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The Truth Behind Lies Parents Tell

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

What an interesting study I came across recently regarding lying. Guess what, it was not about children lying, but rather about parents lying to their children. While reading the article, I must admit that I too have been guilty of some of these “tall tales” or “white lies” while parenting my own children.

The study was published in the  Journal of Moral Education (there is a journal for everything!). In this article, the researchers found that while parents teach their children the importance of telling the truth, parents often resort to lying to get their children to perform tasks, or change their behavior, or even to make them happy. The mixed messages that children receive from parental “lies” may prevent a child from understanding how to navigate their own world without telling lies.

Many parents reported telling lies to their children to shape their child’s behavior. Think of all of the things we say each day from, “if you don’t eat your vegetables you won’t grow taller”, to “if you don’t wear a coat you will get sick” and my favorite, “if you don’t stop crying Dr. Sue will give you a shot!” (my friends used to call me when we had young children and tell their own children this), no wonder doctors are scary. That lie never worked in my house!

It is a fine line to decide when something is an out and out lie, versus being a little less than truthful, especially with young children. Teaching your children about being polite, and not hurting feelings, often requires being less than truthful.

How do you explain that is inappropriate to call someone “fat” when they really might be? Same thing for telling someone you don’t like what they are wearing or how their perfume smells, we are often not truthful, but sparing the truth seems to be a lot nicer.

I guess this also goes for telling “everyone” they did a good job, when one of your children made an even bigger mess while trying to clean up. But at least they tried right? Or giving everyone a prize, even though they were not all really winners.

We parents often lie on the spur of the moment because it is easier than telling the truth. We often don’t think how it might affect our children in the long run. If lying is consistently used by parents, real opportunities for children to learn about the truth and sometimes the consequences that come with that knowledge, may be missed.

Bottom line, we all need to think about those little white lies, and in some cases, even when it seems easier to tell a “little lie”, rethink what you are going to say. I think this is called, “thinking before you speak” and that is sometimes hard for both parents and children.

What little lies (wink) do you tell your kids & why?  Share it with us and leave you comments below.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question to Dr. Sue.

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One Response to “The Truth Behind Lies Parents Tell”

  1. Fern says:

    Thanks for this article, Sue. We definitely need to be better models of the traits we want to see in our kids. One observation, though. Sometimes the lies parents tell in an effort to build self-esteem (which is not the way to go about it anyway), can be tweaked into acknowledgement of effort. For example, for the child who makes a bigger mess while trying to clean up, a parent can offer, “I appreciate your effort” or “It’s great that you helped with the cleanup.” In this way, we reinforce the positive attitude and effort, without being caught in an ineffective lie.

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