“Mommy, Aunt Anna is only a little bit sick, right? She’s not gonna die, right?” Molly stood there, totally unsure of what to say. As mothers, we want to shield our children from the more horrifying realities of the world. We want to keep them innocent and trouble-free for as long as possible. What’s a mother to do? Is it ever okay to lie to a child?
When I pose this question in my parenting classes, reactions vary. Many mothers occasionally bend the truth, telling their children “No children are invited to this wedding,” or “I’m not going out,” when in fact the babysitter is scheduled to come at 9 p.m. One mother turned the question on its head, asking “Is it ever okay to tell kids the truth?” She worries that there is so much scary information in the world, and children are privy to terrifying truths before they are ready. “Of course we need a class on how to parent anxious kids!” she proclaims. “They’re growing up in a scary world.”
Cindy, a licensed social worker, has a vehement response to this question. “You NEVER lie to kids. Ever. End of story.” She goes on to describe being woken up by her father one morning and being told that her mother had passed away.
“Forty years ago it was a given that parents should not share sensitive information with children. So it was a complete shock to me that morning; I hadn’t even known she was sick. Years later, I had to deal with guilt. I was a typical twelve-year-old, sulking when my mother said she had no strength to bake a cake for my class party, yelling that she baked one for my sister, but she didn’t love me as much.
“I had no explanation for why my mother was gone so often, why she was in her room with the door closed, why she went from warm, interested mother to completely unavailable in one year. The worst part is that I never got a chance to say goodbye.” It is decades later, but Cindy’s voice still vibrates with pain.
Do children always need to hear the full truth, particularly about things for which they have no context to comprehend? Molly’s son was a sensitive and fearful boy, and took any scary information to heart.
“My son couldn’t sleep for a week when his teacher described Nazis taking children from their parents. Especially when the teacher said, ‘Do any of you have a baby at home? Imagine a Nazi, grabbing the baby from your mother, and killing it.’ Really? Did the teacher have to be so graphic?”
In my parenting classes, we have a rule that we never lie to children. It’s dangerous to give children the message that parents can’t be trusted, that their foundation of safety and security is faulty. We don’t want to give rise to the thought, “If my parents are lying about this, what else might they be lying about?” However, we are also attempting to target our parenting, understanding our children’s individual profiles in order to make parenting decisions. What is the mother of a cautious or fearful child to do? Should she give her child the unvarnished truth?
* We don’t want to give rise to the thought, “If my parents are lying about this, what else might they be lying about? *
What’s the Purpose of Lying?
First, we have to think about the function of the lie. Lying for convenience is tempting, but usually a mistake. When we want to slip out without anyone being the wiser, lying is a quick and easy way out. This is particularly true for parents of “highly reactive” or “cautious” children, both of whom tend to have extremely strong reactions to relatively minor events. It’s fine to deal with a few minutes of crying or sulking when Mommy leaves, but who wouldn’t want to skip a forty-five-minute tantrum? By the time Mommy is done dealing with that tantrum, she has no energy for the evening ahead!
Lying may be temporarily convenient, but what happens the first time they wake up to find the babysitter, or hear from cousin Shimmy that he went to the wedding? Trust will be eroded, and these children are particularly sensitive to feeling insecure. The next time that mother tries to put her cautious child to bed, she is liable to be dealing with hours of the child keeping himself awake, making sure she stays put. One night’s convenience can turn into months of hassles!
Deciding How Much To Tell
What about lying to protect the child from a harsh reality? Is that different? It can be. In general, it’s not a good idea to attempt to shield a child from any story that will have an impact on his life, or that is public. We live in an information economy, and stories get around. Yesterday’s topic at the water cooler will become today’s topic on the playground.
* Yesterday’s topic at the water cooler will become today’s topic on the playground. *
In these cases, it’s more about controlling the flow of information. it’s a bad idea to lie to a child, but it’s often an equally bad idea to tell children the whole unvarnished truth. Deciding how much to tell has to be based on two considerations: The child’s developmental level and the child’s profile.
Very young children are figuring out if their perceptions of the world match up with reality. Three- to five-year-olds are figuring the world out. They’re trying to create a template for themselves to understand life.
When Sally had her miscarriage, her two-year-old daughter Pearl toddled over to her, patted her face, and said, “Mommy sad?” Sally was tempted to lie and say, “No, Mommy isn’t sad.” She wanted to fix it for her daughter, make her live in a safe world where mommies always know what to do and are never sad.
But had she done that, Sally would have been teaching Pearl to doubt her own perceptions. Instead, Sally said, “Mommy has a stomach-ache. Mommy is sad. Can you give me a hug?” Pearl doesn’t need to know more, but it would have been a mistake to lie to her.
