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A Family of Lies: How Parents Perpetuate Subtle Dishonesty

A Family of Lies: How Parents Perpetuate Subtle Dishonesty

As children, in an effort to impart the nobility of truth and the depravity of lies, we were constantly reminded of the admonitory tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. For those of you that were either perpetually tuned out, or were just so dutiful that you were never reprimanded with this enduring myth of our forefather, I will supply the Reader’s Digest version here. Allegedly, the young George Washington (the premiere president of the United States) chopped down his fathers cherry tree with a small hatchet. When asked about it, he said “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” Supposedly young Mr. Washington was so virtuous (but obviously not virtuous enough to spare the cherry tree) that he opted to endure the possible punishment, rather than to fib. We as children were reminded of this story to drive home some virtue and integrity to our developing moral center, in the hopes that we too could grow up to be like our first president. The only problem was that the whole story, according to most historians, was itself a lie perpetuated by lovers of myth, lore and desperate teachers and parents everywhere.

This is one of many parables handed down from generation to generation, and the obvious irony of this particular one is that the intended moral is clearly to abstain from lying, at all costs. The fact is that children do lie, a lot–and according to a new study from the University of Toronto and University of California, San Diego, parents regularly lie to their children as a way of influencing behavior and emotions. “Children sometimes behave in ways that are disruptive or are likely to harm their long-term interests,” said Gail Heyman, professor of psychology at UC San Diego and co-author of the study. “It is common for parents to try out a range of strategies, including lying, to gain compliance. When parents are juggling the demands of getting through the day, concerns about possible long-term negative consequences to children’s beliefs about honesty are not necessarily at the forefront.” This practice is incongruously referred to as “parenting by lying” and it is apparently very common among parents struggling to get their children (or teenagers) to cooperate or simply comply with simple directives. This could be something as simple as claiming that the store was fresh out of cookies, to something as shameful and undermining as telling your teenager that if he doesn’t take a shower this instant, he will break out in a full-body plague of pimples and pustules.

So the obvious question is, how does this impact our children on both the short term and into maturity? I could only guess that the variable gradations of parental untruths (which are almost always uncovered by shrewd children) do set a hell of an example for children and help shape their worldview. Should we, as parents, suck it up and dish out some uncomfortable or inconvenient truths, even if it means slowing down the day or setting off a tantrum? Do you make distinctions between lies that are okay and those that aren’t? What are some of the lies you catch your children telling you, and how different are they from the lies you have told?

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

23 comments

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7:00AM PDT on Mar 29, 2012

Excellent article and comments, I always tell my children if you tell the truth and not just try, but be nice to everyone, the more everyone will feel they can trust you, and that just means youll be the most loved and have all the friends, because they will know they can feel safe with you, and that means everything to everybody, the three wise monkies had it sorted i reckon :)

6:26AM PDT on Mar 27, 2012

Always tell the truth but do so in a kind way. Children are not stupid! They can smell hypocrisy a mile away. That old "do as I say, not as I do" needs to die out along with all the other biased and unfair teachings. Children are innocent, but their personalities don't change as they grow up. All the adults you see walking around are still the same basic person that they were as a child. It's just that life taught them (hopefully) some wisdom and experience. If your child is honest to a fault, they probably will remain so as an adult. The worst thing is a child's fear of rejection, even more so than punishment. An honest child may lie, but their conscience will cause them depression and anxiety. Make the truth acceptable and remove the fear of rejection and most children will "fess up" without being prodded. I think too many adults have come to feel that you have to lie and even cheat to survive. You need to teach by example that a life based on character and principle is truly a life of honor and something we should all aspire to.

5:54PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Good article.... makes me realize why I chose not to be a parent!

5:45PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

In the short term, I'd say it's working well for my 6 year old daughter and me.

It really helps that her father is a habitual liar and I have always told her the truth. She is always asking me to clarify anything he's told her.

We worked-out the Santa Clause thing a couple of years ago and I don't use it to try to control her, though she sees other adults do it to other kids. She WANTS to believe in Santa Clause so I support her in that. She doesn't ask me if Santa Clause is real, because I've already told her, but we talk and act as if he is real and it's fun. :)

Thanks for the article!

