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As parents, we try to do right by our kids by teaching them correct behaviour and passing on the values to get them through life. Simple things, such as eat your vegetables, take turns with your friends and – very importantly – never tell lies.
I tell my son that deception is a very bad thing, trotting out the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf to show the consequences of fibbing.
Sometimes, I throw in the story of Pinocchio as a bonus.
“See, if you lie, your nose will grow long.”
I know it seems ironic to use a lie to teach my son not to lie, but I think of it as a “pick your battles” strategy. When my son was much younger, it was hard to convince him to do things by reasoning with him because he was neither rational nor logical. And as a busy mother with too many things to pay attention to, I had to choose where to focus my energy. Spending effort trying to convince him of things that he couldn’t be convinced of was not high on my to-do list – especially since it was easier to get him to obey me by telling him stories.
I told him nonsensical things, such as: “Drink your water, because if you don’t, the people at the playground won’t let you in.” (I don’t even know myself who these “people at the playground” were, but never mind.)
I also told him that he had to brush his teeth every night because germs that lived in his mouth pooped on his teeth.
To me, those are harmless “little white lies” of convenience.
But I also lie to my son for a less flippant reason: to protect him from certain facts that he is unable to comprehend at his age.
When he wanted to know, for instance, whether I or his father were going to die, I told him, “Not for a long, long, long time”, despite the fact that life is unpredictable and no one knows for certain when they will die.
My son is eight now. He is discovering the world and grappling with issues like school and playground dynamics, but complex concepts such as life and death could go right over his head.
So I see no point in telling him “the grim truth” and causing him unnecessary distress, especially when there is nothing much I can do or say to take the edge off the brutal facts of life.
But even if your intentions for lying are good, telling these untruths could have negative consequences. For one, if your child picks up that you have been lying to them, it could sow seeds of distrust.
I found this out the hard way, when I took my son out for lunch. He had asked for fries with his burger, and didn’t believe me when I said I had ordered them, because I don’t usually allow him to eat that kind of thing.
“I didn’t hear you order fries,” he said, with an edge of suspicion in his voice. He must have caught on at that point that I lied an awful lot.
“It’s part of the set I ordered,” I explained to him.
He gave me a sideways glance, unconvinced, and remained so until the server came with his fries. This incident taught me a lot about how lying can breed distrust.
Lying to a child also leads him to grow up with misinformation, or worse, have a distorted view of the world. Like how some children grow up with a deep fear of policemen because they had always heard their parents say: “If you are naughty, the policeman will catch you.”
But perhaps the worst consequence of lying to a child is that he could gather that the act is acceptable and do it himself.
So I try to lie judiciously and only when absolutely necessary, such as when attempting to protect him from age-inappropriate matters. With that in mind, I will have to lie less and less as he grows older and develops a deeper understanding of the world and of complex issues.
Even though lying is an easy “solution” in a lot of situations, I know that the morally right – but more difficult – path is to tell him the truth, even if it means having to explain a lot of things, and difficult things to boot.
But hey, no one said parenting is easy.