Lying to Your Kids
By Marissa Cohen
Like most parents, I am trying to teach my kids that honesty is always the way to go. But truthfully? There are times when I'm such a liar that my pants are undeniably on fire. I recently swore to my 5-year-old, Molly, that the letter she'd left under her pillow really had been spirited away by fairies who lived in our flowerpots. I lied to my girls about the real reason their uncle was getting divorced, and I cringe just thinking about the day they'll ask, "Mom, did you ever smoke pot?" (My answer will remain no, regardless of what my college roommate tells you.)
I realize there are moms out there who are shaking their heads, eager to point out how hypocritical it is to ask your kids for total honesty and then turn around and lie to them. And yes, experts stress that truthfulness is crucial to a healthy parent-child relationship. But they also all agree that sometimes less than the whole truth can be a good thing. "A parent's job is to protect children and nurture their development," says Robin Altman, M.D., a child psychiatrist and medical director of the Children's Home of Reading, in Reading, PA. "At times, that means telling a small lie — or holding back some of the truth — when they don't have the capacity to deal with all the facts yet."
Whether your kids are in preschool or high school, here are some of the times it's OK to fib:
Lying for Santa's Sake
My girls are fiercely committed to the existence of fairies; for others, it's all about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. And as long as young kids believe, go with the flow. "Children ages 3 to 6 are deep into their fantasy life, and they are delighted when parents play along," says Adele Brodkin, Ph.D., senior child development consultant for Scholastic. In fact, she says, these fantasies help children develop creativity and language and cognitive skills.
Of course, at some point an older sibling or pal will try to burst your child's bubble, and he'll ask the dreaded question: "Is Santa/the Tooth Fairy/the Easter Bunny real?" Your kid's behavior will reveal whether he can handle the truth, says Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of educational and counseling psychology at McGill University. If your 5-year-old comes to you in tears because his friend said Santa is fake, he's not ready to give up his fantasy. You can say, "It's OK for people to believe different things. Do you think Santa is real?" If he says yes, you can add, "Then I think he's real, too." If he says he isn't sure, you can explain, "No one knows if Santa's real, but we all love telling stories about him. He reminds us that Christmas is about the spirit of giving."
On the other hand, if your 7-year-old asks, "Hey, how can one Tooth Fairy visit every kid in America?", she's ready to hear the truth. Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Parenting Bible, suggests you let your child take the lead, asking, "Hmm, what do you think?" If she says, "I think you put the money under my pillow," you can say, "Aha! You figured it out. Parents tell the Tooth Fairy story so little kids won't worry about losing their teeth. Now you can feel like a grown-up."