We all lie a little. According to a 2012 study at the University of Notre Dame, Americans tell an average of 11 lies each week.
While some of these are harmless ("It wasn’t me who ate the last cookie!"), lies about bigger issues can be damaging, especially to children. “When you’re deciding whether to lie or not, you should think, ‘What is the message I really want to be sending about death, difficult times, and more complex areas of life?’” says Jeannie Bertoli, Ph.D., Relationship Expert and Counselor.
Before you address one of these "hot button" issues, always talk to the child's parents first and confer with them on how to broach a topic and what to say. Defer to them for age-appropriate explanations. “The discussion will facilitate a bond between parents and grandparents in an egalitarian way,” says Martin Novell, Psychotherapist and Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles.
Whichever explanations you communicate, avoid telling these 6 damaging lies:
Lie #1: "Spot is living on a farm upstate"
It’s never too early to learn about the cycle of life and death, so just do it at an age-appropriate level,” says Dr. Bertoli, adding that explanations should be aligned with the family’s spiritual beliefs.
For example, explain and repeat the permanency of death when talking to a four-year-old, as the concept is new at this age. “You may say, ‘This means you won’t see someone again, but you’ll have them in your heart, and they can stay there forever.’” By around age 8, children will already understand the permanency of death, so taking a more factual approach is more effective. “Have them look up life cycles of the different things around them, such as a bird, a fish, and a person,” Dr. Bertoli advises. “Talking about different life cycles will give them a tangible understanding that bodies last for a certain amount of time, and then they’re gone. That’s just the way of life.”
Lie #2: "You were delivered by the stork"
“Discomfort need not mean avoidance,” says Dr. Bertoli, even when it comes to sex. While "the talk" about sex and how babies are made will typically come from parents, be prepared with age-appropriate answers when your grandchildren bring up those sometimes uncomfortable sex questions out of the blue.
Resorting to a lie can cause confusion, and will ultimately stop your grandchildren from looking to you for information. “The child will transition from getting all of his knowledge from the family, to getting knowledge from other areas,” says Novell. He says that sex education books are a good place to start (check out Where Did I Come From? to introduce the concept to children around age six and It's So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families for a 10-year-old hungry for more facts). “Then you move up as the child asks more and more questions.” Novell recommends keeping with the scientific, anatomically correct approach of these books when talking to your grandchildren, instead of leaving them in the dark.
Lie #3: "Your dad moved out because he's a bad person"
Taking your child’s side in a divorce is one thing, but it’s important to remain neutral about the other parent with your grandchildren. Speaking about the divorced spouse’s negative behavior isn't fair to your grandchild or the divorced spouse. Lots of factors go into a marriage ending. “It’s a lie to paint a child’s father in a negative way as if that was the only thing that mattered in ending the marriage,” says Dr. Bertoli.
This lie can not only hurt your grandchild’s relationship with that parent, but can cause your grandchild to resent you for that broken relationship when they are old enough to understand the complexity of divorce. Instead, stick with an unbiased explanation that is fair to both sides. “The more honest answer, in most cases, is that your parents weren’t getting along as a couple, so they decided to separate,” says Dr. Bertoli.
Lie #4: "I never tried that"
It might not be what your grandchildren picture when they think of you now, but the version of you that attended the original Woodstock sure had a wild side. Don’t feel pressured to go into details that you aren’t comfortable discussing, but avoid answering questions about your past vices with lies.
This question will typically come from your grandchildren in their adolescence, at which point Novell advises a frank answer. “The answer is, ‘Yes, I have tried it, I liked it at one point, and at one point I didn’t like it,’” he says. “It then becomes a whole conversation of how it was when you were young, and how you were willing to experiment, but were wise enough to know when you were in the danger zone.”
Lie #5: "That career is impossible"
Even though you think it’s in her best interest to guide your granddaughter toward a career in medicine, don’t do so by discounting other paths as impossible. “The worst lies convey to children that there’s a prescribed life, and that’s the only thing that’s really ok,” says Dr. Bertoli.
Even subtly, telling children to stop imagining can set them on life paths that they regret as adults. “When they reclaim who they really are, they realize they’ve created a life that doesn’t match that at all,” she adds.
Lie #6: "Adults always know best"
There is a fine line between teaching your grandchildren to respect and obey grown-ups, and teaching them that grown-ups are right all of the time. Whether it’s a strict teacher or a too-tough soccer coach, distinguish between obeying their rules during school and practice hours, and looking up to them as infallible merely because they are adults in authority positions. “Telling a child that the adult’s voice is more important than their voice is a lie,” says Dr. Bertoli. “Some of the worst lies we tell children are the subliminal messages that their voices do not matter.”
This is not to be confused with taking your grandchild’s side in discipline disputes with a teacher. “Explain that when they’re in school, that that’s a time when they should follow the rules. It’s a distinction between the overarching message and the distinct situational message,” says Dr. Bertoli. “There are rules we need to follow, but separate from that, your voice matters.”