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Pinocchio Parenting: Why lying to kids is more popular than ever, and why it needs to stop.

When my friend Leslie takes her toddler to the toy store, she pre-empts his consumer cravings him by telling him it’s a museum. “You can look, but don’t touch. And we can’t take anything home.” When my friend Zev’s daughter wants to watch television during the day, he reminds her of their flat-screen’s nocturnal tendencies. “The TV’s sleeping right now. It’ll be awake later, when mommy’s trying to make dinner.” And when my sister-in-law wanted to keep her two year-old away from an off-limit zone – the stove, a stool, her bourbon on the rocks – she’d use a fiery catch-all. “Hot! Hot!”

All parents are susceptible to the lure of the lie: to smooth over conflict, to avoid a melt down, to keep your daughter from thinking daddy was trying to shank mommy when she walks in on you two in the shower. And there are certainly ways in which playfully bending the truth can entertain your child. After we served grapes for snack at the preschool I directed, we’d ask the kids if they’d enjoyed eating “sheep eyeballs.” When our friend’s son calls me by my boyfriend’s name, I sometimes reciprocate by “forgetting” his name too, calling him by his sister’s tag, or a nonsense word like Oobly. And when Tal and I go on family trips with our nieces, he keeps them engaged for hours with tales of abductions and escapes he experienced in the “Bermuda Triangle.”

These kinds of playful lies are effective and appropriate for young kids, because everyone involved is in on the joke. Kids know innately that grapes are a fruit, not an ovine ocular. They’re aware that I’m not quite so dimwitted as to mistake them for their sister. And they’re certain that Tal has not, in reality, wrestled an eighty-foot tall, five-headed robot spider alien on a radioactive Caribbean spaceship. How do they know this? Because we tell them. Either overtly – by eventually reminding them that we’re making it up – or through cues like exaggerating our voice, tone or body language.

Harvey Karp, in his bestselling book The Happiest Toddler on the Block refers to this practice as “Playing the Boob.” If you acted like this all the time, your kid might think that you were an idiot. But because of biological instinct – and our being bigger and more capable – young kids generally assume that the adults around them are of superior intelligence, so if you suddenly and dramatically start acting dopey, they get that you’re pulling their leg. It’s like covering your eyes and asking “Where’s Danielle?” or letting your kid beat you in a race to the car. Toying with the regular rules and dynamics that govern kids’ lives helps them to gain an awareness and appreciation of their own capabilities. And by occasionally undermining your omnipotence, you can give your children room to step up and achieve and/or recognize their mastery. This is constructive “lying.” It fosters kids’ understanding, helps them feel independent, and builds their self-confidence.

But lying to your kids when they’re not in on the joke? That’s a different story. And it’s one that seems to be reaching epidemic proportions among contemporary parents. The hot iced beverage, the sleeping media center, and the Guggenheim F.A.O. Schwarz are only three examples. Pretty much every parent I talk to has some regular lies they tell their child. One tells her daughter that the ice cream van that parks by their playground is a “music truck” there to entertain them with its monotonous song. Another tells his son that the gumball machine in the diner they eat at every weekend doesn’t work on Sundays. In an intriguing twist on feminism, a wonderful mom I know was so invested in fostering her young daughter’s gender pride that she pretended to be a Hillary supporter for the whole primary campaign. Though she was firmly in the Obama camp, whenever Mrs. Clinton won a state contest or showed up on TV, this mom would do a fist-bump with her daughter and they’d shout, “Girl Power!”

This plague of parental prevarication reached its apotheosis this summer with the release of Obecalp: a new over-the-counter children’s medication. The pill, available in supermarkets, is fruit-flavored, and comes in vials of fifty. It contains absolutely no active ingredient; it’s just sugar. Parents are supposed to give it to their kids as a way of offering up a “cure” for intractable problems like the pain of skinned knees, the grody taste of spinach, or the melancholy associated with the end of the day’s Dora episode. What is the point of this? I suppose it could be useful in helping kids develop their esophagus muscles, since we all know that every newborn baby is just an incipient case of medically treatable ADHD. It can also teach them that there is nothing in the world – particularly the banality of nothingness itself – that can’t be cured by modern pharmaceutical science. But the intended use is to try to elicit a Placebo Effect (spell the pill’s brand name backwards).

