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Lying To Your Children

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My entire life I’ve been told to tell the truth. The noble premise imparting “the truth shall set you free” forever ingrained in my mind. The memorable tale of George Washington admitting his complete guilt in the cherry tree massacre resulting in his personal transformational epiphany that truth holds more power than any lie. All wonderful deeply profound concepts I treasured. Then I had children. As they’ve grown more aware of the world and their surroundings, the use of the “little white lie” has gained prominence. That’s right folks, I lie to my kids. And I do it because I love them.

As a parent, you’re entrusted with the safety and well being of your children. With young kids, you are the primary source of information. The need to protect them at many times outweighs the necessity for truth. From terrorism to parents being caught in an intimate moment, kids sometimes need an alternative version to events that are transpiring before them. My 4 year old son’s latest obsession is the concept of dying. He’s aware of what dying means and yet he can’t comprehend fully why living things need to die. When a beloved family pet passed away last year my wife and I had to tread lightly on the subject until we felt he was ready to deal with a tragic loss. It’s amazing to what lengths a parent will go to shield a child from emotional pain.

On the other hand, the moral implication of lying to one’s children certainly becomes problematic if used too often as a crutch to control behavior. No doubt a slippery slope looms large for those who continue down the path of misinformation for convenience’s sake. Also, young kids really perceive more than we give them credit at times. Even at a tender age, they can discern between facial expressions versus the spoken word. In other words, unless you have a stellar poker face, they’ll know you’re lying. You risk eroding trust over time. Hence, the need for a balanced approach.

Like fatherhood, the following list is an evolving work in progress on major exceptions to telling the truth to young children:

  1. Loss of Life/ Death of Pets
    This seems to be fairly common place from generation to generation and there’s a reason for it. Death’s too huge a subject for young children to wrap their heads around. Better to ease them into the discussion then bombard them with such an intricate matter.
  2. Intimacy between Parents
    What parents haven’t been caught engaged in some form of intimacy only to have a child waltz in unannounced. Quick thinking usually saves the day to explain to a child what they just witnessed. Closing the door to prevent unannounced visitors isn’t always an option for parents. Perhaps setting up windows of opportunity when the kids will be asleep, out, etc. might be best. Not ideal for spontaneity but that’s the price one pays when children are in the mix.
  3. Catastrophic Events
    Kids need to know you’ll always keep them safe. Terrorism obviously does not conform to the notion of complete safety. Neither do natural disasters. Yet assuring children that you’ll protect them from these larger than life events can help minimize difficult issues that adults struggle to comprehend.

What exceptions do you make for telling the truth to your children? Should there be exceptions?

  • It is a case by case basis and something that evolves based upon a need to know basis. I only give what they need to know.

    • Anonymous

      Without question. the paradigm shifts from family to family. I agree disclosing information on a need to know basis is an option as well as a fabricating the truth.

      • Lili’s Dad

        My daughter is seven, and I can honestly say I’ve never lied to her. There have been times when I have had to say, “It’s not time for you to know that yet.” There have been times when I’ve simplified what I’ve told her, but I’ve never lied.

        • Anonymous

          Thank you for commenting Lil’s Dad. Given the numerous circumstances that could arise from the benign (i.e. Santa) to the extreme over the course of time, it would take a nearly infallible individual to sustain such a disciplined approach. What you’ve achieved is quite remarkable and commendable.

        • jm flip

          That is also how we handle things. If our daughter asks a question I will try to answer the immediate question, but if it is as Lili’s Dad put it not time to know that yet then that is what I say and she understands. I think that because of media and our ultra consumable society, our children are exposed to things in ways previous generations were not. I also think that because of the world we live in parents feel that they have to shield their children from things even though our children have the capacity to understand them. The only time I find I need to be careful about how I explain things is when our daughter asks about the behavior of other adults…

  • It is a case by case basis and something that evolves based upon a need to know basis. I only give what they need to know.

    • Anonymous

      Without question. the paradigm shifts from family to family. I agree disclosing information on a need to know basis is an option as well as a fabricating the truth.

      • Lili’s Dad

        My daughter is seven, and I can honestly say I’ve never lied to her. There have been times when I have had to say, “It’s not time for you to know that yet.” There have been times when I’ve simplified what I’ve told her, but I’ve never lied.

