"You're right, honey, that really does look like a princess!"
These are the lies I told my three-year-old just this morning: “Our PVR is broken so you can’t watch Little Einsteins,” “This chocolate is really spicy; you won’t like it” and “That picture you coloured does look exactly like your little sister.”
I’m not embarrassed to admit I fib to my kids. Whether it’s telling them we’re out of batteries for their annoyingly loud toys, or that restaurants aren’t allowed to serve dessert to kids under 12, we all deceive our broods for a number of reasons – to spare their feelings, preserve tradition, protect young ears and encourage good behaviour. We also do it because, let’s face it, sometimes it’s easier to tell tales than the truth.
Luckily, there’s good news for us Pinocchios: There are situations when it’s perfectly acceptable to lie like a rug. While you obviously shouldn’t do it every time you talk to your children, “there are no hard and fast rules about what is and isn’t OK to lie to your kids about,” says Jennifer Mansell, a social worker and family therapist. “Instead, it’s important for parents to examine the intent behind their lies.” Read on for some of the most commonly lied-about situations, the reasons why we blurt out these falsehoods and what the experts say.
“The park is closed today.” Parents often lie to make our jobs easier; we do it out of convenience, to save time and avoid meltdowns. “I lie about trivial things, like friends not being home when my five-year-old son, Riley, wants to have a playdate, or his favourite show not being on when I want to watch Days of Our Lives,” says Calgary mom Alison Heal. “I do try to be truthful because I don’t believe that kids should be deceived, but in some cases, if it’s harmless and it’s going to save some grief in the short term, I think it’s fine.” (This is also the reason why Heal tells Riley that if he doesn’t brush his teeth, they’ll fall out and he’ll look like his grandfather.) Vancouver mom Tracey Flattes agrees. “As long as you’re open and honest about the important things in life, the little white lies that make everyone’s life easier and happier aren’t damaging. If we’re at the playground and my daughter wants to take off her coat, I’ll often point to the nearest sign and say, ‘Sorry, the sign says all children must wear coats!’”
Chera Arabsky, a mom of three in Winnipeg, admits she sometimes tells white lies to dissuade her brood from wanting to go places or do things that don’t fit into her schedule. “Everything is always closed. The zoo, websites they like, McDonald’s – nothing is ever open,” she laughs.
But Mansell says lying to kids with the intent to avoid confrontation ultimately doesn’t do them any favours. “Helping children come to terms with and learning how to manage disappointment is one of a parent’s most important roles.”
“Keep it up and I’ll give all your toys to the neighbours.” This won’t come as a shock: Parents fabricate stories to get their kids to behave. “In a moment of total frustration, I told the girls they’d better behave because I could see what they were doing in the back seat of the car and who hit or pinched who,” says Tracy Pound, a mom in Carstairs, Alta. “When my oldest wanted to know how I could see, I told them I had a hidden camera in my Jeep.” Vancouver mom Krista Dosen says her most used lie is that she’ll be thrown in jail if her kids don’t buckle up their seat belts. “It came out of my mouth one day, and when it worked I kept using it. I’m OK with fibbing, especially if it gets my point across.”
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Using Santa as a tool to get your kids to behave is another story. “A couple Christmases ago, I told my daughter that if she wasn’t good Santa wouldn’t come,” says Flattes. “She asked how he’d know, and I told her that he uses a Magic Eight Ball. From that moment on, if there was any sign of misbehaving, all I had to say was ‘Magic Eight Ball’ and she would instantly stop.”
“I don’t believe that using deception to get kids to behave is a good idea, especially if you say, “‘If you do X, then I will do Y,’ then not follow through on your promise,” says Sara Dimerman, author of the book Am I a Normal Parent? as well as a child and family therapist. How many parents actually turn Santa away when their kids misbehave before Christmas? Not many, we’d guess. Speaking of Jolly Old St. Nick, we also lie to our kids about the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy for the same reasons our parents lied to us – to keep and pass along family traditions, and to maintain a sense of childish wonder before their inner cynic kicks in. And that’s OK. “When the intention is to preserve a tradition, parents can breathe a bit easier knowing that the benefits of the lie will likely outweigh the costs,” Mansell says. But when your kid starts questioning the likeliness of these characters, it’s time to come clean.
“If your child is asking about the tooth fairy being real, it’s highly likely she’s already suspicious,” says Dimerman. “Telling stories about Santa and the tooth fairy can easily be explained to kids as you wanting to keep tradition and innocence alive,” she says.
“Mommy and Daddy were wrestling in bed.” No parent wants to have to explain why she was undressed and romping around under the covers. “There are some questions about sex and marriage that my kids don’t need to know the answers to. I often give partial answers to their never-ending and quite mature questions,” says Toronto mom Tracie Wagman, who keeps the “truths” age-appropriate. “My nine-year-old daughter asked if people have to be married to have sex. Fifty percent of the moms I spoke with advised me to lie to her and say yes. I told her that you don’t have to be married, but it’s a very special and emotional experience that’s private.”
Mansell says parents often find “creative mistruths” to teach kids about adult topics like sex. “Riley found some condoms in our nightstand and asked what they were for,” Heal says. “I told him they were for Daddy. He asked if they were socks, so I said, ‘Yes, of a sort.’” Heal says instinct made her fib. “I didn’t think I’d survive the questions that would ensue if I told him what they were really for. I think I’ll leave that conversation to his father. The whole ‘how did I get in your tummy’ conversation is enough for me at this point.”
“We sent Rex to live on a farm far away.” Telling your kids that Grandma’s going to be fine (when you know she won’t be) or you sent the family dog to live on a faraway farm (when the pooch has passed) are the kinds of lies we tell to protect young ears. “Children don’t need to be affected by adult worries and issues, so lying as a form of protection is admissible at times,” Dimerman says. Michal Regev, a psychologist and family therapist, recommends sparing the details when explaining adult issues and keeping the discussion age-appropriate. For example, you wouldn’t say: “Grandpa is in the hospital because he has terminal lung cancer.” Instead, Regev suggests: “Grandpa’s not feeling well, and the doctors are taking care of him.”
That said, lying about the inevitable could affect children more than simply telling them the truth. Dimerman says lying outright about something you know will come to fruition (like an impending divorce, for example) will only cause kids to lose trust in you. “There may be some lying through omission or not telling the whole truth – depending on the child’s age and level of maturity – but, ultimately, honesty is the best policy in life-changing situations, such as death and divorce,” she says.
Guilty as charged: How to handle getting caught in a lie If you are caught in a lie, your best bet is to come clean, explain that lying isn’t right (tsk, you should be practising what you preach) and apologize. “You can also help your child understand why you chose not to tell the truth when you lied,” says author and therapist Sara Dimerman. For example, you might tell young kids you lied about Dad taking vacation time (when he really lost his job) to protect them from stress and worry.