavior.
Lying about uncomfortable topics can be a missed opportunity for parent-child bonding and for teaching kids to regulate their emotions. In the short term, it might be a relief to avoid a real conversation about a tough topic but, in the long term, the negative effects are real. Avoiding truthful conversations can erode a child’s trust. It can also prevent them from learning how to healthily deal with their own feelings. Kids whose parents frequently lie to them are more likely to lie to their parents later in life.
Lying about kids’ talents or abilities might seem harmless, but it can effect their self-esteem. Instead of focusing on whether the child is the best at a particular skill or interest, pay attention to how they are doing it. If they draw a picture, a good conversation starter can be commenting on the child’s use of color or asking them about different items in the drawing. If they play a sport, a post-game conversation could include observations about an improving skill they’ve been practicing or their behavior toward other players and coaches. It’s less black and white and more empowering for kids to have conversations about the activities they enjoy without the pressure of being the best.
Lying for convenience is another missed opportunity for caregivers and children to build emotional connections and skills. Gaining compliance by fibbing can work in the moment but it is not an effective strategy over the long haul. No one enjoys a tantrum but avoiding them by lying is a recipe for disaster later. Kids need parents and caring adults to help them deal with reality, not avoid it. If adults were raised to ignore or deny their own emotions, parenting is good practice for acknowledging feelings, even if they are unpleasant.
Instead of lying to children, try this.
When you’re tempted to lie to your kid, ask yourself
Why do I want to lie? Am I trying to prevent a tantrum or avoid an awkward conversation?
What could be the short-term effects of this lie?
What might be the long-term effects?
What alternatives to lying could I consider?
Tips for dealing with emotions that come with truth telling
Whether a child expresses anger, sadness, frustration or any other emotion from hearing the truth, it is helpful to acknowledge what they are feeling and state it back to them. If something is a big deal to them, it is a big deal, period. Minimizing their feelings will not help the situation. Neither will trying to fix or change their feelings. One of the best things a parent can do when a child is having big emotions is to be present, to regulate their own emotions and to affirm the child’s experience as valid. Helping them ride the wave of emotion will allow them to get through it and move on without shame or blame.
Tips for dealing with uncomfortable topics
Ask kids where their question came from. What, exactly, are they wondering about? It’s not always what you think.
Keep it simple. This does not have to be the definitive conversation on any given topic. It can be one small conversation among several over the years.
Keep it age appropriate. Kids under age seven do not understand abstract concepts, so there is no need to get too advanced with your explanations.
You don’t have to have all the answers. Your conversation can be an opportunity for both of you to learn or you can ask for time to find answers and get back to them. Check out our Parent-ish tough topic conversation guides for posts on discussions about sexuality, race, violence, tragedy and more.
Give yourself time if needed. Sometimes you’re not in the right physical space for a tough conversation, like at the grocery store. Other times, you’re not in the right mental space. Either way, give yourself permission to schedule the conversation for later and make sure to keep that appointment.
Tips for modeling truth telling
It’s OK for parents to talk about their own feelings with kids, even difficult feelings, because it helps kids normalize the experience of having difficult feelings and moving through them.
With older kids, it is good to model having boundaries so kids know they can have private information that they do not share with everyone or with anyone. Telling the truth doesn’t mean telling strangers every detail of our lives. Healthy boundaries are an important part of being honest.
Keep your promises. If you commit to doing something with your child, follow through so they know they can trust you.