Too much disclosure in early childhood can also be bad. In my professional work, I have seen children who refused to go to school after too much dramatic emphasis and detail on the scarier aspects of history lessons. We don’t really need to describe in vivid detail the myriad ways in which we were persecuted and killed over the centuries. Glossing over some of the details is wise. Making a history project is fine. Coloring in a picture of children cowering in fear as a huge soldier towers over them and stabs them is taking it to an unnecessary level of specificity.
School-age children are often more prepared to hear some uncomfortable realities. At this age, they’ve already developed a template for how the world works, but they are cautious. If a parent has been trustworthy and reliable in the past, they should be able to accept a grim reality when it is carefully explained to them. It’s important to stick to the facts, not to provide excess detail, and to leave the door open for questions later.
This doesn’t mean they need to hear the truth, the whole truth. Sometimes, children are not developmentally ready for the entire story. In that case, disclose the information that they are ready for. When they are older, the story can be revisited with their new perspective.
Shannon asked me what she should tell her children about her cousin’s incarceration for a particularly sensitive crime. I told her to tell her young children that he is sick and needs to go to a place that will make him better. This information is accurate — by the facts of his offense, her cousin is psychologically disturbed. When her children are older, they can hear more information, if it becomes relevant.
It would be a mistake to ignore the cousin’s absence and never raise it with the children. That would give rise to a sense of insecurity – why do people disappear from my world? Why don’t people talk about my cousin? Having a stock answer that is true, if incomplete, is better.
Teenagers are figuring out their own distinct identities. To do this, they need to compare their lives and their families to their friends. They are also sizing up the adult world, to understand the roles they will soon play. They are developmentally capable of hearing more accurate information than younger children, but temperament and neurodevelopment do play a role. You have to know your child to know what that particular child is capable of hearing.
Because older elementary schoolchildren and teenagers trade information, don’t assume that classified information will remain classified. It’s always preferable for a child to hear sensitive information from her parents than from friends. Many dangerous misconceptions are fostered when children educate their friends. It’s much better to head that off at the pass by being proactive.
Cindy recounts that she spent much of her adolescence worrying that some other key piece of information was being withheld. “I was convinced that my father would also get sick, and that no one would tell me. I became obsessed with fact-checking his statements. I just didn’t trust that he wasn’t holding any other important information from me.
“When I got married, I had to rein in my suspicion, so that I wouldn’t grill my husband every time he came home five minutes late.
“That’s why I would never lie to my children. If I tell them everything is fine, they can believe me, because they know I’d tell them if there was anything they needed to know.”
This doesn’t mean that a teenager needs to know everything. It’s perfectly fine to refuse to answer an overly intrusive question or to tell a somewhat incomplete story. Often teenagers are more aware than younger children of the ramifications of what’s going on. If your older sister gets married and then suddenly moves back home without her husband, a teenager is going to want to know the whole story. Telling her that obviously, something is going on, and when you need to know more details, we will tell you, is preferable to lying outright. It also preserves the older sister’s privacy. The stance is – you are correct. I’m not telling you everything. However, I am telling you what is appropriate for you to know.
* It’s perfectly fine to refuse to answer an overly intrusive question or to tell a somewhat incomplete story. *
Using Your Child’s Profile to Assess Readiness to Hear Sensitive Information:
We can use information about our child’s temperament, neurodevelopment, motivational style, and environment to help us make decisions about how much information a child is ready for. The temperament factor that is most salient for this type of decision is caution.
The cautious child is particularly vulnerable to destabilizing information. This is a child who is fearful and tends to ruminate about things that “might” or “could” happen. It is tempting to lie to a child like this, because parents know his reaction is going to be disproportionately strong.
However, it’s important that a child like this hear potentially destabilizing information from parents, so that they can put the proper spin on the story, and prevent any dangerous misconceptions. When telling a scary truth to a child like this, make sure to emphasize how to keep safe, and that the chances of a story like this happening to him are slim.
For example, if the parent of a classmate dies, and your child asks if you will die too, the response can be, “Usually, parents don’t die when their children are little. Let’s think of everyone you know. Do most of them have living parents? Yes. So it is unlikely. If it did happen, let’s think about who would take care of you.” The emphasis is on the unlikelihood, and that the child will be safe. Leave the door open for questions, and expect them to pop up weeks or even months later.
There’s no way to shield our children from the harsh realities of the world, as much as we’d like to. There’s also no point in over-exposing them at too young an age, which seems to be the trend in general society. Rather, parents should set themselves up as a trustworthy source of information, so that children will turn to them for help. Lying is often the more convenient, but ultimately unwise, choice.