Keep your hands to yourself. Don't talk back. Always tell the truth. We live in a society where the rules for children are quite simple. Yet, do parents follow the same rules?
I always knew what type of mother I would be. I would be the mother who was firm. I would set boundaries. I would follow routine. And I would always tell the truth to my children. Fast forward seven years and I am the mother who, in frustration, screams across the school yard "Come back here right now, or Santa won't be coming this year!"
What the parenting books failed to tell me was that while I could spend most days being firm, setting boundaries and adhering to routine, on some days, it would completely fall apart. On those days, my parenting would come down to survival. If survival meant telling a white lie, then my philosophy of always telling the truth was unashamedly thrown out.
A study, published in the International Journal of Psychology, based on families in the United States and China, found that 84% of US based families and 98 per cent of China based families lied to their children as a tactic to change their behaviour. The most common lie told by parents was threatening to abandon their children, unless they behaved.
I know that mother well. She is standing in a crowded shopping centre, baby screaming in the pram and arms full of grocery bags for that night's dinner. Junior has decided to fuse himself with the teddy bear ride-on in the middle of the centre, unless he has another turn. So many scenarios could play out this scene. Yet, the quickest and perhaps the most effective would be the threat to leave Junior right where he is. Mummy would be going home without him. We all know she wouldn't actually leave him there. But if the little lie gets Junior to co-operate, surely there is no harm in that?
Parents from the study also believed it was okay to tell a lie when the lie was used as a way of reinforcing positive behaviour. My eldest son is a fussy eater. I am the mother who spins lies at the dinner table like a disco jockey. "If you eat all of your dinner, you will...grow taller and have muscles!" Truthfully, I would tell any yarn to get him to eat. I would happily turn cart wheels across the kitchen floor if it meant he would eat his dinner.
Clinical psychologist and mother of four, Sally-Anne McCormack advocates that "parents are powerful role models and that if they lie all the time, then they will teach their children to lie as well." But not all lies are the same. A white lie is certainly different. Being told that a watermelon will grow in your tummy if you swallow a watermelon seed. Or even the old fable of not to pull a face, for when the winds changes it will stay that way should be avoided, says Sally-Anne. "These are confusing white lies and children do not understand sarcasm or wit."
What about Santa? The Tooth Fairy, Santa, Easter Bunny and even monsters lurking in the wardrobe play a vital role in a child's world. Sally-Anne reassures parents that "storytelling is different to telling a lie." The fantasy that encases a child's world is too precious for the truth. When faced with the inevitable question if these characters are real or not, parents "should give a politician's response and avoid the question, until children are persistent and really want to know the truth." I can't bear the day when I will explain to my boys that Santa is not real. Or that it is mummy sneaking into their room at night to swap their little teeth for gold coins. For the answer not only marks the truth, it marks the day when my children perhaps start to grow up.
So in an adult world focused on the rules and always telling the truth, are we failing our children by telling these lies? Telling white lies is not failing our children. When told in a way that protects others, or protects mummy's sanity for that moment, white lies are not a parenting fail. They are simply one of the many tools parents need to use on those days that are more difficult than others.
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