White Lies We Tell
I know that lying is wrong. I tell my kids that all the time.
I'll fess up, though: I've also told my daughters, Mirabel, 5, and Caroline, 4, that certain dolls at our neighborhood toy store (coincidentally, the very same ones they want) aren't actually for sale. "They live here," I tell them frequently, especially when we have to dash in to buy a birthday gift. It's just easier -- we get in and out of the store without a whine fest.
I know I'm not the only parent who lies to her kids. A 2008 British survey found that eight out of ten parents stretch the truth to their children. Then I realized: How were my kids going to learn to trust me if I'm constantly telling fibs -- no matter how insignificant they seem.
We'll show you how to spot the white lies you tell -- and how to avoid telling them in the first place.
White Lie no. 1: "Sorry, but the car won't start until your seat belts are buckled."
This one seems so benign, "but it's really a way of avoiding your responsibility as a parent," explains Hal Runkel, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of ScreamFree Parenting. "You want your kid to know that it's your job to make the smart decisions that keep her safe."
What to say instead: "I'm not starting the car until your seat belt has been fastened." This lets a child know that Mom and Dad are in charge of making sure that the safety rules are followed. Explain that it's the law that all passengers wear seat belts in order to prevent injuries.
White Lie no. 2: "Lightning McQueen/Spider-Man/The Little Mermaid loves broccoli!"
"Food lies don't usually work, basically because a kid's palate isn't so easily swayed," says Dr. Nelsen. Plus, it's pretty lame to use a child's beloved idol to make him eat his veggies.
What to say instead: "Vegetables are good for you, and it's what's for dinner." While you can't force your kid to eat, offer veggies at every meal. One day, he'll decide to try some.
White Lie no. 3: "It's against the law for 3-year-olds to use pacifiers, so now that you're a big girl, you have to throw away your Binky."
Again, you're dodging your real responsibility as a parent, and abdicating your role to help guide her through sometimes tricky childhood transitions.
What to say instead: "I know you really love your Binky, but as kids get older they shouldn't use them anymore." Tell her you know how hard this is for her, and let her talk about how she's feeling as much as she likes. "You don't want to shame a child," says Dr. Gardenswartz. "Instead, take steps to make her feel good about her newfound maturity; explain how kicking the pacifier habit is actually a good thing." You might tell her that it will help her to keep her teeth nice and straight and that everyone will understand her when she speaks.
White lie no. 4: "Sparky got sick and went to live on a farm."
Even though you are trying to shield your young child from getting upset, telling him the truth about death is best. You can do this gently.
What to say instead: "When animals get old or sick, they die. And that's what happened to Sparky." Beyond that, follow your child's lead, which will vary by his age. "You don't want to give him more information than he needs," says Dr. Gardenswartz. If he doesn't ask questions, he's not ready or simply isn't curious. When he does ask, be prepared to talk openly.
White lie no. 5: "Santa won't come this year if you don't...[fill in the blank]."
Again, you're in charge, not Santa, and your child has to learn to behave because it's the right thing to do.
What to say instead: Get your child involved in creating the rules, and then use questions to invite her to cooperate in the process, says Dr. Nelsen. "What was our agreement about what you need to do with your toys when you are finished playing with them? Would you like me to set your timer to see how long it will take you to get it done? I'm looking forward to our storytime as soon as they get picked up."
White lie no. 6: "Mommy and Daddy are playing a game."
You and your husband are really having an argument. It's fine to let your kids see you arguing sometimes, as long as you fight fair. "To give kids the impression that mommies and daddies never disagree is absurd," says Dr. Nelsen.
What to say instead: "Daddy and I were mad at each other, but it's okay. We love each other and will work it out." Remind your child of a time when he was angry with his best friend -- who, by the way, is still his best friend. Then explain that parents have different ideas about stuff and talk it out until they agree. Remember, fighting fair means no shouting, name-calling, or slamming doors.
White lie no. 7: "This won't hurt a bit."
Perhaps the silliest fib of all, because you're immediately outed once the pediatrician gives the shot.
What to say instead: "This is going to hurt, but not a lot." Don't dismiss her fears and do give her some prep time. Say something like, "It will hurt a little more than a pinch."
But what about white lies?
We want our kids to be honest -- but also kind, respectful, and considerate. So what if the truth hurts someone's feelings? After all, they've probably seen you dole out a few "white lies" already. Well, that's the problem. Children watch us and learn from our example, so you have to reform your own ways as well. Bottom line: It's rarely necessary to lie. Giving out less information isn't lying. For instance, if Aunt Betty sent your daughter a green poncho that you know she will never wear, don't encourage her to write a thank-you note that says she loves it. Instead, think about what truths you can tell -- like "I love green" or "Thanks for remembering my birthday." The next time a friend asks you and the family over for a barbecue nobody wants to go to, let your kids hear you tell them, "Thanks for the invite, but we're going to chill out with a movie and popcorn this Saturday."
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Parents magazine.