Should You Lie to Your Children?

A version of this article was first published in the Ashland Daily Tidings.

Baby Kaseem had a doctor’s appointment so it was time for me to take my three children home for dinner. Our visit was almost over but without thinking, because his daughter asked, our friends’ dad turned on some cartoons.

My son scrambled onto the couch, settled in and looked happily at the TV screen.

“We have to go sweetie,” I apologized. “We can’t stay and watch cartoons today.”

Above the protests of his daughter, the dad went to shut off the TV.

“Look,” he said. “The TV’s not working right. It’s broken.”

Sure enough, the picture scrambled.

Reluctant to get off the couch, my son Etani, who was three years old at the time, hesitated.

The scrambled screen interested him—(“I’m going to be a fixer when I grow up, Mommy,” he liked to say. “A fixer and a mommy and a bad guy and maybe also a lion”)—but then he sighed, wriggled off the couch, and came cooperatively to the door.

The dad told me in the car as he drove us home that he had fiddled with the screen, pretending the TV was broken so his daughter wouldn’t insist on watching it.

He had told a white lie to the kids to avoid a scene.

White lies are convenient like that—they provide a way to cut parenting corners and dodge problems.

Instead of saying “No, you can’t go over to Camille’s house for half an hour right now because you need to finish your homework, spend time with the family, and we’re eating dinner soon,” which potentially invites discussion (if you have a persuasive and tenacious firstborn like I do), you say, “You can’t go over to Camille’s because she’s not home right now,” or, “Her mother told me she wasn’t feeling well.”

Like a broken TV, if Camille is sick or absent there’s nothing to fight about.

But small lies often lead to more lies, sometimes even bigger ones.

How do you explain that the TV is suddenly working? What do you say when Camille tells your daughter that she’s perfectly healthy? As a parent, I try to avoid lying to my children as much as I can. If I lie to them, how can they trust me and know that, as much as I can, what I tell them is the truth?

But being truthful often makes parenting more complicated. Once when Hesperus was seven years old and getting ready for school she bounced in to the kitchen to ask me if she had done a good job with her hair.

It was in a lumpy ponytail with a lot of hair sticking out. She looked unkempt.

I hesitated.

I knew she had worked on the ponytail for a long time and I didn’t want to tell her it looked bad. I knew if I told the truth she might get mad at me and also have hurt feelings. But if I didn’t tell her the truth, my white lie might hurt her more: she might get teased at school, or look in the mirror again and realize that her ponytail was not pretty.

“What Mommy? Tell me!” she said impatiently.

“You have such thick hair and it’s really hard to get it into a nice ponytail,” I began. “And I don’t want to hurt your feelings but, honestly, it doesn’t look good. I think you should do it again.”

She scowled at me, her eyebrows knit, and then, brush in hand, flounced out of the room back to the mirror in the bathroom. She spent a long time in the bathroom and came back with a much neater ponytail.

“Is this one better?” she asked.

It wasn’t perfect. There was still one ridge where the hair had bunched instead of being smooth. But it was better. Now she looked like a well-groomed child instead of a hobo.

“Yes,” I answered honestly, hugging her.

For a minute she held her body stiff but then she leaned into my embrace.

We want to protect our kids and praise them but how can they believe us—and believe in themselves—if we lie to them?

I was proud of my daughter for trying again, and glad I’d told her the truth.

What do you think about telling children white lies? As a parent do you manage to always avoid lying to your children or do you find that there are times when lying is okay? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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13 thoughts on “Should You Lie to Your Children?”

  1. I agree that one should not lie to one’s children, or tell little white lies to get out of a situation, and had believed that forever, but still found myself telling white lies from time to time when my children were small, and then that escalated to larger lies, when they became teenagers. I need to justify this behavior by adding that we lived in France where lying seems almost part of the culture. But, but, but my middle daughter always understood when I was not telling the truth, and reproached me for these lies later on in life, usually lies associated with the break-up of my marriage to her father. So, young mothers out there in cyberspace, heed the wise words of this blogger, tell the truth at all times to your children.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..When An Innkeeper Makes Exception to the Rule =-.

  2. I think it’s ok to simplify, but I do try my hardest not to lie. That’s because I’m trying to teach my daughter not to lie. How can I teach her that if I do it. That said, they sometimes fly out of my mouth at surprising speed. And sometimes, over simplicity seems like a lie. For instance saying “I can’t afford it” simplifies “it’s not in our weekly budget.” But when, that same day, I buy groceries and my daughter asks “how can you afford those when you couldn’t even buy me a pack of bubble gum?” it suddenly gets complicated.
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..Marriage Improvement Monday =-.

