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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