This parenting gig is tough. Some things are clear: Do not let the baby put the scissors in her mouth or open an unlicenced tattoo parlour. Easy. Others, however, aren’t so clear-cut. Lying, for one, is one of those areas where the lines get blurry.
Should you tell your toddler that there are no cookies because the cookie tree hasn’t bloomed yet or fess up that you want all the cookies for yourself? What about when your little angel asks about Santa or sex or death? What about when your teenager asks you if you’ve ever gotten drunk or experimented with drugs?
It’s complicated. But to help you draw your own line in the sand, here are three times when it’s OK to tell a fib and three times when it’s best avoided.
Lie like the wind when:
1. It’s an existential question asked too early
When your 3-year-old looks up at you with those big toddler eyes and asks whether you’ll be around forever (probably just as you’re flushing his pet goldfish down the toilet), you lie. You lie through your teeth, and you make it convincing! No, there is no chance that Mummy could get struck by lightning tomorrow. Yes, Mummy will always be here. Death is not a concept a young brain can easily grasp, but the idea that you might not be around can be troubling, so save the death talk for when the time is right and your baby is old enough to understand.
2. It’s a matter of keeping the Christmas magic alive
Yes, telling kids that a jolly bearded man can — and will — magically break into their house to leave presents is perhaps a little odd, but it’s an old, beloved tradition which, to many parents, is part of the Christmas magic. The Santa lie is at the heart of a raging parental debate, but while there are those who argue that it can undermine trust, there are currently no conclusive studies that indicate lying about Santa (or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, for that matter) has any negative long-term effects. So if you want to keep the magic of Santa, go ahead — just use your intuition when the time comes to fess up.
3. It encourages creativity
If your baby draws your portrait, you are not going to be like, “That’s lovely, dear, but if you look closely, you’ll notice my eyes are the same size… and not red. Do it again.” Your child’s burst of creativity is not the time for an anatomy lesson. Same thing goes for macaroni necklaces, painted rocks or anything made out of an egg carton. You don’t have to go overboard and tell your kid he’s an art prodigy, but a few white lies aren’t going to hurt.
Better to tell the truth when:
1. The lie could have a lasting negative impact
When I was a kid, my dad told me that if I crossed my eyes, an optical nerve would snap, and I’d stay like that forever. My dad did not mess about. Even though I know it’s not true, to this day I get anxious when I see anyone’s eyes approaching a crossed position. Aside from the inconvenience of having to find a dark corner to rock back and forth in whenever that happens, my childhood trauma is really not that big a deal. However, telling kids a monster will eat them if they leave their room at night or that you’ll leave them behind if they don’t behave in the way you want them to can be a tad more damaging. Kids are learning the world, and they trust you as their guide; be kind.
2. The lie could lead to physical danger
It might seem like a good idea to tell you unruly 9-year-old that you’ll get a police officer to arrest her if she misbehaves in public. You might even give yourself a little mental high-five. Except, if your kid ever finds herself in real danger, the kind where she should seek help from an authority figure, you don’t want her to be too scared to ask for it.
3. The truth causes you discomfort, so you lie
I bet you’d rather get a Pap smear from your grandma than discuss certain issues with your kids. But if you don’t tell little Timmy about the birds and the bees, responsible alcohol consumption, weight issues or cancer, he’ll get his information elsewhere or just suffer in worry or silence alone. That is not what you want. Be honest — and age appropriate — and answer questions to the best of your ability. That doesn’t mean revealing every detail of your wild past or detailing what a chemo treatment feels like, but rather accepting that kids are more aware than we often give them credit and that your mistakes or experiences can offer valuable life lessons.