Family and Relationships

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Why Parents Lie to Children

September 09, 2010 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
Parents who demand honesty from their children lie just as frequently as parents who don’t, report studies from the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego.

Is Lying to Children Justifiable?

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In a 2009 study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, surveyed 254 subjects, half of whom were parents and half were college-age students. The college students discussed the kind of lies their parents told them during their childhoods, giving several examples and explaining what their parents’ motivation for lying might be. They were also asked whether or not their own parents stressed honesty at home.

In the second study, parents were asked similar questions regarding reasons for lying, and asked whether or not they stressed to their children that lying was wrong.

Of the student group, 79 percent said their parents taught them that telling lies, even so-called “white lies,” was “unacceptable.” And of the parent group, 74 percent said they told their children that lying was wrong. Even so, 78 percent of parent subjects also said that they had lied to their kids.

Co-author of the study, Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Studies at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said discovering a parent’s lie may help cultivate “a healthy sense of skepticism” in a child. He added, “But on the other hand they might lose trust.”

Paul Ekman, a psychologist and director of the Paul Ekman consultancy group, whose focus is emotional skills and lying, said some “white lies” are a form of politeness and should be “modeled” for children. Other times, parents lie in order not to hurt their children’s feelings or to spare them from information too difficult to process at a young age, reported The Globe and Mail.

Lee says that the goal of his next study will be to better understand the impact that lying has on children.

Background: Children react to lies

“Children’s interpretations of the motives behind the lies [their parents tell] can also lead them to forgive their parents,” child psychologist Lawrence Kutner wrote for The New York Times in 1991.

Kutner cited a study from Ithaca College in New York and Cornell University, which found after surveying 500 elementary students that most children stop believing in Santa Claus between 7 and 8 years old; however a lot of these children pretended to believe in order not to “disappoint their parents,” wrote Kutner.

Dr. John Condry, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Cornell University, noted that most children weren’t upset by the lie. In fact, said Condry, “The most common response to finding out the truth was that they felt older and more mature.”

In situations where the lies aren’t considered “benevolent,” it’s important to admit to them and to explain the situation as best you can. “Once you, as a parent, lose credibility, you’ve lost your moral authority. It knocks the feet out from under a child.” Dr. Lawrence J. Walker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, told the Times.

Related Topic: Lies and imaginative play

“Daddy puts on your bras sometimes,” Juliette Guilbert, a writer for Parenting magazine, recalls hearing her 4-year-old daughter tell her as she tried on lingerie in a store’s fitting room.

Guilbert said her daughter continued telling the story in such detail and with such confidence that Guilbert was compelled to “sheepishly” confront her husband. When the story came out, they both laughed, but Guilbert was still worried. She could make sense of her daughter lying to avoid blame or to acquire some reward, but she couldn’t understand this type of fib.

Through some research Guilbert acknowledged that her daughter’s behavior wasn’t abnormal. From age 3 to 5 children begin to have “a free-wheeling relationship with reality.”

When a child talks about having an imaginary friend, for example, parents shouldn’t get too upset says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of “Raising Kids With Character.”

“It’s not really a lie. What your child indicates when he says ‘He’s real’ is the tremendous colorfulness, prominence, and importance of his imaginary friends,” Berger told Parenting.
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