I lie to my children all the time.
I tell them that the spinach in their muffins enhances the flavor of the chocolate chips. I tell them their drawings look gorgeous even when they look like blobs of nothing. I also tell bigger lies, trying to convince myself I’m protecting them by withholding details about our lives and saying that I know what’s best even when I’m worried I don’t.
Parents lie by omission when we leave out details to preserve our children’s innocence about the world at large, smoothing over life’s harsher edges. And some parents don’t share secrets about family scandals, crimes or parentage.
While some parents swear they don’t lie, I’m pretty sure many of us do. I’m questioning, though, whether I should lie – either by omission or outright.
I’m finding there is probably a different line in the sand for each family, and it can change over time. While we know our children better than anyone and think we know what they can handle, experts do have some guidelines about when to lie to your children.
What is a lie?
A lie, in the simplest definition, is saying something that is untrue. We teach our children that lying is wrong.
Mythology such as the story of George Washington and the cherry tree preaches that honesty is the best policy. Fables such as the boy who cried wolf warn of the dire consequences of lies. Yet we continue to lie.
If you’ve studied philosophy or watched “The Good Place,” you know that intellectuals have been debating the definition of a lie for thousands of years as well as the question of when, if ever, it’s OK to lie. To some people, that depends on the types of lies, as each kind of lie is defined by the reason for lying.
Why are you lying?
Sometimes we lie to preserve childhood magic, such as the tooth fairy. Sometimes we lie to shield our kids from what we consider inappropriate topics for their age.
“Usually, we are lying to our children out of kindness to them, because we don’t want them to be upset or have to deal with the awfulness of the world,” said Judi Ketteler, author of “Would I Lie to You.” These “kind” lies are called prosocial lies.
“It may be a lie of commission, saying purposefully false statements, a lie of omission or a half-truth, like acknowledging a loved one was in an accident, but not acknowledging that they caused the accident because they were drinking,” Ketteler said.
When trying to navigate potentially traumatic situations, caregivers “should see a family therapist who specializes in this kind of thing,” Ketteler urged.
It’s important to self-examine why you are telling a lie to a child, Ketteler said. Ask yourself whether you are lying to benefit your kids or lying more to benefit yourself. “That’s a lie of self-interest,” she said.
As hard as it is to admit that we mess up as humans and parents, these ego-based lies are not necessarily kind or healthy for your children.
Why is lying by omission OK for kids?
Many experts think lying by omission isn’t a lie.
“When it comes to children, you have to omit parts of the truth because you have to consider the larger context of their development,” said Amy Stoeber, a psychologist in Oregon who specializes in trauma in children and families. Setting a boundary based on age, maturity and your child’s personality is not a lie. It is what we have to do as parents to protect our kids.
Author Dove Bennett is having a hard time talking to her kids, 5 and 2, about police brutality. She said, “When we pass cops, I just can’t bring myself to tell them the truth.”
The truth can be traumatizing. But for Black parents such as Bennett, who plans to tell her kids by the time they turn 10 about why they shouldn’t feel so trusting toward the police, the discussion will be necessary to help try to keep them safe.
Tell the whole truth? It’s developmental
When we talk to our kids about sex or other sensitive topics, we don’t need to give them the whole story.
“Any conversation worth having is worth having a hundred times,” Stoeber said. Each time a conversation comes up, you can add in more detail as you deem developmentally appropriate.
How to handle divorce
A common pain point with this topic is divorce.
Most divorcing parents choose to leave out the details, including infidelity, addiction and abuse. Stoeber said that you don’t tell the whole story because you don’t want to “malign them against their father or mother.”
Divorce is a special situation. Legally, it is in your best interest to keep details to yourself.
“A parent otherwise considered stable might be viewed as irresponsible during a custody battle if that parent is found to have provided inappropriate details that were harmful to the child’s mental state or well-being,” said Kem L. Marks, a lawyer at Just in Time Legal Solutions in Alabama.
She advises clients not to disclose details that could be seen as developmentally inappropriate or that can be interpreted as a ploy to pit one parent against the other. Telling the truth, in this case, is not worth the risk.
However, Stoeber said it’s OK, when asked why you are divorcing, to tell your child the reasons are “adult content” and that they “are not ready to know that yet.” That word, “yet,” speaks to a growth mindset and gives your child a safe feeling of attachment. Good attachment isn’t lying to manipulate. It’s a loving act to take care of your child’s emotional health.
The truth usually comes out
The truth will often come out in the end.
Kids who are lied to tend to fill in the gaps themselves, which can lead to misinformation, distrust and a higher likelihood that they will become liars, Ketteler and Stoeber both said, citing research.
“It is important to protect children and not overload them with stuff of the adult world. But at a certain point, you can’t hide things from them. Even really little kids know how to ask Siri things,” Ketteler said.
To help navigate these conversations, “create a culture in your family where it’s OK to talk about anything anytime. Be an open door for your kids. Create an atmosphere of trust. Sensitive topics need to be talked about over and over and over,” Stoeber advised.
Each time you broach a potential opportunity to omit, judge your child’s personality, temperament, age, development and emotional state to help guide you not in how to lie to your child but in how to deliver the truth in a gentle, loving and appropriate way.
Maybe I need to come clean to my kids about the spinach lie. They seem to have figured out the tooth fairy game but are still playing me for cash. As for the big lies, I’m going to watch, wait and get advice when the time feels right.
Laura Wheatman Hill lives in Portland, Oregon, with her two children. You can find her at her website.