Are little white lies bad?

May 17, 2009 at 9:33 a.m. ET

Is it wrong to tell "little white lies" to our kids? I've done it, and I bet you have, too. "No, honey, we don't have any more cookies," or something else that saves you five minutes of, "But why not?" repeated over and over again. But those little stretches of truth present more of an issue as I try to teach my children right and wrong, and that lying is not okay.

My sons have gone through their phases - around ages 8 and 9 - of experimenting with lying. Lying about things they didn't have to, to see what would happen and how much they could get away with. In each case, we had long conversations about trust and truthfulness, and each had to earn back trust. But now, as my older son enters adolescence, we have encountered the lying issue again. While the lie itself and its consequences are trivial -- he would call it "a little white lie" -- it is lying nonetheless. It's time for us to look at ourselves and our own tiny mistruths.

Saving face

Our local baseball league uses older kids as umpires for younger kids' games. Kids undergo some training and earn a bit of money for each game worked. If an umpire is assigned a game, it's his responsibility to be there or find a replacement.

Recently, another umpire sent out an email looking for a replacement, and my son volunteered -- but without actually checking calendars or with his parents. He realized his mistake pretty quickly. But instead of admitting this, he told us that he never really said "yes" to this other umpire, only "maybe," but the other ump had pushed the responsibility on him anyway. He then made a less-than-concerted effort to find another ump and had our complete sympathy. We thought we were helping him learn a lesson about challenging situations brought on by other people, and as such, I suggested he contact the umpire coordinator. Through the course of several emails, my son did find a replacement, and I contacted the umpire coordinator about what I thought was the situation.

While I try to offer my son a certain amount of privacy, I can and do check his email account for appropriateness of content, and so on. So even before I heard back from the coordinator, I checked the email chain from this other umpire... and saw that my son had lied to us. He had said a solid "yes" to the other umpire.

The snowball effect

Instantly, I knew what had happened. He felt embarrassed that he'd answered without checking, figured that finding a replacement would be easy, and told us something different to save face; he figured we'd never know. To hiim, it was "a little white lie" -- except that it turned out not to be so easy to find another ump for that specific time. And as the days went on, he felt more embarrassed, and the lie turned a little bigger when the coordinator became involved. By this time, I was feeling embarrassed, too.

While I don't enjoy being in this situation, I think it's going to be a good opportunity to teach our son how "little" lies can snowball into bigger ones and can prevent real and necessary learning. It's an opportunity to talk about whether we think any lying is okay -- and maybe we can head off future such lying.

the problem with lying

I've always taken pride in not lying to my children about certain big issues. While I am always careful about using terminology and presenting topics in a way that's appropriate to their ages and development, I don't lie. It seems like it's the little lies that occasionally become problems.

Lies beget lies. Telling my daughter, for example, that we don't have any more cookies seems innocent enough, but when she later discovers the cookies, another lie comes out of my mouth: "Oh, we do have cookies! I thought we were out!" Again, it seems innocent, but is it really okay? My daughter still needs to learn the lesson that some times are appropriate for cookies, and some times aren't -- and that hasn't happened at all. The lies got in the way, and they are still lies. Just because I was able to cover the initial lie doesn't really make it okay, and it doesn't negate the fact that, initially, I was feeling lazy about a parenting moment. Plus, those little lies led her to believe that the occasional little lie was okay. We were giving mixed messages.There have been times that a little lie has been produced to avoid hurting someone's feelings or causing a situation to get worse. These situations are highly individual, and I have more ambivalence about them. Finding ways to head off that situation rather than resorting to a lie is a better approach, no matter how protective the intent. This type of lie is not "a little white lie" and will require longer, ongoing discussions about lying and the specific circumstances.

We're human

This situation is also an opportunity to say, "Hey, we all make dumb little mistakes sometimes. We are human. No one is perfect." Embarrassment over your own actions, big or small, isn't pleasant. I certainly understand the desire to keep that feeling to yourself, without letting on to others that you made a mistake and possibly opening yourself to ridicule. Talk about uncomfortable! In the end, though, the embarrassment over a little mistake that you can deal with simply and directly is far less than the discomfort you'll feel when caught in a lie to cover that initial embarrassment.

It's going to be good for our family to think a bit on "little white lies" and what it means to be honest. I think we'll all be more considered in what we do and say, and more honest with each other -- and ourselves. Our son will have to earn back some trust, we've both apologized to the umpire coordinator, and we've all learned important lessons.

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