There will come a time in every parent’s life when they will tell their kids a white lie. When you were dropped off at preschool, you might even remember your mom telling you that she would “be right back.” These cover-ups may have helped us adjust to the world early on. But what if those lies were to elicit compliant behavior — like saying the police would come get you if you didn’t behave? A new psychology study led by the Anyang Technological University and published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology shows how these lies leave children with harmful aftereffects long after they become adults.
The researchers asked 379 young adults about their parent’s parenting styles. Did their parents lie to them? How much do they lie to their parents now? How well do they adjust to adulthood challenges? Adults who reported being lied to as children said that they lie to their parents now that they’re adults. They also reported facing greater social and psychological challenges, like aggression, rule-breaking, and impulsive behavior. The obvious question is: why?
“Parenting by lying can seem to save time especially when the real reasons behind why parents want children to do something is complicated to explain. When parents tell children that ‘honesty is the best policy,’ but display dishonesty by lying, such behavior can send conflicting messages to their children. Parents’ dishonesty may eventually erode trust and promote dishonesty in children,” Assistant Professor Setoh Peipei from NTU Singapore’s School of Social Sciences explained in the study.
Of course, this study was just a few hundred kids and the results were entirely self-reported — ie only the kids who knew they were being lied to could report that back. Still, even a very limited study such as this points us in an interesting direction when it comes to those “harmless” white lies.
Plus, let’s not forget that there are other ways to elicit good behavior in children without lying. Peipei suggests that parents should acknowledge their children’s feelings, give information so children should know what to expect, offer choices, and problem-solve together. The researchers’ goal is to come up with future research that shows parents what kind of lies to avoid — and to explore other informants, such as the parents themselves, to report on the same experiences their children had with their lying.
So the next time you assert authority by telling your kid that you’ll throw them in the ocean or “just leave them here” if they misbehave, you may want to remember how this will affect them once they’re no longer under your roof.