  3. My general policy is not to lie to them about anything. I agree about simplifying though. I try to give age appropriate answers.

  4. While I really hate to lie, the truth is that there are some circumstances where you might be tempted to, or need to, tell a white lie to your children. Now that my children are older, I won’t ever lie to them. But when they were little, there were times it was just necessary or more “convenient” and never hurt anyone. I think you need to weigh how harmless or harmful the lie will be and if you are doing it to protect the feelings of the other person; it’s all so individual, after all.
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Secrets of a Happy Marriage =-.

  5. It’s! So! Hard!

    But so important because . . . they KNOW! They learn much from us, including, if we’re not careful, how to fudge the truth. Yikes.

    (Thanks for the post!)

  6. It is difficult to resist the temptation to ease things with white lies, especially since you are always changing what you say to suit a young audience–editing, abridging, smoothing over–at what point does that become lying? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we find that it happens without noticing, and we hear ourselves sounding like our parents (some of whom may have been a bit lacking in probity). But I don’t lie or distort, except in slip-ups (or slips down the slippery slope of simplification) and the best way to fight the temptation is always to give more information and sophistication than you think they’re ready for. This is the antidote to our disrespectful attitude that they ‘can’t REALLY understand,’ and if you give them a chance, they can learn to understand more. And if they can’t yet…well, maybe they’ll be confused enough to give up and get in the damn car so we can go, already.

  7. Yeah, I think the kid can see right through the whole “TV’s not working” bit. I’m with Melanie, that’s just laziness. As a general rule, I do try to be as honest as possible with my kids.
    .-= MyKidsEatSquid´s last blog ..Olympic Gold Medal Cookies

  8. I think we make a consciencious effort to always tell the truth and to do so tactfully and on a level our children can understand. There is something I call lying through omission that I believe we all resort to at times. Beware that it can also be detrimental to a child.

    When I was a young boy I idolized my older cousin. My father persuaded me to go on a trip with another friend and spend the weekend on a farm. When I came home after spending a few days collecting eggs, milking cows, and riding horses, I discovered that my cousin had come to visit. I was angry that I wasn’t told or given the option whether to stay and play with him or go to the farm.

    In hind sight, I realize that my father only wanted the best for me and he felt the farm experience was a golden opportunity that may not come along again. I did have a great time but I still stewed over the fact that my cousin came and I wasn’t told about it.

    It’s always best to be honest.
    .-= Peter Chordas´s last blog ..not a dog treat, not chocolates, but widely available in moscow right now =-.

  9. I understand why the dad with the daughter lied about the tv but I think he could have just said “No, turn it off” and I don’t think it was very good parenting to just say it doesn’t work and avoiding the kids whining. That was kinda lazy of him. And plus wouldn’t the daughter figure out after a while that the tv really was working? Maybe if she were young she wouldn’t care and think her dad just made a mistake but if my dad did that to me (I am 12) I would be like “You lied to me it does work” and be a little mad. I think its better if parents told the truth because usually I want my parents to just tell me the truth because to me their opinion or what they say I can and can’t do maters, and I would rather hear the awful truth from them, then to find out they were making things up and hear it from someone else.

  10. It’s never a good idea to lie to your kids, even with the tough ones like “Mum, have you ever taken drugs?” (Though truth be told the hardest part was the absolute disbelief followed by guffaws of laughter from my 11-year-old son, who couldn’t believe his old mama might have inhaled.

    But when your in the middle of a conversation about the hypocrisy of Alex Rodriguez and the whole steroid scandal in baseball, what can you do?
    .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..Dinner Guests: What Makes a Good One? =-.

  11. I think the example of Hesperus’ ponytail is a good one. Part of telling the truth to children is teaching them that they can trust us. If Jennifer had lied to Hesperus, and Hesperus had gone to school and been teased, it would have been a message to her that she can’t trust her mom.

  12. Yes, I mostly agree to everything said in this post. It’s about being tactful–I wouldn’t lie to spare feelings but I don’t think you need to be brutal about it either. It’s a slippery slope–lying. And like someone once said to me, it’s a lot easier to remember the truth. So I stick to honesty. I get to use it with my kids too–I can point and say, “have I EVER lied to you?” and they always say, “no Mom..” and so I guess the truth thing works in my favor. But.. let’s talk about the 800lb gorilla.. what about… Santa? 😉
    .-= Claudine´s last blog ..Irish =-.

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