Lying to Kids? Moms Weigh In

Chelsea Day

With holiday seasons constantly looming, many parents are starting to have discussions about things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Year-round parents simplify facts like, "carrots will make you have better vision" and outright lie with gems like, "keep making that face and it'll get stuck like that!"

Where do we draw the line? When does a little white lie turn into a developmental hindrance? We asked experienced parents to weigh in based on their own experiences.

Start Simple
Children are likely to feel less deceived when the truth comes out if they've been told a more basic version of facts as opposed to hearing outright whoppers. "You should try to find simpler ways to explain things to children," says mother of three Nickida Stephens. "Share more as they get older and are able to understand better."

Think Through the Story
Other parents choose to think through the reason behind fairy tales or the messaging behind common mistruths. "It's all in the presentation," says Ellen Lafleche-Christian, a mom of two striving to live a simpler lifestyle. "For us Santa Claus is real. Not in the jolly fat man who comes down the chimney but in the spirit of Saint Nicholas who was known for his generosity toward children. By saying Santa Claus (or Saint Nicholas) left presents, we are honoring his memory by being generous to each other. We make sure they understand the real reason for the Americanized holidays.

Slippery Slope
The trouble for many parents is that small lies often lead to bigger untruths with curious kids. "I don't think parents should lie to their children," said mom blogger Emily Stephens. "I tell my son not to do certain things, but give him a reason why. I teach him not to call people names because it hurts their feelings, not to make mean faces at people because it isn't kind, to eat his vegetables because they help him stay healthy. Lying about small things just makes it okay to lie about big things. I want our relationship to be honest and open, like I had with my parents."

Shielding them from Pain
A common lie told to kids is one about painful life experiences like illness or death. It's not unusual for parents to tell kids that their pet ran away or was given to another family, but does that save them from dealing with hardship in the long run? "Death is a natural part of life," explained kid product expert Sarah Huz. "I wouldn't tell my daughter her grandmother went to live on a farm, so why the family pet?"

Little White Lies
Sometimes, (particularly in public!) a little while lie can save toddlers from a meltdown and make the day go just a little more smoothly. Busy working mom Meagan Paullin admitted, "It's tough to NOT lie about things like, 'Oh the cookies are all gone. Sorry!'" This hits home especially for parents of special needs children. Tiffany Ellman has a child with autism and doesn't mind resorting to a quick tale to keep things in line. "Their anxiety is off the charts so sometimes I do it to keep them from a major meltdown."

Fantasy Play
Some parents continue the tradition of fairy tales to give their children beautiful memories, as is the case with homeschooler Michelle Cantu. "I lie to my kids for the sake of them having a 'magical childhood.'" Other parents, however, disagree and opt out of the Santa thing altogether. "Young children have a hard time differentiating between reality and fantasy," insists former preschool teacher Kari Robinson. "Telling little white lies does them no favors, it just muddles the line."

What Experts Say About Lying to Kids

Experts generally agree that parents should lie to their children as infrequently as possible. There are some developmental factors at play in terms of when they are old enough to grasp certain concepts, but overall, the consensus is that it’s not possible to raise honest human beings without being honest with them in the first place.

Remember that there are three types of lies: falsehoods, omissions, and exaggerations. Things like Santa Claus at Christmas and leprechauns on St Patrick’s Day may be thought of as simple exaggerations of age-old celebrations. Where each family draws that line and how dramatically they choose to play up the lie is up to them – as they’ll be the ones dealing with potential blowback when kids realize they’ve been duped. The lines between creating a fantasy universe and lying about the actual world that kids engage with every day? That’s a tough call to make.

Understanding the Motivation to Lie

Most people have a hard time admitting when they're wrong, and that can be especially true of parents. Parents often feel the need to be right in front of their children and may create a snowball of little lies that lead up to an unfortunate situation. On top of that, many parents are exhausted from lack of sleep or the effort it takes to juggle kids and work life. This can lead to a whole host of common parenting quandaries, from lying to or about kids about everything from TV violence to how old they are (discount on attraction tickets, anyone?).

Confront the root cause of the mistruths, and you can often avoid the need to tell lies. If violence in movies or on television is an issue in your home that needs to be explained to kids in a gentle, less-than-truthful way, maybe they need less screen time or better choices. If you have to lie to get the kids into an attraction, maybe spend the day at a public park instead. It’s obviously not a clear, cut-and-dry situation, but kids are resilient and often can face simple truths when they’re stated plainly.

The world of parenting is a complicated one. However, there are some things that children need to know for their own safety and well-being – both physical, and emotional, as they get older. And you’d be surprised at what your kids probably already know. Children are masters at reading their parents’ emotions, and tend to know much more than you’ve put into words.

What's your take? Where do you land on the parenting debate between all fact and occasional fantasy?

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Helping parents live simple and satisfying lives. Our homeschooling family loves to learn, and in our spare time (hah!) we RV travel and flip houses.

Boise, ID

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