Honestly Speaking

I am going to admit something. I lie to my children. And I know that my children lie to me. (Well, maybe not 2-year-old Jacob, since he’s only 2. But 5-year-old Hannah? No doubt.) And I’m not really all that concerned about it.

I think that it’s important to be honest with children about information that they need. Telling your kids that babies are found under cabbage leaves in the garden is a bad idea. There are certainly many times when honesty is called for. But there are probably just as many times when honesty isn’t called for. Or when, at minimum, being totally truthful is not going to help anyone.

Here are a few examples of lies that I tell my kids:

  • I ‘do’ Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.
  • When my daughter catches me with a mouthful of chocolate, and I don’t want her to have any, and she asks me what I’m eating, I mumble, “Nuts,” and try to keep my chocolate breath away from her.
  • When we had a TV and I was tired of the TV battles, I would tell my daughter that there were no kids shows on the TiVo that she could watch right now.
  • I will deliberately pretend not to have heard a news story on the radio when I don’t feel prepared to explain what ‘sexual assault’ means on the way to swimming lessons.
  • I have withheld the full truth about certain family situations from my daughter, because I don’t want to run the risk that she will spill the beans inappropriately.

It’s possible that I’m teaching my children to lie, by lying to them myself. But I highly doubt that they could somehow make it to adulthood without learning this lesson. I am also pretty sure that I wouldn’t want them to. There are times when keeping your mouth shut, or bending the truth to spare someone’s feelings, are appropriate. My children need to learn that we don’t give true-but-hurtful answers without thinking it through.

Social niceties are well and good, but what of the situations where my children lie to me? Again, I highly doubt that they could make it to adulthood without lying to their mother. Or at least trying to lie to their mother. Is there a teenager alive who is completely honest and forthright with their parents on all occasions? And, moreover, would it be a good thing if they were? We are all entitled to our private thoughts and our private actions, and I’m not so sure that denying an adolescent their measure of privacy is a good thing.

Something that has become apparent to me, though, is that children are much worse liars than they think they are. So much worse. The attempts at obfuscation from my daughter are often embarrassingly bad. Like this classic gem: “Don’t look at me right now Mom, I don’t want you to see what I’m doing!” While her poker face has gotten a little better with time, I would give myself pretty good odds in the ‘Is She Lying?’ game show. And I wonder whether there will truly come a point where she’s as sly as she thinks she is. Looking at the evidence, I have my doubts. I also have my doubts that I was as sly as I thought I was.

If I don’t emphasize the virtue of honesty, what do I do? I suppose that my aim is to try to teach my children to use their judgment and make appropriate decisions, relative to their age and abilities. And even with that stated goal, I understand that there will still be mistakes and misfires. But what is most important to me is that in general I can trust my kids to make their own choices and follow through. Whether they tell me the full truth about those choices is less important to me, if I have confidence in my children in general. And I’ll probably know more than I let on, if my opinions about not-so-slyness prove true.

Of course, these words are coming from a woman with a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old. Will I feel differently when I have a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old? Maybe. But for now, I will have enjoyed my chocolate in peace thanks to a few white lies. I have my priorities, people. Chocolate is paramount.

What about you? Do you strive to always be completely honest with your children? When do you think lying is OK, and when do you think it’s not OK? And what do you teach your children about honesty? I’d love to hear! No lie.

PS – July’s Crafting my Life series is about role models. On the last Thursday of the month, which just happens to be the day after tomorrow, I will include a link up. To participate, write a post or track down a post you’ve written on the subject sometime in the past, and add yourself to the list. Check out the link-ups from January, February and March to get a feel for how it works.

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  1. …ya gotta do what ya gotta do; kinda taints the purity of parenthood but that is reality!

  2. I agree, there are some age-appropriate truths, and lies. You had me laughing at the vision of you with your mouth full of chocolate and telling Hannah you were eating nuts. I’m not sure how I will handle the big, loaded questions. There should be classes for adults on how to handle that.

    I have a question about schools in Canada… how do the school systems handle sex education? Here in NH there is talk about making it a mandatory class (like health class) for students as young as first grade. I’m horrified and my son is not even 2.

    So what is age appropriate? How in depth would these classes talk about sex education? Who determines the level of ‘appropriate’? My head swirls with mixed emotions about the whole thing.

    • I don’t really know what they do in schools here. I guess I’ll find out when my own kids start. I will say that, as I understand it, ‘sex ed’ for younger kids is usually all about abuse prevention. Your body is private, people don’t have a right to touch you in ways you find uncomfortable, that sort of thing. They’re not talking about STDs with 7-year-olds.

      But maybe someone with actual school-age children can weigh in?

