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Face it: you don’t always tell your children the truth.

The question is, “Is this a problem?”

Well, yes, because truth will out, as the saying goes. Short-term gains in peace of mind and no-questions-asked will eventually be replaced by the realization that you cannot be completely trusted.

Do not imagine that you can deceive your children forever. They  will put two-and-two together. Their friends will clue them in. They will eavesdrop on your conversations with your friends and family. Long before you expect it, the truth will be exposed and your credibility along with it.

We parents are tempted to make two sorts of misleading statements: those intended to manipulate a child and those intended to protect him. How we begin to more consistently tell the truth depends on which sort of untruth we’re talking about.

Lies we tell to manipulate our children – telling them they will go to jail for not using the potty or that their Halloween candy contains bugs – these are completely avoidable. We tell them because we’re out of better ideas for guiding children’s behavior so that scaring our kids or grossing them out seems easy and expedient.  Being patient and doing the hard work of toilet-training or being calmly parental in setting limits on candy will be more effective in the long run. Avoiding the truth derails the development of the sort of skills and decision-making ability we’d like our children to have. In addition, your lies will be exposed. So don’t manipulate your kids but tell the truth.

Sometimes instead we tell lies to protect our children from unpleasant realities.  But if you stop and think about it, you’ll notice that we tell these lies to protect ourselves. We might be uncomfortable with the truth – Grandma has dementia and doesn’t recognize anyone anymore; the cat got eaten by a coyote last night. They are too young for such truths, we say. But, really, we are unwilling to explain things. We are sad and upset by events we ourselves don’t understand. We don’t have all the answers. How can we tell our kids?

Remember that they will discover the truth on their own. Better by far to be the one they hear it from than to hear it from someone else, after having been told a falsehood by you. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” It’s okay to cry if the truth makes you sad. But telling lies is never a good idea, even with the best of intentions.

Notice that when you tell your child the truth it doesn’t have to be the whole truth. You don’t need to go into detail. Tell what you know in simple terms suited to the age of the child and then wait for a question to arise. Answer that truthfully. Wait for another question. Some kids want to know everything and will ask questions endlessly as they work things out in their minds. Some kids want less information and will ask next to nothing. Either way is okay.

One of the tough tasks of parenthood is the gradual revelation to our children of the hard truths of existence. Step up to this duty and fulfill it with grace. Along the way, don’t damage your street cred with falsehoods meant to manipulate and deceive. Honesty is the best policy.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.