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What Lies Do You Tell Your Children?

What Lies Do You Tell Your Children?
New research shows that parents lie to their children more than they realize. We speak to an author of the study about her findings as well as a local therapist about the kinds of lies parents are telling and when to be concerned about your child's lying.

DOUG MYRLAND (Host): You're listening to These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Well, new research shows that many parents lie to their children more than they may realize, and the author of the study on parental lying is Gail Heyman, Professor of Psychology at the UC San Diego and she joins us in the studio today. Gail, welcome.

GAIL HEYMAN (Professor of Psychology, UC San Diego): Good morning.

MYRLAND: Also joining us is David Peters. He’s a family therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. David, glad you could be with us.

DAVID PETERS (Family Therapist): Good to be with you, Doug.

MYRLAND: And we want to invite our listeners to join the conversation today. If you find yourself lying to your child or someone else’s, what are you telling them? Why? If you’d like to discuss the issues behind lying to your kids, as well as your kids lying to you, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. So, Gail, I want to start with you and your research, and tell me a little bit about why you chose this field of study and how you framed the research.

HEYMAN: Yes, in my research, I study how children figure out the social world and I’m really interested in questions of how children figure out areas of the social world where they get conflicting messages about—and I think lying is really one of them—where they’re, at least according to our research, children are taught lying is never acceptable but they do get in trouble when they fail to lie in situations where they’re expected to, like if they get a gift that they don’t like and they tell someone honestly, I don’t like it at all. And so I think it’s a really interesting area about how children figure this out and how parents figure it out, too.

MYRLAND: Is this cultural specific kinds of things? I mean, are we going to be talking basically about, you know, American, Californian people here? Or are – is most of your research applicable worldwide to many cultures?

HEYMAN: That’s a great question, and we’re just now starting to do this research internationally. We’ve got a lot of different countries where we’ve had researchers who are very interested in taking part in this and all the researchers we talk to in many, many different countries around the world all tell us different lies that they hear all the time so we suspect it’s a worldwide thing. The specifics of the lies, we think, are going to be different across cultures but we’re just really starting this now.

MYRLAND: Now you spent two years or so doing this research. What surprised you?

HEYMAN: Well, what surprised us – I mean, first of all, we were surprised at how difficult it was to do this research. It’s more difficult than a lot of my other research and part of it is because a lot of people don’t want to talk about lying and if you call something a lie and ask people about lies, they – often they will deny that they lie because it’s such a bad word. So we had to get around all those issues. And even defining what is a lie turned out to be complicated because what some people consider a lie, telling children something that Santa Claus does, to other people it’s just fantasy and fun, so we had to really work through a lot of those issues.

MYRLAND: So help me out now. You focused on two kinds of lies.

HEYMAN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: Help me understand the two kinds.

HEYMAN: Right. In our research, at least as a starting point what we did was we focused on children between the ages about three and six years of age, for the starting point. And we looked at lies to influence children’s emotions and lies to influence children’s behavior. So let me give you a couple examples to make that more clear. So if you tell your child that his piano playing is beautiful when it really hurts your ears to listen to, that’s an example of lying to influence their emotions. Another example of lying to influence a child’s emotions might be if your son’s dog dies and you don’t want to tell him about the dog dying because you’re afraid he’s going to get really upset so you say, oh, the dog actually went to go live on your uncle’s farm where he could have more space to run around. So we saw a lot of examples of those kinds of lies. And then lies to influence behavior are more directed towards trying to get your child to do something, finish their dinner, go to bed on time. So a couple examples I have over here are one parent told us, if you don’t go to sleep early, a scary man will take you away from mommy and daddy.

MYRLAND: Right, or vegetables will grow hair on your chest.

HEYMAN: Yes, we’ve gotten a lot of those, a lot of food ones.


HEYMAN: A lot of, you’re going to get pimples on your face, those kinds of lies.

