I recently told my child if she ate her broccoli it would make her smart and beautiful. The minute the words fell out of my mouth, I was overcome with guilt and anger at myself for stooping to an outright lie to get her to eat some green food. In one sentence, I threw out patience, thoughtful communication and honesty so I could have an easy time of things.
I spent countless days wondering if this was okay or not. On the one hand, I treat my children with respect and try to show them how to live their lives honestly. On the other hand, here I was stooping to a lie-innocent or not-in order to get her to comply with my wishes. While relating the incident to a friend, she quickly calmed me down and said, “Relax. It’s not lying. It’s parenting!”
But I wonder, is that really true? It’s commonly said that we all tell lies, but do we? Are there really degrees of lies – white lies, little lies, huge untruths- or is a lie, just simply, a lie? Perhaps the better questions are: what exactly is a lie and when is it ever okay to tell one? If we were to get technical with it, a lot of us tell little ones everyday: “Don’t swallow your gum or it will stay there forever.” “Santa Claus knows. He knows.”
When I was honest with myself and got down to the nitty-gritty of it, I realized that I indulge in quite a few “non-truths” in order to gain compliance around the house. Some of my more creative gems include placing the Elf on a Shelf outside my eldest daughter’s room so he can report to Santa Claus daily on the status of her room’s cleanliness, telling my youngest daughter that princesses LOVE to poop in the potty (ok, this one is likely not a lie), and telling both kids that the toy monster will eat all the toys that are left on the floor after bedtime.
As I began to talk to more and more moms about this, I realized I wasn’t alone – both in telling “little lies” and in wanting to tell the truth – the honest truth.
My friend Kimberly uses a white lie to get her two children to brush their teeth regularly. While she admits it’s not exactly the truth, she acknowledges it’s for their own good.
“Getting the kids to brush their teeth and understand the importance of good brushing habits has always been a battle in our home,” she told me. When the dentist decided to describe cavities to my kids as ‘sugar bugs,’ I took this ‘white lie’ and ran with it. Now, my children are convinced that they have bugs in their mouths that get bigger every time they eat sugar. I explained that toothpaste is the only thing that makes the ‘sugar bugs’ shrink, and if you don’t shrink the bugs twice per day, they get big enough to eat your teeth. Not true, but it serves its purpose for the time being.”
Kim says that while it’s technically lying, it’s what’s best for her kids right now. “I can’t say that I support lying to children, but in some situations, I have to adopt a ‘no harm, no foul’ policy – like cavities and sugar bugs,” she said.
Meanwhile, my friend Kristine has decided upon a different approach with her young son: honesty, even when it’s tough. “Lying to comply with my wishes? I don’t do that. Sometimes it would be easier if I did, but I don’t. I can’t start off our relationship like that.”
“It is one of my ‘mommy fears’ that he will not trust me or that he’ll think he can get more accurate information from someone else. So, I have made it a point to be very honest with him from the beginning.” Kristine hopes that one day this will pay off when it counts. “Someday, when he and his buddies do want to know the truth about something, like drugs or girls or something pretty heavy: they will know they will get the truth from me.”
But even she acknowledged that there are times when exaggerating the truth for the benefit of the child could be okay. “Let’s say a child has a fear or insecurity. You need to do your best, as a parent, to make your child feel secure – bottom line. That way he can grow up to be an independent, strong person on his own. So, that might mean telling a young child a small ‘exaggerated truth,’ like saying you have an extra safe house and extra strong locks at night if he’s afraid.”
While we can all agree that being honest when it counts is the key to having integrity, there are everyday lies which most of us succumb to at some point in our life, even if they’re just exaggerations of the truth. Around here, the toy monster still stands watch over the playroom, but broccoli only gets eaten every now and then. I’m trying to parent with more intention – and that includes weighing the pros and cons of any “lie” I might tell my kids.
While parents may not agree on what is a lie and when it’s appropriate, we do all agree that anything done with our children’s best interest is the right approach. It’s not about lazy parenting or taking the easy road – it’s about doing what feels right for you and your child.