Do you remember your mum or dad saying: 'If I ever catch you lying to me...'? In my case the consequences were never actually spelt out, but the threat was enough to put me off telling any real whoppers (or at least to cover my tracks well enough not to get caught!). But when you stop and think about it, most parents are habitual liars.
In fact, according to a recent survey, parents lie to their kids an average of 100 times a year. It all starts with the legend of Father Christmas, escalates with the chocolatey fantasy of the Easter Bunny and snowballs with the financial promise of the Tooth Fairy. (By the way, these last two can give the imaginative parent a good excuse for another lie, with threats of lost or rotten teeth if too many sweets are eaten at once.) And who hasn't fallen back on the old chestnut that when the ice cream van is playing tinkly music it means all the ice cream's gone?
The truth will out
Some parents might argue that building up a sense of magic and wonderment for their youngsters through these childhood legends doesn't really constitute lying, and is no more dishonest than reading them fairy story or visiting Disneyland. After all, it would be a pretty harsh parent who'd tell a three-year-old that Mickey Mouse is really a burly bloke in a foam suit – or would it?
'I went along with the usual deceptions about Santa and so on,' says Maria Kennedy, mum to seven-year-old Maddie, 'but I did have my reservations because I still remember how gutted I felt when my own mum told me there was no Father Christmas. I suppose I bowed to a certain amount of pressure from other parents who said that if Maddie didn't "believe", then she'd spoil it for their children, too. When she found out, aged five – and, ironically, from one of these same kids – she was distraught and accused me and her dad of being "horrid liars". We felt terrible.
'We're taking Maddie to Disney World this spring, and I'm definitely telling her that the characters are just people dressed up, but that they love children just the same. There'll be no more "fantasy lies" from us because finding out the truth is too painful – and it makes kids mistrust their parents.'
In fact, according to Dr Dilys Daws, Honorary Consultant Child Psychotherapist at London's Tavistock Clinic, the idea of a mythical or magical figure can be a shared story between parents and children. 'It's important there's a sense of shared humour,' says Dr Daws. 'Children do gradually realise the truth , and some may pretend to believe for a bit longer to prolong the pleasure. Children who are too shocked to find out the truth, though, may be lacking the important sense of shared humour that needs to be part of the fiction.'
There are some situations where it's kinder to tell a half-truth than to come clean with the whole truth straight off, though – and that applies in many areas of life, not just where children are concerned.
Remember the classic comedy Liar Liar where Jim Carrey's character became unable to lie for a day, and the havoc that wreaked on all his relationships? It's understandable, even responsible, to sweeten the pill a bit if, for example, a beloved pet or family member becomes ill, or if the real reasons for a family break-up are too painful or private for a child to hear or understand. So you could say that Marmaduke the cat isn't as well as he has been, so the vet will need to keep an eye on him for a time; or, in the case of an acrimonious split-up, that it's not that Mummy and Daddy don't like each other any more, just that they're no longer in love.
Dr Daws points out that there are exceptions, though, such as when the situation is grave – if a family member has died or is close to death, for instance. In these circumstances honesty is the best policy. 'It's confusing for children to observe a parent grieving without being told why,' she says. 'In the case of a messy divorce, it may be helpful to put into words what children have been experiencing in the atmosphere at home and any negative body language they've noticed, and to realise that they may feel the break-up is their fault and need to talk about it.'
White lies can be good lies
Then there are the times when it's positively OK to lie – and when, in fact, it would be unkind not to. Say your mum-in-law gives you a hideous vase for Christmas and you forget to put it on display for one of her visits: it's kinder to say you're sorry but it got broken than to admit that you would rather stick pins in your eyes than give it house room. There's an appreciable difference between telling a 'white lie' like this and being deliberately deceitful, and this is a good lesson to teach your child.
Point out that white lies are generally used to protect other people, whereas outright lies are usually told to protect ourselves.
When it comes to your child's wellbeing, the odd white lie can also be helpful, especially when reason isn't hitting home. But choose your words wisely: telling a youngster that if they get out of bed a monster will grab their legs will probably result in a morbid fear of bed, the dark, getting out to go to the loo and coming to you if they feel unwell in the night. If all reason fails, why not say that deliberately trying to stay awake after going to bed is something you have to tell the teacher about or you could get into trouble yourself?
And when faced with a stroppy four-year-old who won't accept that she can't have the latest computer game because it's too expensive, try telling her it's too old for her and the store isn't allowed to sell it to you.
When not to lie
There are circumstances, however, where it's simply not appropriate to lie. When your child reaches an age where he or she can understand basic facts and information, it will only lead to confusion and more mistrust if, for example, you answer questions about where babies came from with a tale of being born through your belly button, being delivered by a stork or whatever other tall story has been handed down through th e family. Better to tell the very basics and build on the information one question at a time if they want more detail.
And it's unwise to tell a lie that can easily be discovered: if, for instance, your child is just not a good enough footballer to be picked for the school team, it's pointless saying that there were too many great players to get them all on the side at once but that he or she will no doubt get picked next time. You risk the team coach telling the truth or, at the very least, disappointment when they're passed over the next time and the time after that. Better to steer them in the direction of a sport or other pursuit they're really good at and point out that not everyone can be good at everything.
5 lies to avoid
Of course, some of the fibs we tell our kids are part of family humour and can be delivered with a certain amount of jokiness and teasing – and children can appreciate this even from babyhood as they learn shared empathy. But some of the commonest lies can set up more problems than they solve if they're delivered without a good dollop of irony.
Father Christmas only delivers presents to sleeping children
This one can make kids even more wakeful as there's nothing more guaranteed to induce a bout of insomnia than being told you must go to sleep. Just accept that you'll have to stay up later on Christmas Eve than you might like – or set your alarm for 2am and 'deliver' the presents then.
Eating carrots is good for your eyesight
Actually, carrots are good for eyesight, but this doesn't mean your child will be immune from needing glasses – and what happens then? It could make him suspicious of all vegetables, as well as of you!
The police arrest children who won't do as they're told
Although it can be helpful for your child to understand the idea of law enforcement, threatening youngsters with arrest for minor misdemeanours can set up a fear of the police - and what will happen then if your child gets lost and needs to find a trustworthy adult to ask for help?
Sitting too close to the telly gives you square eyes
Could act like a red rag to a bull as your child tests the theory – if not on herself, on a younger, unsuspecting sibling.
If you tell a lie your nose will grow
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Do you lie to your children?
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Santa is a lie: should we be telling our children?