I’m no curmudgeon. I don’t see anything majorly wrong with parents lying about things like the existence of gift-giving chimeras like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But when we’re knowingly giving kids phony pills to vanquish their manageable minor symptoms, we’ve reached some sort of crisis. (Especially since we already have a perfectly functional, and loving, extant placebo: a kiss to make it better.) What is all this crazy lying all about? It seems to be motivated in part by parents’ desire to protect their kids, to keep them free from any discomfort or disappointment. It’s also a reaction to the hands-off parenting that many of our own parents practiced, which left us alone and without comfort or answers. But its core cause seems to be rooted in something more insidious. Most parents I talk to tell me that they lie mainly to avoid dealing with their own guilt about putting the kibosh on something their child wants. They lie so that they don’t have to say no.

Now, a few falsifications won’t adversely affect your children’s development. But a consistent pattern of fibbing, designed to insulate them from dealing with displeasure – and you from being its source – will limit their ability to become high-functioning and independent humans. What, after all, is the core lesson of life? To develop the coping skills necessary to take in negative, unanticipated or undesired outcomes, process them, and move on. To attempt to “protect” a child from this is wrong-minded, counterproductive and impossible. In her book A Nation of Wimps, Hara Estroff Marano discusses a famous study by Jerome Kagan that shows that temperamentally anxious kids – those who are innately high-strung – can learn to find appropriate means of accommodating life’s difficulties if their parents stand down and let them learn to interact with the world; while this same kind of kid, when cursed with hovering, over-protective parents, remains anxious and fearful as they age.

Lies, no matter how artfully they’re constructed, always necessitate one of two things: the telling of additional lies, or their renunciation. Beyond limiting your kids’ ability to become successful people, lying to them as means of reducing blowback often has precisely the opposite effect. Lies, no matter how artfully they’re constructed, always necessitate one of two things: the telling of additional lies, or their renunciation. So if you tell your son that the toy store is a museum, when you go back there with him to buy a gift for his friend’s birthday, you’re either going to have to fabricate another – often more onerous – story (“It’s a special holiday today where only this box of Legos is for sale, and only if we buy it for Benjy.”) or you’ll have to undermine your authority – which is your bedrock as a parent – by revealing the reality of your fib (“What museum? I only said that to shut you up about that Backyardigans playset.”). Moreover, lies have a tendency to ensnare unintended correlates in the mind of young kids. (“How come we can buy things at the Sephora museum?” or “We always buy things at the gift shop in the MOMA.”) Kids are confused enough about how the world works. They need you to center them, to be their anchor – not a gale force wind blowing them off-course.

The other issue raised by this compulsive deception concerns how kids will react when they become old enough discover the truth. Nothing makes someone look like more of an ass than being caught in a lie. This is particularly true of a parent, whose word a child (rightfully) assumes to be sacred. My friend Jessica once invented a crazy scatological story to get herself and her five-year-old past a manned New York City police barricade during the July Fourth fireworks. The ploy was successful, but as they walked toward the event, the boy appeared shellshocked. “Mom. You just lied,” he said. “To a policeman.” She told me that he reminds her about the story all the time. “I think he’s going to remember that moment his whole life.”

Great, I hear you thinking. This know-it-all gay non-parent has now charged me with perjury and child abuse for telling a few lies, but he hasn’t suggested what to do instead. Well, to answer that, here are a few templates you can use when confronted with the need to dissemble.

Hit Pause: Kids like asking questions. That’s how they figure out how the world works. So when your child inquires about something, it’s useful to respond. The important thing to recognize is, you don’t have to respond right away. Kids are grounded in the concrete and the present tense, but if you tell them that you’re not sure why clouds float, why daddy moved out, or when the Iraq war will end, they’ll be willing to accept that. Explain that you need to think about it for a second, or that you’ll look it up and tell them, or that you can try to figure it out together. Of course, if you take this path, you should pick a concrete time when you’ll give them the answer (after you go down the slide, once we get home, when I get a better signal on my iPhone). You also have to be sure to actually follow through and provide an answer. Otherwise, you just lied.

Take the Hit: I had a friend who left her daughter’s water wings in their rental cabin when they visited the lake at a local state park. When the girl asked to swim, instead of admitting her error, the mom explained that the lake was closed. “It’s full of crocodiles.” Wrong! Only insane people blame their behavior on imaginary forces. When you screw up, accept the blame. It shows your fallibility, helps your child learn to deal with things going off-plan, and pushes everyone to locate functional alternate solutions.

Tell the Truth: Nothing stops the need to lie like veracity. In straightforward, succinct and sustainable terms, let your child know the real deal. Repeat after me: “That’s an ice cream truck. We can get ice cream as a treat, but not every day – it’s not healthy.” Your kid might fuss a few times, but if you say it like you mean it, and stick to your guns, they’ll learn the value of your word, and will be less likely to try to get around it.

Photo by Lauren De Luca

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