Is Telling White Lies Ok?

Everyone’s heard the old saying “honesty is the best policy” at one time or another and you may have even said it to your kids at some point. As adults, we are fully aware that telling lies, including little white lies to spare others’ feelings, can be exhausting to keep track of and have the ability to corrode or permanently damage even the best relationships. The irony in this is that we as parents lie to our children, the most sacred relationships we have with another human being in our lifetime, possibly on a daily basis. So, ethically speaking, is it actually OK or justified to ever tell lies to our children? Further, what should we teach our children when it comes to lying, and what should we do when we catch them in a lie?

The Lies We Tell Our Children

First comes the most important question of all: Is it ever truly justified to lie to our children? If you’re the average moral adult who can agree that lying is bad, the majority of the lies you tell throughout your week are probably the little white lies you tell your children, if you feel it’s necessary to tell any lies at all. While bigger than a white lie, take the scenario of a beloved pet fish dying for example. If your child is merely a toddler, you may not have the heart to tell them that their fish died and instead say that it’s just sleeping, flush it down the toilet when they’re not paying attention, and replace it with a new fish to avoid a complicated conversation about dying. 

While you feel this may be the right thing to do for your child (and of course with the greatest intentions), you’re not only lying, but you’re also deceiving them by having them believe that the new fish is the same old fish that they loved so much. You’re also making the judgment that your child can’t handle the concept of death or that they shouldn’t have that information yet (again, this is a rather “food for thought” discussion, not a judgment on your parenting decisions!).

While your very role as a parent is to make such judgments for what they should know and at what age, you may be unaware of just how often you lie to them about truths that they could not only handle well, but also benefit from knowing. If your child is old enough (by your judgment) to understand abstract concepts like death, they could certainly benefit from being mentally and emotionally prepared for its inevitability as it shows itself through their life, which allows them to grow, mature, and understand the world around them. 

The previously mentioned consequences of such a small lie and its respective deception are also true for any lies you tell your children- you’re actually saying that you don’t think they can handle the truth while teaching them that lying is ok. When your child reaches an age where they realize you lied about situations like a pet dying, they could either be appreciative that you spared them the negative emotions at the time, or, they could also begin to trust you less. This can damage your relationship by normalizing lying and subconsciously encouraging them to lie to you in return. 

As a society, we have normalized telling little white lies to spare others’ feelings without any feeling of guilt on our part. We don’t realize that by lying to others so carelessly, we often have selfish motives to avoid our own discomfort and we are disrespecting the other party, subconsciously saying that they don’t deserve to have the same information that you have. As a result, we actually think a little less of them for believing each lie of ours that they fall for. We as parents are ethical role models to our children and should take lying seriously. The problem at hand is that trust is very fragile and difficult to mend. So, while of course it is up to you to decide whether your child is ready to mentally or emotionally handle a certain truth, consider whether telling the truth might actually help them grow and understand the world around them better. It may actually help you to grow together as parent and child, too.

When Our Children Lie to Us

We were all kids once. It’s easier to say that the adorable little sibling who can’t quite talk yet broke the vase instead of it being caused by you carelessly throwing your ball in the house after being told not to. Wanting to deflect blame is human nature, especially to someone else who will receive very little consequence compared to you. It’s easy to understand why our children lie, and the good news is, it can be easy to prevent it for the most part, too.

Keeping open communication with your child can be the first step in preventing a child from telling frequent lies. As we are the greatest role models in our children’s lives, we can show them that lying is not OK by not lying to them. If a child asks whether Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy are real, you have the opportunity to either keep the magic alive, or to have an honest conversation with them by telling them the truth. The timing of this pivotal moment in a child’s life, of course, is up to parents. But, for smaller lies (“No, Dad and I didn’t get pizza for lunch while you were at school,” “Yes, you have to go to ballet class or else you can’t go back, “No, we can’t get a dog because your mother is allergic,” and so on…), are we really setting the best precedent and healthy household dynamic if every little bump in the road is resolved with a quick and easy lie? Lies can be found out, and the more that are told to your children, the more stuffed the closet becomes until its door can’t hold them any longer and they all come bursting out. You as the adult have the option to treat your child with respect by telling them the truth. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but it can help to teach them that it is indeed, the best policy.

However, we as humans are tempted to tell lies at one time or another, and the same goes for our children. So, what do we do when we know that they have told a lie? And even more seriously, how do we stop the lying if they seem to begin using it as a quick fix to most of their problems? Here are some ideas to prevent your child from telling more lies:

1. Consider the motivation behind the lie.

Why is your child telling the lie? Is it for attention? Is it so that you will be proud of them? Is it a little white lie to spare your feelings or a friend’s feelings, to keep a secret, or to maintain an aspect of their reputation among peers? The motivation behind their lie determines the way that you should react. If they are telling a lie for attention, it can be best to simply not react to their lie. If they are lying to make you proud, you can express to them that they do not need to lie to make you proud and that you are proud of how they actually performed rather than when they lie. If you overhear them lying to their peers, you can ask them about it privately later, and keep open communication about how little white lies can have negative consequences on close relationships. 

2. Use “Truth Checks.”

When you know that your child is telling a lie, you can use a helpful and rational tactic called “truth checks.” When you know that your child is looking at you in the eyes and lying to you, you can coolly and calmly say “I don’t believe you are telling me the truth. I will go do ____ and come back in ten minutes to see if you would like to give me another answer.” This allows your child to reconsider the consequences of their lie and gives them the opportunity to tell you the truth while keeping the situation calm and open for honest and fair communication.

3. Keep an open dialogue around lying in your household.

Tell them instances of when you were caught in a lie and the negative consequences you experienced, communicate how it makes you feel when they or anyone else lies to you and how others may feel if they’re lied to, and share the many benefits of telling someone the truth instead of building lie upon lie in your relationship. All of these topics of conversation can help your child empathize with the person they are tempted to lie to and help them consider telling the truth instead, even when it’s hard. And, by sharing your experiences with lying, they can see that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with them, but that everyone is tempted to lie sometimes.

4. Be clear about the consequences of lying—to anyone.

Make sure your child knows your household rules about lying and their respective consequences. These consequences may be very cut and dry in your household, but also make sure to inform your child of the negative consequences of lying to teachers, friends, relatives, and coaches, too. Good relationships must be built on trust, but trust can be easily broken with a single lie. Help your child to understand that lying should be taken seriously and that it has the power to crack even the strongest of foundations.

5. Don’t label your child a liar.

When children first discover that telling fantastical lies can make their peers think the world of them and gain popularity, or that it can even be fun to get amazed and congratulatory reactions out of people by telling them that they won first in their science fair or scored the most goals on their team, they can get carried away. Your child may even go through a “lying phase,” testing boundaries to see what people will believe from larger than life stories they tell. It’s important to never call your child a liar, or label them as such, but to help them see the error of their ways. If they are called a liar enough, they may believe that that is what they are and there is simply no other way. We tend to grow up believing what others tell us we are, so instead of yourself or their siblings slapping a negative label on lying behavior, instead keep communication open and guide them to see the many benefits of being a truthful human being. 

It is ultimately up to you as a parent to decide whether you should ever lie to your child, and in which scenarios. Just remember that honesty is likely always the best policy, and that being a truthful role model to your child can help them grow into a truthful young adult, too!

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Here are some books about lying and telling the truth

Is Telling White Lies Ok?