Why we don’t tell children the truth
Many parents tells lies to protect their children, to keep them safe, to be loving and caring. Photograph: Thinkstock
The motives for telling lies – small or big – to children are varied but the reasons may say more about us than about them.
Parents should perhaps ask themselves, says Dr Maeve Hurley, “Is the intention in my response to protect this child, to keep it safe, to be loving and caring? Or is it to deceive the child, for whatever reason, to make life easier?”
A former GP and now co-founder and chief executive of Ag Éisteacht, a charity that provides training to health professionals working with families, Hurley says her knee-jerk response to the question, “Is it okay to lie to children?” was “Absolutely no way.” But when she discussed and reflected on it, she could see the merit of “white lies”.
“Parenting styles that are warm, sensitive and accepting of your child are the ones [in which] children really thrive,” she says. And a relationship of trust is vital.
If your child asks a question like “Will you always be here for me?” you may be able to tease it out and get to what’s really bothering the child, rather than saying a glib “Of course,” or expounding on the inevitability of death.
If a child sees you are deliberately trying to conceal, they will start to question your integrity, says child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor. “That’s when it can become problematic.”
Hurley wonders about the merit of “unnecessary lies”, designed to avoid a row or curb bad behaviour. The question for parents is, “Am I prepared to be the adult here or am I expecting the ‘bogeyman’ to do the parenting?”
Another example would be where a mother tells a child in bed that she is just going down to the kitchen, when in fact she is going out for the night.
“They think they are sparing the child, but [they’re] not teaching the child to manage.”
However, Noctor sees no harm in telling a small child who is messing at a restaurant table that “the man over there” will put him out if he doesn’t behave.
How truthful to be if the parents’ relationship breaks down is always problematic. While the aim must be to reassure a child in an age-appropriate way, swearing that nothing is going to change, when it inevitably will, is not recommended either.
Children are very tuned in to what is going on in a home, Hurley points out. “They need to know that their world will be different but will still be intact.
“They have to know it’s not their worry and it’s not their fault. They have to know they don’t have to take charge of it.” Most of all, they need to know both parents still love them and don’t need to hear how one or other has been wronged.
“Maybe that is the truth but I don’t think that is very helpful,” says Hurley. “You’re dragging the child into what’s part of the adults’ world.”
Trying to preserve childhood innocence is probably the noblest reason for being economical with the truth.
“I think we feed children the truth as they are able for it,” says Noctor. “Unfortunately, in the world we live in now, we have to give them the truth earlier: it’s on the internet; it’s on Facebook; it’s everywhere.”
As a result, we need to be honest about sex and “stranger danger” before we might want to, “making sure they have enough information rather than leaving them naive and vulnerable”, he adds. “That’s the real dilemma, I think.”