The other day my three-year-old asked me if the Elsa who came to her birthday party last September had been the real Elsa. Apparently, her brother and sister had told her that they had seen dark hair sticking out from under Elsa’s blond wig. Obviously, I went with the most adult approach, and accused her siblings of being liars. I mean, yeah, lying about the fact that my other children were lying when they were actually revealing an act of deception (impersonating royalty, no less!) looks kind of bad when I type it out. But my lie was a happy-lie, a mom-lie, the whitest of white lies—intended to make my young daughter’s life better by allowing her to continue to believe in the magic of princesses and fairies.
Before you judge me for lying to my kid about my other kids being liars, how different is it from telling your kids that Santa ate the cookies you left out for him or that the Tooth Fairy was the one responsible for leaving money under their pillows? Most of us know that sometimes a little parental lie is required to create piles and piles of child-happiness.
My husband doesn’t like any of it. If he had his way, our (Jewish) kids would know that there is no Santa. I, however, can’t allow this because I know that it would mean that every kid at my daughter’s preschool would also know there is no Santa. Secret-keeping is not one of her strengths. And my kid can’t be the kid who ruined Christmas. Instead, I perpetuate the myth with the same vigour as the parent of a child who actually expects gifts on Christmas morning.
Admittedly, I love playing the Tooth Fairy. Our Tooth Fairy writes notes and buys gifts (and almost always forgets to take the tooth, because while her heart is in the right place, she’s not amazing at her job). I am almost as excited as my kids when they run out of their rooms with a little note or some money (and their tooth). Maybe it’s because Santa and the Easter Bunny don’t come to our house and there is a magic-and-wonder-deficit. Or maybe it’s because I am just a huge, terrible, lying liar who enjoys pulling one over on her kids.
I don’t lie to my friends, even if they ask my opinion about something controversial, like politics or their new eyelash extensions. I am intensely bothered by people who are disingenuous. And yet, I’ve told other lies to my kids over the years. There’s the toy store thing (it doesn’t actually keep shorter hours than other stores), and Brussels sprouts (which are in fact, not even a little bit delicious). My sister doesn’t live super far away, and it’s not illegal to take rocks home from the park. Also, there is no way that I am sending my nine-year-old to boarding school, even if he does keep making his sisters cry.
9 things my kids can never find out It’s all harmless, right? Well….maybe not.
“Children learn that they can be honest and expect honesty in return only when that is the pattern they have experienced,” says Tamara Soles, a child psychologist in Montreal. In fact, lying—even about little things—is disrespectful and has the potential to erode the parent-child relationship. So apparently when my kids find out that I am not obligated to take the first bite of every cookie to ensure that they aren’t being poisoned, I will have some explaining to do. Soles recommends acknowledging the trust that may have been lost as a result of the lie and making a commitment to truth going forward (bye cookies, it was fun while it lasted).
Instead of using white lies out of convenience (I think the playground is closing now) or in an effort to protect children from things parents feel their child isn’t ready to understand (Rover just moved to the farm! He’s feeling so much better!), Soles encourages parents to find the simplest way of explaining the truth in small bite-sized bits. Lying because it’s more convenient (something I never do—sorry that’s a lie) not only has the potential to undermine your child’s trust in you, you are also robbing your child of necessary experiences such as building a tolerance for frustration or managing disappointment. Likewise, when you lie in an attempt to coerce children into doing things, they are no longer making choices because they are in line with what you believe as a family, but rather to avoid some fabricated consequence. (I guess this means that I have to stop threatening to return my three-year-old to customer service every time she misbehaves at Costco?).
But what about my Elsa lie? Or Santa? Soles—whose own young kids believe in Santa—says that lying about Santa or the Tooth Fairy is not much different from other lies, but “if parents generally maintain a relationship of truth, the Santa myth is not likely to create any lasting negative effects.” Allowing children to question the logic of these myths so that they can come to their own conclusions is part of an important process. “When they start forming their own conclusions and asking parents for confirmation, it’s time to be forthcoming,” she says. “When a child knows the truth and her parents contradict this knowledge, the child may begin to doubt herself”.
Soles also says that it’s important to understand the reasons parents choose to lie to their children. She says that with Santa for example, parents may be carrying on cultural or family traditions that often hold a lot of nostalgia for them, and they might want to share that sense of magic and fantasy with their children. As such, some parents may perpetuate these myths because they are not ready themselves to let go of this period in their child’s life.
Stories like that make me sad for those people. Imagine being forced to lie because you are not able to let go of a special time in your child’s life. I’d love to spend some time exploring what has to happen to bring seemingly normal parents to that depressing level of desperation, but I have to run. My reindeer just arrived and I need to convince my nine-year-old that he is Sven from Arendelle, here to seek vengeance for Elsa.