    • The CARE program runs in our school, in Grade 1. Nothing else has come up yet, in Saskatchewan at least, and we will be starting Grade 3 right away. 🙂

      Joy’s last post … A drive in SaskatchewanMy Profile

  3. I think children know how to lie without us teaching them so therefore I don’t feel bad about my little white lies to them because I don’t feel like I’m teaching them to lie. I guess they’ll realize I was lying later on when they find out about the tooth fairy…and I’ll have to fess up. One thing I recently had to lie about was the fact that I was menstruating. I just don’t know how much detail to share with my almost 4 year old without her being alarmed. When she noticed the other day and I told her I had cut my leg but I was alright. lol.
    Tanya’s last post … Parenting a three year oldMy Profile

    • It does not need to be scary for the child if you explain that your body made a cozy place for a baby to grow, but you are not pregnant and so your body doesn’t need to keep the blood that would have sustained the baby. Finding out bit by bit as questions come up (do not give more detail than your child asks–this is not the time for the whole revelation) means that the child is never shocked beyond her comprehension, that she finds out gradually.
      My daughters are 11, 13, 17 and 21 now. We never had an awkward conversation because they just kind of always knew what they needed to know. And it was a lot less embarrassing for me to tell a three-year-old about menstruation than it would be to tell an eight- or ten-year-old the whole story and correct a lot of misunderstanding.
      They asked questions that led me to tell them about intercourse when they were about 5. Now they report that it just seemed normal to know, and their friends wish they’d had correct information too.

  4. Catharine says:

    John, our daughter just called us "hypocrites". I'm shocked!!

  5. I am bang on with your examples on this post. All of your thoughts make sense to me. ; ) Dare I even say that I think my daughter will learn more about lying from her daycare friends than from me? Once she figures it out though, then I’ll have to change my actions for sure!
    Kristin’s last post … My Girls Make Me LaughMy Profile

  6. I must admit the chocolate lie has crossed my lips! 🙂
    Wendy Irene’s last post … Do You Use Visualization To Achieve Your GoalsMy Profile

  7. I think there is a time and place for honestly. It’s not a black and white issue. Like you I carefully consider what I should and shouldn’t tell them, what’s age appropriate and what needs a “revision.” I also expect my children will lie to me. I won’t encourage it, but I won’t freak over it either. The thing is my 4yo, I’m certain he’s a good liar, because it’s hard for me to be sure when all my instincts are saying he’s not telling the truth. At this age though, it’s hard for them to understand what a lie is. What is a lie to us isn’t necessarily untrue to them. They see things differently.

    And you know! I’m so stealing your tip for the radio in the car!!
    Christine LaRocque’s last post … Finding stability and learning to coastMy Profile

  8. I try not to lie to my children. As much as possible.
    Though, I do evade topics (much like your example of pretending not to hear something on NPR) because its just not the appropriate time, or in the appropriate company, in which to talk about it.

    The thing is, my kids are so used to me being so truthful, and probably giving TOO MUCH info, that when I try to evade, or give less info, in an effort to not talk about something, they recognize it RIGHT AWAY, and ask – what? But WHAT were you GOING to say Mom? That’s not what you were talking about. What REALLY happened?

    I trust this is a good thing… in the long run, I’ll want them to ask & tell all the details when needed. But for now, when I say, well, yes, I am having chocolate right now, but that is because I’m addicted to chocolate and caffeine, and I’m feeling tired right now, and need to be able to focus and pay good attention to you guys without getting grumpy, but no you can’t have any, because if you eat chocolate right now it will likely cause you to be hyper, and dinner is getting close, and I don’t want to spoil your appetites, and no its not fair, and… and that’s when maybe, “I’m eating nuts” might be a better choice.

    kelly @kellynaturally’s last post … Breastfeeding and Plugged DuctsMy Profile

  9. Hmmmm, some very interesting food for thought. My son is only 16 1/2 months so we haven’t reached the lying stage (for him or I)…yet. Though I have every intention of “lying” about Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy 🙂

    I definitely think this is not a black and white issue as Christine wrote. Thanks for the great post!

  10. This is so interesting! I have long been annoyed by the idea that truth is somehow more important than politeness. To me, being polite, and kind, sometimes involves being less that 100% honest with the people I love. So, okay, when it comes to science, or politics, the truth is key. But when it comes to personal relationship, sometimes, keeping your mouth shut, or glossing over the truth (as you see it, anyway), is the right thing to do. Diplomacy is about smoothing over the truth a bit, right? Lying by omission, if not outright untruths. The honest truth is sometimes just mean, and no amount of talk of “honesty” makes it less cruel. … And yet, you want your children to be honest with you … but I think I would rather my child be nice, and compassionate, and diplomatic, than rude, mean, and truthful. That’s my “truth.” Eek. Wish me luck on that one.

    Luckily, my child is still preverbal so I can be in denial of this difficult minefield a little while longer!! 🙂
    Inder’s last post … OngoingsMy Profile

  11. My just turned 12 year old daughter has started to lie quite a bit. I’m not all that concerned yet, she still only really does it when she thinks it will keep her from getting in trouble. She has to be the worst liar I have ever encountered. If she hopes to continue to use this strategy in the future and actually get away with it she will have to learn more skills. Right now I’m just happy she sucks at it.