        • Anonymous

          Thank you for commenting Lil’s Dad. Given the numerous circumstances that could arise from the benign (i.e. Santa) to the extreme over the course of time, it would take a nearly infallible individual to sustain such a disciplined approach. What you’ve achieved is quite remarkable and commendable.

        • jm flip

          That is also how we handle things. If our daughter asks a question I will try to answer the immediate question, but if it is as Lili’s Dad put it not time to know that yet then that is what I say and she understands. I think that because of media and our ultra consumable society, our children are exposed to things in ways previous generations were not. I also think that because of the world we live in parents feel that they have to shield their children from things even though our children have the capacity to understand them. The only time I find I need to be careful about how I explain things is when our daughter asks about the behavior of other adults…

  • Tracey

    I, too, have been guilty (often) of telling “alternative versions” of the truth. It comes with the territory of being parent.

    But as you noted, a balanced approach is needed.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your thoughts Tracey. Balance is key and a tough art to master at that. 🙂

  • Tracey

    I, too, have been guilty (often) of telling “alternative versions” of the truth. It comes with the territory of being parent.

    But as you noted, a balanced approach is needed.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your thoughts Tracey. Balance is key and a tough art to master at that. 🙂

  • Jeff

    We lost our cat when my oldest was 4 1/2. She was with us in the pet hospital, said goodbye, and watched me cry afterward. I did my best to explain the permanence of death, to help her understand that her cat wasn’t coming back, but that’s about where it stopped. Since then we’ve explained the concept of heaven, even though we don’t believe in it, so she’s equipped with some of that knowledge (classmates are already discussing it around her). I’ve also touched on tragedies, like terrorism, with her – always mindful to keep it high level. I dislike lying and try to be as clean with my girls as possible, even if it means some awkward conversations. I don’t shy away from the uncomfortable.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your comment Jeff. So many factors in trying to gauge what impact disclosing the truth can have on a child. Your pragmatic approach certainly has served you well.

  • Jeff

    We lost our cat when my oldest was 4 1/2. She was with us in the pet hospital, said goodbye, and watched me cry afterward. I did my best to explain the permanence of death, to help her understand that her cat wasn’t coming back, but that’s about where it stopped. Since then we’ve explained the concept of heaven, even though we don’t believe in it, so she’s equipped with some of that knowledge (classmates are already discussing it around her). I’ve also touched on tragedies, like terrorism, with her – always mindful to keep it high level. I dislike lying and try to be as clean with my girls as possible, even if it means some awkward conversations. I don’t shy away from the uncomfortable.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your comment Jeff. So many factors in trying to gauge what impact disclosing the truth can have on a child. Your pragmatic approach certainly has served you well.

  • I don’t actually make any exceptions, is that bad? I prefer to be honest but at their level if that makes sense. I may not tell the whole big picture, but overall I haven’t lied. Although, I haven’t been “caught in the act”, we won’t get into THAT subject, so I haven’t had to address that. I will tell you that I read my 4 year old’s paperwork I get for “what to expect” at his age and they addressed talking about sex. Apparently sex education is something that should be an open topic from age 4/5. I never thought of that. They said to tell it at their level and to explain truly how a baby is made?! Even use the word vagina?! Apparently most parents are open about drugs & alcohol but not open enough about sex. I never thought about it, but it’s true. I wasn’t allowed to even mention sex in my home growing up. I don’t know if I have ever done a white lie to children … I am sure I must have at least once … but can’t recall. I am pretty open and honest and “at their level” so to speak. We have lost many pets, mainly rodents and bunnies so death is something they have learned from an early age but not “fully understand” at this time probably. I think my 8 year old understands but the 2 and 4 year old, probably not. Great post, enjoyed reading it!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment Brandy. The guideposts about a variety of subjects seem to always be in flux. Often a new study will emerge contradicting a study that was done only a year ago. Parents end up running in place because of the confusion. Collectively, we parents can just try to do our best. If that means filtering information given to our children, so be it. The “how” remains an open question.

