Contributed by Jennifer Landis of the blog MindfulnessMama.com
Life is short on this Earth. You should take time to smell the roses, eat your secret stash of chocolate, and lie to your children.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should go out and tell your children that Santa Claus is standing in the room, right now, because clearly, he’s not. However, like most parents, you probably wanted to keep the Santa magic train rolling. You told your kids, “Yep, Santa’s totally real! Why are the cookies eaten every Christmas eve if he’s not?”
Then your kid goes back to school with his factual argument, and the cycle continues. Is this fair to the kids who know Santa doesn’t exist as an old man with rosy white cheeks and a big pot belly? When those kids are right all along, and they have to keep the magic alive for their classmates, it’s a big responsibility for a kid to bear. It’s easy to see how a child would feel confused. Sure the “extra” presents are a sweet deal for those who believe, but for the ones who find out, the jig is up.
Part of becoming an adult is walking a fine line of double standards. White lies are okay, right? They’re that fine line between lie and truth, where feelings won’t get hurt, and a little suspension of belief makes the world feel a little safer and more meaningful.
When Parents and Children Tell White Lies
White lies are supposed to come from a place of positive intention, yet you’re still consciously lying or bending the truth. When are white lies acceptable, and do they hurt your child developmentally?
When faced with a screeching three-year-old that puts metal rock bands and screeching owls to shame, little white lies become fast allies. It’s an easy way of saying no — not during a teaching opportunity — when those little hands you love so much want to eat your secret chocolate stash, and your child doesn’t need to eat more unhealthy food that will disturb his sleep schedule.
In such cases, little white lies do not developmentally hurt your child. Xhildren model their behavior after adult behavior. However, when children tell a lie, it is a sign of advancing intelligence: a child must be aware of the truth to conceive an alternate reality and create elaborate, but plausible, details.
It could also be that in your child’s impulsivity and self-reflection, they lie because they’re afraid to let you down or are afraid of consequences. When you interrogate your child, they feel pressured to lie. When they understand that lying is more of a choice, they can accept the consequences more easily and make better judgments. A calm and gentle approach helps in these situations.
What happens when your spouse answers the phone, it’s for you, and you don’t want to talk? What do you do? Is it best to ask your spouse to lie in front of your child and tell them you’re not around? Most families will admit that they’ve done this. You know your child recognizes that in truth you certainly are there and as a result may call you out on your lie.
Is this back talk? No, it’s not. It’s your child trying to understand this new element of reality and contradictory behavior they’re witnessing. This is a teaching moment, about when white lies are and are not acceptable in society. It comes down to the process of rationalization and the intent behind the lie.
Be honest with your child about your intents when you lie. Strive to be a good role model because it’s true: everyone lies. People are telling at least two lies a day according to one study, with young adults being the sharpest at telling refined lies.
Every culture also has acceptable and unacceptable standards of behavior., Adults know all too well the influences and pressures of societal expectation — it’s tempting to lie every moment of every day. When a child starts to feel these pressures, it’s important for the parent to be there to help walk them through the rationalization process.
Qualifying Differences Between Make-Believe and Reality
White lies aren’t a parenting tool you use to get your child to stop sucking on a pacifier by telling them their face will turn blue like a smurf. When children are very little, they take their parents at their word. Your child will really believe their face will turn blue. As a result your child may try to prevent other kids’ faces from turning blue by pulling pacifiers out of their mouths on the playground. That’s not a situation you want to have to explain to other parents.
Of course, children will experiment with the lines of truth and dishonesty as they grow up. As children age, they begin to learn the differences between what’s real and what’s not. Parents should have a strong emphasis on not relying on lying to get through situations, leading by example. They must also let their child experiment with those lines as it’s completely natural:
- Ages 2 to 4: Children are still learning to differentiate reality and make-believe. Strong emotions will make your child say, “Sissy ate my strawberry!” when in fact the big sister did no such thing. Lying, in this case, has no ill intent and is just a way your child is learning to express big emotions or express independence.
At age four, children are very vocal. So when your child clearly has strawberry juice on her chin even though she denies it, you could gently point out, “Then what’s that strawberry juice on your chin?” This helps lessen the “tantrums” that come with a four-year-old struggling for power.
On the other hand, telling your child about the tooth fairy has become an acceptable societal lie. To make this white lie less harmful you could talk about how fairy legends are very old, going back to Europe, and it exists in other cultures. Burying children’s teeth (under pillows now) comes from how folks would bury a child’s loose tooth so a witch wouldn’t place a curse on them. Start talking about lying (and story-telling) now, qualifying the differences between make-believe and reality.
- Ages 5 to 8: Children begin to feel the pressures from society, peers, and parents to do well in school and everyday life. Children are more tempted to lie about things they can get away with, such as not doing schoolwork. Luckily, many of these lies are easy to debunk. At these ages, kids are apt observers so be careful about sticking to your word. Be honest when you’re tempted to tell a habitual lie, especially if you claim to be a stickler for truth-telling. Mostly, children are afraid of disappointing you and will come clean when caught in a lie. When you’re caught in a lie, come clean, too.
- Ages 9 to 13: Age-appropriate lies are acceptable and reveal healthy cognitive development in your child. Preteens will lie to protect their friends or to avoid homework, but adults also tell similar lies. Preteens will begin to need more privacy to feel independent. It’s acceptable that preteens keep secrets. However, when the lie is socially inappropriate or negatively affects others, the consequences need to be reiterated. Adults should be careful to lead by example.
Telling a little white lie only has negative consequences for your child’s development when you don’t stand by your word, come clean, or clearly discuss the intent behind the lie during a teaching moment. Children are more likely to lie when they witness dishonesty in their daily lives, especially from their parents. This doesn’t mean you should never lie to your children. Kids also lie to adults. Why? It could be because an adult has told a lie but has a double standard for his child. So it’s clear to the child that honesty is not important to the adult. Keep your kid’s trust intact.
White lies are socially accepted, and everyone lies every day, at least twice. Children will experiment with the lines of truth and dishonesty because they’re deciphering what’s make-believe and what’s real. When children are little, it’s socially acceptable for them to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Eventually, they grow out of it. So let your child grow into understanding their personal truths and when to tell white lies. Lie to your children, and know it’s okay to keep that secret stash of chocolate to yourself.
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