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Is it ever okay to lie to your children?


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 02/16/20

There are many opportunities in parenting to evade the truth, but consider these points before you do.

Over the years, my children have presented me with an entire museum of hand-drawn pictures. Many are little more than scribbles, some are more recognizable representations of our family. Unicorns and sunsets are also common themes. I take these pictures seriously – I take most things children do quite seriously — both because the pictures are tangibly linked to a precious time in the life of my children that I want to remember, and because the love with which they’re made and given is very real. They have real value. Does this mean the pictures are good, though? Are they museum quality? Do they even show the tiniest bit of promise that my daughter is going to grow up and become a famous artist? Probably not.

Here’s the conundrum parents come up against: how to encourage our children and express appreciation but not lie in order to do so. The last thing I want to do is gush about how “good” the art is and give them false ideas, so I confine myself to noting my appreciation of their hard work, thank them for the gift, and tell them I love it. All true. But I never mislead them.

Now, I know some parents disagree and don’t see a little white lie about something as trivial as artwork to be all that important. Some are willing to lie to their children because they have good intentions. The lies can protect or shelter our little ones from the chaos and evil of the world. We want them to maintain their innocence as long as possible before having to face the reality of illness, death, violence, and divorce.

Along these lines, some parents want to promote a more magical world for their children and so they insist that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are real. There’s also the inevitable moment when your kids are driving you crazy and it’s just easier to tell them a lie. For instance, “Your teeth will fall out if you don’t brush them,” “The television is broken which is why you can’t watch it right now,” or, “The park is closed today and we can’t go.”

Now, I’m not trying to sound superior and don’t want this to come across as judgmental. I have plenty of flaws as a father, but one decision I’ve made is that I won’t lie to my children for any reason, ever. Here’s why:

They’ll start lying to you

Studies show lasting negative effects on children when their parents lie to them. Untruths used to control children’s behavior won’t work forever. Eventually, children figure it out and realize you’ve been manipulating them. Even seemingly harmless lies like insisting Santa is real cause real emotional turmoil and children feel betrayed or embarrassed once they discover the truth. If we show them through example that lies can be used in certain circumstances to make life easier, they’ll take that lesson to heart and begin employing it themselves. They will readily and easily begin lying to parents, teachers, and anyone else they need to, and they will do so with the best of intentions.

Loss of trust

I want my children to trust every word I say. I learned very early on that I should never threaten dire consequences if I don’t intend to follow through. I can’t lie to force compliance. I can’t threaten to leave a child behind if they don’t put their shoes on right now. I’d never do that and they’d eventually figure that out. They’ll also figure out that their drawings aren’t very good. I’ve come to understand, also, that if I commit myself to actual truth-telling in any and all circumstances, my kids trust what I say the first time, so I don’t have to resort to drastic threats anymore.

The easy way isn’t the path to maturity

It’s easy to lie to our children to shelter them from the evils of life, build up their confidence, or keep them from asking too many hard questions, but these untruths delay their maturation. The easy way is never the productive way. Honesty is always a better policy, offering the opportunity for your child’s personal growth, even if an honest answer to a question results in a long, difficult conversation.

Actions are more powerful than intentions

It isn’t uncommon to justify bad actions by claiming we had good intentions. The thought would be, it’s wrong to lie most of the time but you can if you do so with good intentions. Children notice this and eventually come to believe that intentions are more important than actions. This is a slippery slope to a lifetime of excuses and avoidance of accountability. In the end, intentions aren’t worth all that much. What really matters is what we do, how we follow through, and if people can trust us.

The point of all this is rather simple: if we lie to our children about small things, we can smooth over short-term difficulties but will be creating a long-term set of much bigger, more serious problems of trust and accountability. Honesty is always best, and your children — and you — will benefit from it.


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