Beyond Santa Claus – Parenting By Lying

If you asked parents about the values that they would like to instil in their children, I would guess that honesty would be fairly need the top of the list.  Certainly in western countries, honesty is a highly prized value and there is broad disapproval when people lie. You might expect that given this emphasis on honesty, parents would avoid lying to their children.  Research would suggest the opposite. So how often do parents lie, in what circumstances and what are the consequences?

Gail Heyman, Diem H Luu and Kang Lee performed two studies to increase our understanding of this area.  They firstly asked 127 undergraduate students in the US to review nine different scenarios where a mother lies to her six year old child.  Some of the lies included in the scenarios were designed to encourage children to behave in a certain way.  For instance, one of the lies used was ‘If you do not eat your food, children will die in Africa.’  Some were designed to encourage the child to feel a particular way – one scenario was a favourite uncle dies and the child is told he has become a star to watch over the child.  The researchers deliberately avoided using make believe scenarios where both parent and child knew that they were engaged in fiction or on characters such as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.  Participants in the study were asked how strongly their parents promoted the value of honesty to them and the severity of negative consequences if they lied.  Finally, participants were given the chance to describe what their parents had taught them about lying and to include example of lies their parents had told them.

What did they find?  88% of the students could think of at least one instance where their parents had lied to them.  While some of the lies were associated with protected children’s feelings, others were designed to change a child’s behaviour.  There was no evidence to suggest that parents who strongly emphasized the importance of honesty lied less to their children.  And parents who were more punitive in their response to their children lying were actually more likely to lie to their children.

In a second study, the research team asked 127 parents the same questions as the students in the first study.  The only difference was they were asked to comment on their own parenting practices. In this study, 78% reported lying to their children at some point and 74% reported teaching their children that lying was unacceptable.  Again, there was no evidence that the parents who most strongly believed in the importance of honesty were less likely to lie.

It’s easy to critique the research on the basis that it relies on people’s reports of their own and their parent’s lying.  However as lying is not a desirable behaviour, it is likely that if anything people under-reported their lying. Additionally, the two studies found broadly consistent results suggesting they may be accurate.

As the researchers conclude “These results are not consistent with the possibility that parents strongly and consistently avoid lying to their children.”  I would suggest that this is putting it mildly.  The evidence indicates that the majority of parents lie to their children and some are guilty of gross hypocrisy.

So what might be going on? Gail Heyman and her colleagues have three suggestions as to what might be drive mothers and fathers to use the practice of parenting by lying.   First, other goals maybe more important to the parents than telling the truth.  For instance, protecting the child’s feelings may be a higher priority than honesty.  Secondly, they may find it difficult to achieve their goals in any other way.  In other words, lying may be a method of desperation when other approaches have not worked.  Thirdly, parents may not realize that when they lie to their children they are behaving inconsistently with their goal of promoting honesty.  Finally, parents may assume that lying is only a problem if the child finds out.

Whatever the reason, it does appear parents are being inconsistent in their practice and their words.   But does this matter?  What are the consequences of lying to children?   Recent research reported here would suggest that young children are less likely to learn from unreliable sources.  Lying may damage the credibility of parents and has the potential to impact the trust that the child has in their parents.

Parents may therefore want to think twice before they lie.  They might also want to consider if they should be quite so categorical in their espousal of honesty.  A possible route forward is for parents to discuss with their children when it is acceptable to lie and in what circumstances.  Earlier research has suggested that children benefit from the discussion of ethical issues at home and focussing some attention on this area may be advantageous.

Heyman G D, Luu D H, Lee K.  Parenting by lying.  Journal of moral education 2009  38(3) 353-369

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