An Honest Look At Lying To Our Kids
Written by Kate MacLean
Photography by Alex Elle, Photographed By Erika Layne
Editor’s note: While it is safe to assume no young children are reading Mother, it must be stated here that the following article contains some “straight talk” about Santa Claus.
There is a common dichotomy in parenting that surrounds the topic of honesty: parents expound upon the importance of it to their children, yet in their daily lives they do not show a faithful devotion to the practice. Lies to young children can take a myriad of forms with different intended outcomes. We compiled research from several child psychologists to bring you some helpful guidelines when considering if, how, and when to lie to your young child.
Why do parents lie?
There are many reasons for parents to lie to their children including desires of safety, convenience, and happiness. These lies can take the form of small lies, lies of fantasy (and myth), and the trickery of omission. As the authors of the aptly named “Parenting by Lying” study so eloquently offer, “parenting by lying is a response to the challenge of coordinating conflicting sets of goals.” That is, lying can result when the goals of the parent differ from those of the child.
Often what you want for a child is in direct conflict with their immediate desires. The case of the after-dinner ice cream is a conflict to which most parents can relate. The child holds the all-consuming goal of eating sugar. The parent has a conflicting goal of their child falling calmly asleep without meltdown or sugar crash. For the parent to fulfill their goal, they may choose to employ a lie [“The raccoons ate the rest of our ice cream!”] in order to bypass a possible showdown resulting from a simple and reasonable statement [“No, it’s too late”] . The lie here is in the name of household convenience and happiness.
In a 2002 study on parental lying, Penelope Brown researches mayan rural corn farmers who lie to their children as a primary means of control for safety. The parents in the study threaten their young children with all manner of fears (dog bites, bee stings, kidnapping, etc.) as a means of controlling their behavior, and keeping the children close by. The tactics are widely used in the community, and older children even begin using the tactics on younger siblings as a means of aiding in childrearing.
What are the possible ramifications of lying?
One parental fear of lying is the prospect that it may erode trust between parent and child. Lying to one’s children is a means of avoiding or delaying the ramifications of knowing the truth. Eventually—for most lies, save the more mundane quotidian lies—the child will learn the truth. And, the question is thus: how will the child react to the understanding they were lied to? Will there be a sense of betrayal?
In an email to Mother, Dr. Hyowon Gweon, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University told us: “What parents should do to decide whether to use these lies, serious or not, is try to compare the possible negative consequences of children finding out the truth right now versus finding out the truth later, along with the probability of them ever finding out what really happened.” When they do find out, Gweon continues, “ the good news is that [young] children seem to ‘exonerate’ others’ actions if they understand the good intent behind it.”
To use the the aforementioned Mayan families as illustration, the intent of the lies of kidnapping dangers is to keep the children safe by keeping them physically close to their parents. Even though it is certain the children will eventually understand that there was no specific threat of kidnappers lurking beyond the fields, the idea of safety is a ‘good intent’. Thus, the Mayan parents don’t run a grave risk of eroding trust in their children.
Where is the line between playful fantasy and coercive lie?
From storybooks to the Easter Bunny and wood fairies to Santa Claus, children revel in a world of fantasy and magic. Scholars, parents, and psychologists are in a constant chorus of disagreement as to where the line of fantasy ends and overt deception by parents begins.
There is no lie more ubiquitous in American parenting than that of Santa Claus. According to a Huffington Post poll, a full 71% of American children under 10 believe in Santa Claus
The Santa lie is an extravagant one. Most of the debate on Santa rests among the deliberate tactics in deceit used to support the lie and coerce a specific behavior (that of goodness). Santa Claus is a lie parents work tirelessly to support, from fabricated alibis and reindeer sightings to half-eaten cookies and foreign wrapping paper. Even the United States Postal Service is hellbent in their dedication to the facade with their Letters from Santa service.
In a recent article on the subject published in Lancet Psychiatry, professor of psychology Christopher Boyle writes, “ In a mythology more recently augmented in North America by the ever-vigilant ‘Elf on the Shelf’, it is made clear that no child can hide from the North Pole’s National Security Agency-style vigilance—an altogether terrifying thing when considered as an adult.” Boyle highlights the “be good or else” parenting lie that he argues is not an ethical use of a lie. Are there any parents who actually withhold presents from their children for bad behavior? Is the specter of the threat of omnipresent surveillance necessary, or ethical? Must parents tie the incentive for good behavior to a lie and material reward?
Boyle highlights the transition from belief to the understanding of the reality of Christmas. “There can be a great imbalance, which becomes more striking as a child realizes their version of normal is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s, where the types and quantity of presents received are directly related to the socioeconomic status of their parents. Parental income is the more obvious factor than goodness. If Santa were real, surely he would be equitable? Santa is clearly not a socialist.” Parents could do well to consider these questions and the possibility of celebrating fantasy without the intricate insistence on its reality.
You can read endlessly impassioned articles for and against lying to your children. You can read even more about the specific debate over Santa Claus. Like every nuance of parenting, lying to your children is a highly personal decision that must ultimately be discussed between you and your partner. Through the aggregation of research it can sound like an overly complicated equation made in each moment, but in its essence, deciding to lie to your children should be just as intentional as the rest of your parenting. Simply put, ask yourself in the moment: Is this best for (the happiness, convenience, safety, etc. of) my child?
Parents, do you lie to your children? How do you navigate the balance between the importance of honesty and fulfilling your own goals for happiness and safety in your home? How do you navigate the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc.? Do you remember moments of realizing a lie your own parents told you?
Share this story