Honestly, Avoid This One Technique to Raise Healthy Children

Parenting by lying is efficient, but it's a bad idea.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

Parenting by lying might seem efficient. We’ve all heard parents say things like:

  • “I’m not getting dressed up to go out, just go to bed.”
  • “We can’t buy that chocolate; the store doesn’t let us.”
  • “That won’t hurt a bit!”

But we may be better off resisting the temptation to lie.

Here's Why:

Recently published research conducted via a collaboration between Nanyang Technological University, the University of Toronto, the University of California, and Zhejiang Normal University demonstrates that although parents are tempted to lie to elicit short-term compliance, the harm may outweigh the benefit. The research team surveyed 379 Singaporean young adults, asking whether their parents lied to them when they were children, how much they lie to their parents now, and how well-adjusted they are in adulthood.

Kaspars Grinvalds/123RF
Parenting by lying sacrifices long-term psychological adjustment for short-term efficiently. Honestly, it's a really bad idea.
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/123RF

The researchers found a strong direct correlation between participants' recall of being lied to by their parents and their subsequent likelihood of lying to their parents. Lying to parents was indirectly correlated with psychosocial maladjustment, internalizing problems, and psychopathic attributes. Reported parental lying also had strong direct and indirect correlations with externalizing behavior, meaning that even after controlling for “lying to parents,” parenting by lying was correlated with externalizing behavior.

This study is consistent with previous research indicating that frequent lying in children and adolescents is associated with disruptiveness, conduct problems, and a lack of self-regulation. By modeling lying behavior to their children, parents may be implicitly teaching their children that dishonesty is acceptable. In addition, parenting by lying may erode trust in parents, and trust is an important component of attachment. Poor attachment is a strong predictor of future psychopathology.

Limitations:

This is a correlational study, so we can’t definitively say that parenting by lying causes the problematic outcomes noted above. In addition, the retrospective self-report design might have elicited over- or under-reporting. Habitual liars might also have a bias toward recalling more incidents of parental dishonesty. Face validity is a problem as well: We're asking liars to report honestly about their childhood. In addition, the type of parent who frequently lies may engage in other maladaptive parenting practices that have some relationship to a child's future adjustment.

Don't Lie to a Child:

This has been a rule of every parenting class I have ever taught. We don’t need independent research verification to know that lying erodes trust, and that trust underscores attachment. If you can’t trust your parents, that’s terrifying.

Lying is efficient, and sometimes, parents are desperate. I get that. But consider this scenario:

It was stupid. I shouldn’t have done it. Miriam fidgets with her keychain as she talks. I promised my daughter I wasn’t going out, that she wouldn’t have a babysitter. I knew that she wouldn’t go to sleep, and I really needed to get ready for my date. I had promised the babysitter that Sarah would be asleep by the time she came, and I really needed her to be. It’s hard enough finding a sitter when you’re a single mom! But when Sarah woke up a few hours later, and saw the babysitter, she freaked out. Now she is constantly asking me “Are you going out tonight? You promise?!” and wakes up a few times, just to make sure I’m there. How can I fix this?

When we say “Yes, I am going out,” we are doing two things. We are demonstrating our trustworthiness. We are also helping them establish their internalized rules of how the world works. Little Sarah’s thought process might have gone like this,

Mommy is putting on makeup and her fancy dress. I know what that means. She is going out. But she’s not dressing me up, so I’m not coming with her. Let me ask her. Wait, she says she’s not going out. That’s weird. I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach, but my Mommy told me to go to sleep, so I’ll go to sleep now.

Of course, that funny feeling leads Sarah to wake up later and face the ultimate betrayal – Mommy lied to her, and Mommy made her doubt her own instincts. Do we really want to interfere with our children’s ability to understand the world and infer cause-and-effect relationships? Do we really want our children to think that they can’t trust their parents, or that it’s OK to lie?

But Be Developmentally Appropriate With the Truth:

When talking to children about potentially uncomfortable truths, it’s best to be honest but developmentally appropriate. Children don’t need to know all the details to feel that their parents are being honest. For example, a child who is undergoing surgery needs to hear that the shot might hurt, that they will wake up with a funny taste in their mouth, or that they will be wheeled into the surgery room alone. They don’t need to hear about the 2% chance of death from anesthesia. They need to hear the truth, but within their ability to comprehend it.

How to Fix It:

If you have lied to your kids in the past, don’t stress. Repair with honesty. By owning up to her lie, apologizing, and making a new plan for how to handle babysitter-induced stress, Miriam was able to repair the relationship. Sarah is sleeping through the night again, and Miriam has learned a valuable lesson. The truth may be inefficient, but it’s better than losing her child’s trust.   

References

Peipei Setoh, Siqi Zhao, Rachel Santos, Gail D. Heyman, Kang Lee, Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 189, 2020, 104680, ISSN 0022-0965, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2019.104680.

Chiu et al., 2016, S.L. Chiu, F.Y. Hong, S.I. Chiu,Undergraduates’ day-to-day lying behaviors: Implications, targets, and psychological characteristics. Social Behavior and Personality, 44 (2016), pp. 1329-1338

R.C.M.E. Engels, C. Finkenauer, D.C. Van Kooten. Lying behavior, family functioning and adjustment in early adolescence. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 35 (2006), pp. 949-958

Gervais et al., 2000, J. Gervais, R.E. Tremblay, L. Desmarais-Gervais, F. Vitaro. Children’s persistent lying, gender differences, and disruptive behaviors: A longitudinal perspective. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24 (2000), pp. 213-221

C. Hays, L.J. Carver. Follow the liar: The effects of adult lies on children’s honesty. Developmental Science, 6 (2014), pp. 977-983

G.D. Heyman, A.S. Hsu, G. Fu, K. Lee. Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. International Journal of Psychology, 48 (2013), pp. 1176-1184

G.D. Heyman, D.H. Luu, K. Lee. Parenting by lying. Journal of Moral Education, 38 (2009), pp. 353-369

M.R. Levenson, K.A. Kiehl, C.M. Fitzpatrick. Assessing psychopathic attributes in a noninstitutionalized population. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (1995), pp. 151-158

R.M. Santos, S. Zanette, S.M. Kwok, G.D. Heyman, K. Lee. Exposure to parenting by lying in childhood: Associations with negative outcomes in adulthood. Frontiers in Psychology, 8 (2017), 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01240.

M. Warr. The tangled web: Delinquency, deception, and parental attachment. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 36 (2007), pp. 607-622