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.