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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

When It's Ok to Lie to Kids -- And When It's Not

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Nine-year-old Joshua was being, as his mom described, "a bit of a jerk." Over dinner after the first day of their week-long ski trip he told her, actually, he didn't really like skiing, even though they'd been skiing together for years. Even though just a few hours earlier he'd been laughing and smiling and happily snowplowing his way down trails beside her. Even though he knew his mom, Andrea, had been excited to take him on this trip.

"I just don't like it," he said. "It's not fun." Fine, Andrea told him, if Joshua didn't like skiing, they wouldn't go ever again. "And while we're at it," she added, "why don't we cut out all vacations." She was hoping, with her threat, to teach her son about consequences, and the need for gratitude and appreciation. She had no intention of abandoning family ski trips; she herself loved them too much. What's more, she suspected he did love skiing, but was just trying to provoke her. It had worked, of course.

Most parents lie to their children, at various times and for various reasons. Maybe it's a lie about the existence of a big man in a red suit who makes and delivers presents, because doing so honors a tradition. Or one about the family cat being sent off to a farm where she can run free and chase squirrels all day, to avoid a difficult conversation. Maybe it's a lie about the real reason Mom and Dad are getting divorced, because kids don't need to know absolutely everything. Some lies are justifiable. Others are less so.

Whatever the situation and justification, lying among parents is, it seems, the norm. A new study published in the International Journal of Psychology says 84 percent of parents lie to kids to get them to behave better. The most common: "If you don't come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself," followed by false promises for a toy or other reward in exchange for compliance.

Jane remembers the lies she was told as a child, which spanned from an alarmist fib about what happens to little girls who don't listen to their teachers to the real reason Daddy was in the hospital. Thirty years later, these are lies that stuck with her less for the information they withheld than for the betrayal she felt when she found out the truth. Her father had been all right, but it could've gone the other way, she knows now. And had it, her parents' lie would have robbed her of the opportunity to say goodbye.

And yet now, as a mother of three, Jane's days are filled with lies. She lies about what happens to kids who don't brush their teeth. She lies about the real reason they were skipping a cousin's birthday party. She lies to her son about how good he is at the piano -- to encourage him, she tells herself -- and about what's for dinner, because the truth would surely elicit whines and complaints. She lies even as she constantly talks to her kids about the importance of total honesty at all times. "I realize I'm a complete hypocrite," Jane told me. "But some truths aren't age appropriate. And yes, sometimes -- most times -- it's just easier to lie." In most cases, she reasoned (and dinner aside), they'd never know the difference.

Wouldn't they? They may uncover the truth hours or days later, or it may take them years. They may, in fact, never know the difference. It might not matter: Each time a child needs to question whether or not a trusted adult is being honest, he feels a little less certain about that adult. Or he begins to doubt his own need to tell the truth. Lying can also prevent kids from learning certain rules, like in the case of a parent lying to a child about the consequences of misbehaving. What's really important isn't that they need to be quiet, or can't go down to the park by themselves, but why.

What's more, truthfulness is crucial to a healthy parent-child relationship as much for the parent as for the child. Lying can help parents avoid, quite simply, parenting -- or, at the very least, difficult conversations. It can stand in the way of valuable bonding moments. For example: Teaching children about serious subjects like death, sex, relationships, and love are some of the most challenging, but also most fulfilling, aspects of parenting when approached with a child's age and maturity level in mind. Telling a four-year-old that her dog has died is a difficult, but appropriate, conversation. Telling her that her dog died after getting into a fight with a coyote can also be okay, so long as you make clear that she's not in any danger herself and perhaps use it as a chance to talk about the dynamics of animals in nature. Telling her that her dog died because you accidentally left the back door open, and that when you found him, he was torn to bits -- not information she needs to know.

Acceptable lies: The ones that serve to protect children from information that would hurt them; the ones that help foster imagination and belief in an age-appropriate way, like in the case of Santa; or lies that that aren't exactly lies, but some small withholding of the truth, because you fear they don't yet have the capacity to deal with or understand the facts. Keep in mind, though, that kids can be surprisingly perceptive and often understand the basic themes of a situation -- hurt, sadness, happiness -- even as they may not understand some of the complexities. Jane's eight-year-old Ned, for example, could understand that his parents were having a disagreement, but Jane knew he didn't need to know about what. Talking about it later, however, became a nice teaching moment -- everyone has disagreements. A child doesn't need to know all the details, but if they suspect there's something you're not telling them, they may tell themselves that they're the problem.

One way to know if your child is ready to hear the truth: Try him. Introduce the information slowly, gauge the reaction, and proceed or retreat as necessary. Be as honest as you can be while making sure he feels safe, and knows how a situation might relate to his own life, and how it may not. Kids only want to know what an event or circumstance means to them. Honesty isn't always the best policy, but it's a pretty good road to take. And just like lying, telling the truth gets easier over time.