  12. Oh my gosh, I have done every single one of those lies. The chocolate one yesterday in fact. 😉 My kids also lie to me and are also not very sly… and for now it is funny. Later, I am sure not so much.

    I think lies are part of society. Lies with good intentions, lies to protect the other person, lies to protect yourself. Honesty is well and good, but not always practical. The point of teaching kids honesty is for the big stuff. Where to draw the line then is up to you.

  13. I’ve never considered those to be real lies, but my life is now becoming more complicated as I try to offer a set of explanations to the younger child, and a different set to the older ones.
    Francesca’s last post … On my kitchen tableMy Profile

  14. LOL! I do the same lies as you — including the chocolate.

    But seriously, some parents are a little horrified at how truthful I am to my little ones (13 and 9). If any child asks me a question I will offer as much detail as I think is appropriate without lying. The trickier, more violent questions were simplified answers about it being “bad people hurting others”. As they got older and had more sexual queries though, I start with a warning that it is a “mushy grown up” subject. That usually stopped my squeamish 10 year old dead in his tracks… “No I don’t really want to know what XXX.is then” and boy am I relieved!!!! He at least knows it was about sex and that was AS FAR as he wanted to know!

    A tough one for us has always been the questions about the people sleeping on the lawns downtown. They ask why those people are lying there, then – why they don’t have homes and – where are their friends and families. It is tough to be honest without getting into the sticky topics of drugs, mental illness, abuse and other forms of desperation. But in a way I don’t want to cover their eyes, I think it puts them at risk, I think it gives them a false sense of what the world holds. I have never out-in-out lied about that, never have I felt tempted to say they are “just having a nap in the park” like my sister does with her kids. Ugly as it is, I want my kids to know that ugly things DO happen and god willing they can be educated enough to avoid making some bad decisions.

    Whoah…. sorry I got a little heavy didn’t I?

    In short I try not to lie, unless the truth is more harmful.
    *pol’s last post … Preserving SummerMy Profile

  15. I could have sworn it was you who did one of those ‘I don’t lie to my kids’ posts a few weeks ago that made me feel like an isolated shameful big lying liar — no? I think people who say they never lie to their kids or that one hundred percent honesty is the most important thing in a relationship are quite naive. No one really wants to know the absolute truth about what other people think about them — or at least I don’t. And I absolutely agree that kindness trumps truth — kindness, not cowardice. Some things people need to know, some things they don’t. And ‘people’ absolutely includes my children. And yeah, my kids are as bad at lying as I used to be, and ‘well then I’ll just call your teacher and ask her’ works just as well on them as it did on me.
    allison’s last post … Knowing Me Knowing You and I Do Realize I Complain a LotMy Profile

    • I doubt it was me, because I am very open about not being completely honest on all subjects. However, it’s totally possible that I wrote something that I didn’t mean that way, or that wasn’t clear, or something. Anyways, I am no parenting model, so really, feel free to disregard anything I say that makes you feel bad. Seriously. I’m probably lying anyways, since I do that, don’t you know? 😉

  16. oh ya.
    My 13 year old is a terrible liar. He practically cries while lying.

    BUT, my 9 year old is amazingly good at it. He can pull the wool over my eyes frighteningly well! He uses this talent to play his dad and me against each other until he gets what he wants…. for example…
    “Mom, can I play on the video games?” he says
    “You’ve already had a turn, leave me, I have to make dinner” I say So he trucks down to the garage…
    “Dad, can I play on the video games?” he says
    “Go ask your mom” dad says
    “I already did, she says it’s okay until dinner” he says
    “Alright then” says dad
    “Mom, dad says it’s alright!!!” he says
    “Well if dad says it’s alright….” I say
    He also lies about brushing his teeth, eating candy and who fed the dog last…. little rotter!
    *pol’s last post … Preserving SummerMy Profile

  17. I lie to my 4 year old by telling her that eating too much junk food will make her shrink.

  18. Yeah, I eat “almonds” often too.
    AmberDusick’s last post … Children of Nature Toy Series- Autumn 2010My Profile

  19. I’m not comfortable with bald-faced lying. Not telling the whole story or not answering a question is not quite the same thing, in my mind, as telling a falsehood straight out. Honestly I’m uncomfortable talking about Santa or the Easter Bunny and although I play along sort of, my son has figured out those stories more from TV shows than from me.
    Marilyn (A Lot of Loves)’s last post … Babysitting- Wednesday of Few WordsMy Profile

  20. Teaching my five year old when to be polite and when to be accurate is tricky. I generally like when he makes observations about the world around us. It gives us a chance to chat about his interests, what we’re seeing, etc. But sometimes the observations are something like “that’s a really fat person!” and it gets complicated to explain that it’s not a polite thing to say loudly, but without somehow selling the message that fat is bad. Why is it impolite to notice something that’s merely an observation, like “that baseball cap is a very bright shade of blue?” Tricky.
    Lady M’s last post … Paralyzed by the Kindergarten Volunteer FormMy Profile

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