What do you do when the day comes that your child professes to hate something they actually love just to get a rise out of you as a parent? Do you take away that thing they love, so they don’t continue to play the “let’s see what happens when I lie” game? Do you talk to them, again, about what lying means? You wonder how you ever got to this point.
The truth is that parents lie, too, for different reasons at different times. It could be as simple as “Santa is real” to honor a generational tradition. What’s so wrong with a little wonder and make-believe? Another time would be where the dog went to a big farm where he can play all day long — to give your child something happier to think about other than death because maybe they (and you) aren’t ready for that conversation. You might lie about fighting with your spouse or even why you’re getting a divorce — some things children don’t have to know.
Most Parents Lie
Which lies are justifiable, and why? Whatever your reasons for lying, one study reveals that it’s the norm among parents. 84 percent lying to get their children to behave better.
All parents have used this at some point: “If you don’t stop this behavior/come with me right now, I will leave you, here, by yourself.” They might replace that last threat with another, such as no television. There may be a treat offered for compliance, instead. Children pay attention to false promises, and they remember.
Remember the lie about the dog on the farm? Replace that with a dying father. The child might get a similar lie. Now imagine the child thirty years later, realizing what happened and likely the good intention behind the lie — but the lie was too big, robbing the child of the chance to say goodbye to a beloved parent. That closure was in their right and ripped away.
You’d never lie about something big like that, right? It depends on the situation and the child’s age. Another lie, although a much less serious one, comes about when your child loses a tooth. Sure, you might have to go to the scary dentist’s office, but if you place the tooth under your pillow, you get some spending money. Complications arise when other kids at school are getting more tooth cash, and you offer to have a conversation with the tooth fairy on your child’s behalf.
The tooth fairy is an unusual myth, but it is an amalgamation of many myths told to children around the world. In Europe, children would bury baby teeth in the garden to “grow” in their new teeth, and as populations rose and gardens became rare, children buried the tooth under their pillow instead.
It’s funny that over the centuries, parents evolve the old folklore and perpetuate the lie. It’s one that everyone is in on eventually and one that doesn’t hurt anyone in the long run. That makes it easier to accept over time. It’s also a more comfortable for a parent to be accountable for that kind of lie.
Most parents are quick to admit that they fib about the little things. You might tell your child they sound amazing on an instrument when it feels like your ears are bleeding. Parents might lie about what’s for dinner to stop the whining so they can cook and put healthy food in their kid’s stomach. It’s easier to lie in these cases.
Such things build though. Kids are smart. When they pick up on your lies, you have to be accountable for them, just as you expect your child to be responsible, too.
Truth-Telling Is Integral to Trust
Some truths aren’t age-appropriate, and it’s difficult to know what angle or measure of truth a child is ready to experience given their few years of life experience. When will they uncover the truth of your lie or spun truth, and will they understand and accept it? Are you willing to apologize for any consequences that result from feelings of anger, grief or disappointment that arise, whether that truth reveals itself hours or years later?
When you fight with your spouse, and say it’s not your child’s fault but offer no to little detail, the child is still left wondering what happened and why. Some details are not appropriate for a child’s ears, and your kids are certainly not the people you want to vent to.
However, talking about the fact that sometimes disagreements happen is an excellent teaching moment. Otherwise, when they experience continual discord without explanation, children feel like soldiers in the middle of combat, literally, according to researchers.
Truth-telling is integral to trust — maintaining and developing it — in the parent-child relationship. What truths are your child ready to understand? Why not hear them out instead of assuming what your child is or isn’t prepared for?
Introducing Difficult Truths to Your Child
Introduce information slowly into the conversation and see how they react. Teach them to practice active listening to use their skills of reasoning and deduction. Ask them: What do you think this means? In your words, can you explain your understanding of what’s happened? Do you have any questions?
Let your child feel safe. There are no wrong answers. Your child may surprise you with their capacity for empathy and mental and emotional processing skills. Children want and deserve to know how a situation or event affects them. Only they can do that processing.
It’s not fair to your child to control their mental or emotional processing. Give your kid more credit, and have them try on the truth one small step at a time.
Lies happen, but both parents and children must be accountable. There are times when it’s okay to lie to your children and even instances when society expects it, such as continuing a traditional, magical belief in the tooth fairy. There are times when it’s not okay to lie to a child, such as why a parent passed away and where they went afterward.
You can’t predict how your lies will affect a child, but you should trust them to judge what they are and are not ready for. Introduce difficult truths into the conversation in small chunks. See how they handle it. Breaching the parent-child trust bond is a serious offense, and remember, kids are whip-smart.