      • I agree! Raising three children I have found the guidelines or advice has changed over the 8 years since my daughter was born. I agree we all do the best we can do. I enjoy reading articles like this one along with others because it opens your eyes, as a parent, to new ideas and ways to deal with situations in the life of being a parent. 🙂

  • I don’t actually make any exceptions, is that bad? I prefer to be honest but at their level if that makes sense. I may not tell the whole big picture, but overall I haven’t lied. Although, I haven’t been “caught in the act”, we won’t get into THAT subject, so I haven’t had to address that. I will tell you that I read my 4 year old’s paperwork I get for “what to expect” at his age and they addressed talking about sex. Apparently sex education is something that should be an open topic from age 4/5. I never thought of that. They said to tell it at their level and to explain truly how a baby is made?! Even use the word vagina?! Apparently most parents are open about drugs & alcohol but not open enough about sex. I never thought about it, but it’s true. I wasn’t allowed to even mention sex in my home growing up. I don’t know if I have ever done a white lie to children … I am sure I must have at least once … but can’t recall. I am pretty open and honest and “at their level” so to speak. We have lost many pets, mainly rodents and bunnies so death is something they have learned from an early age but not “fully understand” at this time probably. I think my 8 year old understands but the 2 and 4 year old, probably not. Great post, enjoyed reading it!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment Brandy. The guideposts about a variety of subjects seem to always be in flux. Often a new study will emerge contradicting a study that was done only a year ago. Parents end up running in place because of the confusion. Collectively, we parents can just try to do our best. If that means filtering information given to our children, so be it. The “how” remains an open question.

      • I agree! Raising three children I have found the guidelines or advice has changed over the 8 years since my daughter was born. I agree we all do the best we can do. I enjoy reading articles like this one along with others because it opens your eyes, as a parent, to new ideas and ways to deal with situations in the life of being a parent. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    first off — this was really well written — something i always appreciate when visiting blogs. each time i visit yours, i find that to be the case, and i tip my cap to you because of it.

    second — provocative stuff, here. when it comes to white lies / shielding children, etc… i try to go w/ the “spirit of the rule” approach. sometimes when a referee enforces the rules to a tee, he actually violates the spirit of that rule and brings about a consequence which the rule had never intended to bring about.

    so to that end, if a white lie does not violate the “spirit of the rule,” i will tell it. so in your example of death…if the spirit of your rule is to help your children understand mortality, and telling the the cold hard truth about fido at age three would impede that understanding thanks to your child not being ready, then a white lie is in order as it is told within the spirit of the truth — the truth being, in this case, something which will be learned slowly over time.

    i’m rambling, so i’ll stop. but there’s no way, IMHO, to always tell 100% truth when raising children without harming them in some way shape or form. that’s not to say we should lie to our children, but we should always begin with the end in mind and realize that the “truth” is not always a point in time situation.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you John for your kind words. And thanks for providing an excellent example illustrating the “spirit of the rule” approach.

  • Anonymous

    first off — this was really well written — something i always appreciate when visiting blogs. each time i visit yours, i find that to be the case, and i tip my cap to you because of it.

    second — provocative stuff, here. when it comes to white lies / shielding children, etc… i try to go w/ the “spirit of the rule” approach. sometimes when a referee enforces the rules to a tee, he actually violates the spirit of that rule and brings about a consequence which the rule had never intended to bring about.

    so to that end, if a white lie does not violate the “spirit of the rule,” i will tell it. so in your example of death…if the spirit of your rule is to help your children understand mortality, and telling the the cold hard truth about fido at age three would impede that understanding thanks to your child not being ready, then a white lie is in order as it is told within the spirit of the truth — the truth being, in this case, something which will be learned slowly over time.

    i’m rambling, so i’ll stop. but there’s no way, IMHO, to always tell 100% truth when raising children without harming them in some way shape or form. that’s not to say we should lie to our children, but we should always begin with the end in mind and realize that the “truth” is not always a point in time situation.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you John for your kind words. And thanks for providing an excellent example illustrating the “spirit of the rule” approach.

  • Didactic Pirate

    Great post, and totally true. Sadly, the older kids get, the tougher it is to sell white lies to them. They get pretty sharp, pretty quick. We haven’t had to lie about the death of a loved one yet… but we’ve had to pull out some quick ones on the other two fronts.

    • Anonymous

      Ultimately as you suggest, the need for “white lies” diminishes over time as children get older. Yet I suspect the need for parents to protect their children always remains intact no matter how old the kids get. 🙂

  • Didactic Pirate

    Great post, and totally true. Sadly, the older kids get, the tougher it is to sell white lies to them. They get pretty sharp, pretty quick. We haven’t had to lie about the death of a loved one yet… but we’ve had to pull out some quick ones on the other two fronts.

