Parents Lying to Children: Necessary or Hypocritical?

Lying to our Children: The Elephant in the Room Meets The Hypocrite in the Mirror

By: Dr. Robyn Silverman


In the wake of honesty month, for Powerful Words, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Parents often lie to their children. It’s OK, right? After all, our parents did it. Most parents still do.

You eat a cookie before dinner and then deny it. You call in sick to work and tell them you had a day off. And yes, you may have even told that you didn’t inhale.

But if we’re supposed to lead by example, why do so many parents lie to their children? We often tell our children that lying is (nearly always) unacceptable. Parents lie for all different reasons; from lying for the protection of their children, to keeping details about sex, drugs, smoking, death, war and peace ? Is it ethical? Hypocritical? Wise? Necessary?

Some things to consider:

  • Reasons for lying
  • Possible benefits from telling the truth
  • Goals for child as a parent

(1) Reasons for lying: First to consider is why you’re lying to your child in the first place. Most parents lie just to keep their kids from being prematurely pushed from their comfort zones. That’s a good reason. After all, information that we give our children should be age-appropriate so that it can be easily understood and processed.

  • Why it can be a bit hypocritical: Well, we ask children to not only tell the truth, but not to omit details of the truth either. Then we go ahead and do a covert cover up, leave out pieces of the story, or just tell them a bold faced lie. Let’s call a spade a spade here.
  • Why it can be necessary: When children are asked to listen and accept truths prematurely, it can be very scary and confusing for them. Parents often know best. Yes, some topics are not meant for little ears and others need to be explained very delicately or in broad brush-strokes. If you’re unsure how to handle a touchy situation, talk to your Pediatrician or other helping professional.
  • Parents Biggest Mistake: Your child asks you a question and you tell him that he’s too young to talk about such things (i.e. sex, drugs, smoking, etc). Mark my words, he’ll either (1) find out from another source, (2) become so interested in it that he gets into some trouble (forbidden fruit), or (3) he’s already doing it or thinking about doing it and you just missed your opportunity to talk about it with him!!! Don’t make this mistake!!!

(2) Benefits from telling the truth: Telling the truth can also be beneficial in certain situations. Some children would take their parents’ admissions of past mistakes as a point of connection between them. Children can also learn from your past mistakes or the mistakes of others. They also may appreciate and show gratitude for their current lifestyle, opportunities, and support system by knowing what came before them to make it possible. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, children and teens will learn about drugs, sex, war and other touchy topics from someone—make yourself their first and most credible resource.

  • Be sure to express your opinion: If you choose to tell the truth about your own past experiences and mistakes, be sure to talk to your children about why you believe it was a mistake, what you wish you had done instead, and how you feel about your children participating in such situations. Show the amount of disapproval such a thing deserves such as sex at a young age or drugs.
  • Be sure to ask questions: Don’t be the one who does all the talking. Ask your children and teens how they feel about these topics, questions and concerns that they have, why it’s of interest now, and how you can help them the most. Let them tell you their stories and talk to you about their fears, interests, and worries. Listening is one of the best things you can do.
  • Caution! Remember to make your explanations age-appropriate. In many cases, it’s best if details of crazy parties, early sexual experiences, drug use, and smoking, were left out. Explaining too much in detail might give the kids the impression that you miss what you used to do or that you feel it was a good idea—even if you don’t believe that at all. Children also don’t need to hear many of the gory details of the current war your brother or niece is helping to fight—but rather, the hard work their doing, their bravery, and the band of brothers and sisters that are working to keep them as safe as possible so that we can all be safe at home. By the same token, when you are divorcing filling your child’s head with information about spousal infidelity, stealing, cheating, and backstabbing is not appropriate—but rather, that while his parents no longer love each other or can live with each other, both parents will always love him, care for him, and it’s in no way his fault. As yourself, how does this information serve my child? And remember to think about why they might be asking—for reassurance, for basic information, for safety, or what?

(3) Goals for Child: Think about your goals for your children. If you shelter them, it may backfire. They feel unprepared or lied to—and this could put in question your credibility. On the other hand, too much information can be confusing and scary. You must really listen to your child and help him without overwhelming him. You must teach him integrity, honesty, and trust, without compromising yours.

  • Note: Telling them all of your past mistakes may make them wonder about your credibility—if you did X, did you also do Y? In addition, watch those double standards! Telling children not to smoke, while smoking yourself, can be a tough fight to win.

I know, it can all be very uncomfortable, right? To tell the truth or to tell a lie? Powerful Words do make us look harder in our own mirror. At least we’re almost onto a new month…determination…get out your running shoes!

copyright: Dr. Robyn Silverman

Clipart credit: Jupiter Images


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