Liar, liar, pants on fire: The lies we tell our children

How do our lies affect our children? Learn how to teach your child to value honesty in a dishonest world.

When you show your child you are trustworthy, you are showing them they can trust you with anything that comes up in their lives.
When you show your child you are trustworthy, you are showing them they can trust you with anything that comes up in their lives.

If you don’t eat your broccoli, you’ll never grow up big and strong. The needle won’t hurt, I promise. If you don’t keep up, I’m going to leave without you!

Everyone lies, and every parent lies to their children. Yet surprisingly enough, you see very few people walking around with their trousers alight or growing noses. It’s easy to let little lies slip to our children if only to make our lives a little bit easier, but lying has consequences for both you and your children. So how do we teach children to value and practice honesty when they are surrounded by lies?

Why do we lie to children?

Parental lies are not often malicious. No one intends to hurt their children by lying to them. So, why do we lie to children?

  • Convenience. When children decide to play 100 questions while you’re working to get four kids ready for school, take the dog out and get yourself ready for work, sometimes we feel like we don’t have the time or energy to fully answer a child’s question so we lie simply to end the conversation.
  • Avoidance. Sometimes we lie to avoid certain situations. We tell children there’s coffee in our mug instead of soda to avoid a power struggle and we tell children that Buddy the dog went to a farm because talking about death is uncomfortable.
  • Manipulation. It sounds worse than it is, but we often use lies to get children to do what we want or what is best for them. While your intentions may be good, telling your child Mickey Mouse won’t let them go to Disney World if you don’t eat your carrots is still a lie. From time to time we try to control children’s behavior with little lies.

If everyone does it, why is lying such a bad thing? Besides being a basic moral wrong, lying has consequences. Once lost, trust takes hard work to rebuild. When you show your child you are trustworthy and willing to tell the truth, you’re not only teaching them to value honesty, you are showing them they can trust you with anything that comes up in their lives. This matters in the present, when they are willing to bring small issues to you. But building that base of trust and honesty has long-term impacts. Children who have learned to trust and communicate openly with their parents are more willing to share tough issues as they get older.

When we lie for convenience, we may solve our short-term problems, but we also teach our children that it’s OK to skip over the truth if you’re in a hurry. This is a missed opportunity to share your experiences with your children. If you’re running in 10 different directions, explain it, “I would love to answer that question, but right now I am busy trying to make dinner. Could we talk about it tonight instead?” You show your child you value their questions and ideas and avoid an unnecessary lie.

When we lie to avoid, we teach our children to avoid. Relationships are messy and life is hard. By lying in order to dodge having those tough talks with children, we are missing out on an opportunity to help them learn and grow. Sometimes you have to rip the band aid off and deal with a little pain in order to heal. It’s important to remember that information shared with children should be developmentally appropriate. Sharing an appropriate amount of the truth helps your child learn and keeps your track record clean.

When we lie to manipulate or steer our children, we overlook an opportunity to help them learn valuable self-help skills. Children should brush their teeth, not because the tooth fairy won’t visit them, but because germs in their mouths might cause cavities and pain. Teaching children this logical, cause-and-effect relationship helps prepare them to make smart decisions later on.

Michigan State University Extension has some ideas about how to practice honest communication with your children and teach them to value honesty.

  • Get real. It’s OK to give your child an answer they don’t want to hear. When your child asks you to explain the meaning of life right in the middle of your morning rush, tell them you’ll need some time to think about it and you’ll get back to them. Then get back to them! (It’s also OK to admit you don’t know the answer to everything!)
  • Tell mini-truths. Sometimes you can tell the truth without telling the whole truth. When a 3-year-old asks where babies come from, they don’t need to whole truth. Instead of lying, start by giving a small bit of information and see if they are satisfied with your response. If not satisfied, add a little more truth.
  • Fess up. If you get caught in a lie, own it. Come clean to your kids, admit your mistake and tell them what you should have done instead. Remind your children it is hard to trust someone who lies. You’ll show your kids you are not perfect either, and everyone makes mistakes.
  • Build parameters. Lying is part of society – we tell social lies to spare others’ feelings. When we teach children to say they love their hideous Christmas sweater from Grandma, explain to them it is OK to spare someone’s feelings. It’s not OK, however, to lie about other things like where you are or who you are with. Explain the difference between socially acceptable lies and ones that jeopardize safety, security or trust.
  • Talk about the tough stuff. Teach your children to value honesty by trusting them with your secrets. As painful or uncomfortable as it can be, have those conversations with your child. Trust your kids and they will learn to trust you.

The world is not black and white. All too often we live surrounded by gray where obvious answers aren’t so obvious. In teaching your child to value honesty, it is so important to find the balance of protecting your children while also guiding them through those uncomfortable or difficult situations.

For more information about positive discipline, child development, academic success or parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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