    • Anonymous

      Ultimately as you suggest, the need for “white lies” diminishes over time as children get older. Yet I suspect the need for parents to protect their children always remains intact no matter how old the kids get. 🙂

  • Great topic for discussion. My boy is only 18 months old right now, so I haven’t had to cross that bridge so to speak. But, my wife and I have had this conversation many times over. From the benign (i.e. Santa Claus) to the difficult matters in life (i.e. Death).

    My approach is going to be very similar to John’s “spirit of the rule” example. Depending on the circumstance, I’m going to do my best to treat A as if he’s a little adult, only if he’s capable of understanding. For example, the two dogs we currently have … if things play out according to lifespans of the dogs, he’s going to be 5 or 6 when one or both pass. At that point, I think he will be old enough to understand, but if they pass sooner, I’ll probably tell a different variation of what happened.

    At the same time, I don’t really see anything wrong with trying to protect your child from something awful. I mean you want them to be a kid for as long as they can, right?

    As an aside … my wife and I had one of our biggest fights, prior to A being born even, when talking about Santa. She was strictly against pretending Santa existed. I couldn’t begin to imagine not seeing the joy on his face thinking Santa brought presents. Made for a few long discussions, but we’ve settled on going the Santa route, but deciding to tell him a little sooner than most probably would.

    Great topic and thanks for sharing.

  • Great topic for discussion. My boy is only 18 months old right now, so I haven’t had to cross that bridge so to speak. But, my wife and I have had this conversation many times over. From the benign (i.e. Santa Claus) to the difficult matters in life (i.e. Death).

    My approach is going to be very similar to John’s “spirit of the rule” example. Depending on the circumstance, I’m going to do my best to treat A as if he’s a little adult, only if he’s capable of understanding. For example, the two dogs we currently have … if things play out according to lifespans of the dogs, he’s going to be 5 or 6 when one or both pass. At that point, I think he will be old enough to understand, but if they pass sooner, I’ll probably tell a different variation of what happened.

    At the same time, I don’t really see anything wrong with trying to protect your child from something awful. I mean you want them to be a kid for as long as they can, right?

    As an aside … my wife and I had one of our biggest fights, prior to A being born even, when talking about Santa. She was strictly against pretending Santa existed. I couldn’t begin to imagine not seeing the joy on his face thinking Santa brought presents. Made for a few long discussions, but we’ve settled on going the Santa route, but deciding to tell him a little sooner than most probably would.

    Great topic and thanks for sharing.

  • You’ve hit another one out of the park Vincent! Smart blog; great topic. Ironically, not to toot my own horn (TOOT TOOT!), this was one of the first subjects I tackled when I started writing my “A Dad’s Point-of-View” columns when I wrote about lying about my boy’s dead hamster and how it died!

    The truth would NOT have set them free, at the time, as they were way too young!

    I even believe telling our spouses some truths is not wise either! For instance, most men may “covet” other women but most “good” men control those feelings. Telling your wife that you control those feelings on a regular basis just wouldn’t be helpful or good for her. Telling a good male friend would.

    Meaningful things should be shared between spouses and when our kids are older much more can be told to them. When my boys got older I did tell them the truth about their beloved and by now long dead hamster. Thinking it had run away and was in the hamster forest was a lot more comforting that the reality that it had escaped its cage due to their negligence and one of our dogs had literally licked it to death.

    So, my rambling comment comes to a close with a resounding, ATTABOY for a great post!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment Bruce. I agree with your notion of dispensing information based on a child’s age. Great to learn it was a successful tactic with your kids. A

      As for honest open communication with one’s spouse, that’s a unique topic unto itself. I have found the inherent value in the phrase “yes dear.” 🙂

      • You probably have a better marriage than I and are clearly a wiser husband by using the very smart two words, “Yes Dear” – I should learn from you!

  • Tracey

    Death is still the trickiest one for me to navigate. Guess it would help if I had a better handle on it myself. 🙂 I love how you say that parents will stop at nothing to shield their children from emotional pain. So very true.

    • cutemonster

      Thanks for stopping by Tracey.  Death is never an easy subject to tackle at any age.