10:49AM PST on Jan 30, 2010

As parents we do the best that we can to set a good example..just keep living..and praying..and hope our children grow up to be good people..good parents..it is a blessing to see..and be a part of...

5:21AM PST on Dec 7, 2009

Laurie - it is hard, yes. We've settled that everyone she sees around is a 'Santa's Helper' or else, as we just had Nikolaus here, a 'Nikolaus helper'. The people are there to remind people to enjoy the season, remember what it is all about, and to add to the joy of the season for the children. My daughter is turning 4 and she had no trouble 'buying' that. It also gave me an opportunity to go over the deeper meanings of Nikolaus and Christmas with her again.
These people (fairies and things) might be lies, but they are a magical part of life.
Giving the children magic is important.
Other, bigger, deceptive and harmful lies should, of course, be avoided.

2:39PM PST on Dec 5, 2009

How do we, as parents, justify the lies we tell our children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy? I have real issues with this...not because I don't believe in a good fairy tale. But what do you do with a four year old daughter who asks you why there is a Santa at the mall and it's not Christmas yet? Or why does Santa have the same wrapping paper as you, Mom? With the commercialization of Christmas and the abundance of Santas everywhere, how do we justify keeping the lie going? Because it really IS a lie!

I told my daughter that the people who run the mall think that, if they dress a man up in a Santa suit, more people will come and shop here. But the REAL Santa comes only on Christmas Eve. She never asked to have her picture taken with Santa. Nor did I wrap the "big" gift up with Santa's name on it. He got the privilege of the smaller stuff in the stocking. Which I kept a separate wrapping paper for. I know...the religious story is what it is all about. But my child is not surrounded by that story. She is surrounded by commercial marketing!

Where do we draw the line on "good lies" and "bad lies"?? Are we not setting the precedence to lying with these fictional characters that have been "real" in our children's world?

3:18PM PDT on Oct 8, 2009

Meredith,

I humbly thank you for your compliment. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today ;) !

to Carol...I must disagree on one point...children are well aware when they are 'fibbing'. It's just that, when they are young, sometimes they can't actually put a 'name' to it, in other words; their vocabulary hasn't caught up with their actions unless they have been taught such. In a situation with a child, sometimes it is best to give them a 'way out' of their lie before them get themselves in deeper. In this way, they can find that there is safety in telling the truth. Example: say little Johnny ate a handful of cookies when he was specifically told not to just before dinner. You know little Johnny ate the cookies because 1/2 of them are gone and the crumbs are all over little Johnny's face! A good way to approach it, after Johnny has blatantly told you he DIDN'T eat the cookies, is this; "Hmmm, Johnny, I wonder where all the crumbs came from that are on your mouth and who else could have eaten all these cookies (showing him the 1/2 empty package)?" This allows Johnny the option of coming clean and telling the truth without making him feel defensive or that he is a 'bad boy'. This is far better than a response of : "Johnny, I know darn well you ate those cookies because the crumbs are all over your mouth, now...stop lying to me!"

Big difference.

1:10PM PDT on Oct 8, 2009

For the most part parents just don't realize that they are telling lies in front of their children. If someone comes to the door that someone in the in the house doesn't want to see they will tell the person who at the door the person you want to see is not home knowing they are home but the child doesn't know the complete story why the person fibbed they look at things black and white not gray.
I told a fib when I was really young and from that mistake I never told another one even it would hurt me meaning I could get a spanking or punched.
When I was a child my "boyfriend" found a pack of cigarettes called Pal Mall and we decided we were going to smoke all of them in an half an hour so we hid in a building with no roof but my "darling" twin found us and ran home and told my mom, well I came in the house with I am sure with smoke coming out of ears and she told me to sit in the middle of my bed with my legs crossed and asked me if I were smoking and I said "NO" and she said are you sure and I said "Yes" she made me sit there until I could no longer and ran to the bathroom and I don't have to tell you what I did. She never lifted a hand to me that day but I learned the very hard way never to fib or lie again.
I think if more adults that there are today would learn the hard way the way I learned there would be a whole lot less of lies or fibs going around.
The reason why I say fib and lie is because babies fib adults lie because they know better and children do not.

9:52PM PDT on Oct 7, 2009

Luk, you must be proud of your daughter, congratulations on a job well done!

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