Most of us will admit to lying to our kids on occasion. We make up stories about fairies who pay money for teeth and praise even the sloppiest artistic efforts. These parental fibs are rare and motivated mostly by a desire to make our children happy. Or are they? According to a recent study, parents lie to their children more often and about more things than you might think. And their motivation for bending the truth isn’t always altruistic.
To uncover the truth about when and why parents lie, researchers conducted two separate studies. In one, they asked 130 graduate students to comment on specific scenarios in which a lie was told to influence a child’s behavior or emotions. Such scenarios included threats of police intervention if a child didn’t stop crying or a tall tale about a dead relative becoming a star in the sky. Almost 90 percent of the students admitted to being told at least one of those types of lies as a child.
In the other study, 130 parents were given the same scenarios and asked to indicate whether they had told similar lies to their own children. Despite more than 70 percent claiming they teach their children that lying is wrong, nearly 80 percent admitted to using lying as a parenting tool.
So, what’s the harm in telling a little white lie in order to head off a temper tantrum or scare a child into submission? Well, there’s that whole issue of trust. Some day little Johnny is going to figure out that mommy doesn’t really have police officers on standby waiting for her call. But beyond that, researchers say that lying to your kids in order to influence their behavior may impede the learning process. If a child behaves only because he’s afraid of the made-up consequences, will he ever learn to follow the rules without the threat of legal action?
This study was small and preliminary and therefore doesn’t really give much insight into the long-term consequences of parental lying. But it’s a fascinating subject that begs the question: What’s the biggest whopper you’ve told your kids? Did it work?