MYRLAND: This seems like a great time to bring in David and have you kind of expand on this. As a family therapist, you must really see a lot of nuance in these different kinds of lies.

PETERS: Yes, as family therapist, we specialize in parental control of children and how that’s best done and how it’s worst done. And, in general, I like to recommend to parents, you know, tell the truth to the degree that your child can understand and handle the truth. And, as Gail pointed out, sometimes the truth is not something your child could tolerate. Would you really want to say, yes, your gerbil is missing because the dog ate it? You know, you don’t want to say that to a small child. You might want to have to make up a lie to cover that to a small child. But an older child, you – would be able to tolerate this. Parents…

MYRLAND: Let me follow up on that because I don’t have any children so I’m not very sensitive about this but why wouldn’t a relatively young child be able to understand that the dog ate the gerbil? That doesn’t seem like a real complicated kind of thing.

PETERS: Well, sometimes reality is harsher than children should be exposed to. And it’s a parents’ judgment call. The gerbil is a kind of a cute story. Let’s say it’s a little bit different. Daddy’s not living with us right now because he had an affair with his secretary. You know, here’s something where it’s too complicated a story for a five-year-old to understand and you will have to make something up in order to cover it because the child doesn’t understand the nuance of marital affairs and this sort of thing.

MYRLAND: So, Gail, you have a comment.

HEYMAN: Yeah, I just wanted to make a comment. I mean, I agree that these are very difficult parent issues for parents to navigate and I tend to say that if possible parents should find a way to try to tell the truth but not give their child all the gory details. And sometimes that’s possible to actually be honest but without giving the details because I’ve seen a lot of situations, a lot of the people we interviewed for our study, their parents told them the things like your dog didn’t really die and then they found out later and it led to distrust of the parents. It also led them to beg their parents every day to go visit the dog. So it is a difficult thing. If it’s possible to sort of avoid this dilemma by telling your child something…


HEYMAN: …truthful without these gory details, I think that’s ideal.

MYRLAND: …I have a feeling that one of our callers, Piata in Calexico, would have some thoughts about that. So thanks for calling and joining us and you’re on with us on These Days.

PIATA (Caller, Calexico): Well, thanks for taking my call. I noticed for years and years that so many people tell their children lies. As a matter of fact, it’s actually part of our society to lie to children like as if it was nothing. And then later on, they have to say, well, no, that was just a white lie and it was just – Are you still there?


PIATA: Okay. And it’s just a white lie and so they try to cover it up with that idea. But it goes through life. You know, the older you get, the bigger the lies get and the bigger the lies get. And, you know, half of our society is just living their lives running with hiding from the truth.


PIATA: You know, trying to think that the government is, you know, trying to help us when, in reality, they’re there for our – for their benefit.


PIATA: You know, because why would anybody get elected to an office that pays $100,000 and spend a million dollars to get into the office if their intention wasn’t to steal it all back and then some.

MYRLAND: Well, before we get too far afield into politics, I do want to stick with the subject at hand and I think it’s an opportunity to go to David and say, how do you, as a parent, in real time make this decision about saying, well, is this lie going to cause way more lies? Should I just figure out a way to tell the truth in a very simple way? Or should I really say that the gerbil is now living on grampa’s farm?

PETERS: Well, rule of thumb is one of the obvious: never tell lies with ill intent. And when I work with parents who are not getting along at all or who are divorcing, you’ll see parents lie about the other parent with ill intent, and these are extremely destructive lies to children but they’re in the minority of cases. The majority of lies are, as Gail has pointed out, to influence children’s emotions and their behavior and I think the rule is you have to think ahead of time to what degree can my child handle the truth and can I leave out details that are hurtful or painful or scary? If you’re in a dangerous situation and your child says, mom, are we okay? Mom shouldn’t say, no, this is dangerous right now, we might get hurt. Mom should say, well, stick by me and we’ll be okay. You want to reassure a child in appropriate times. So always, always move toward protecting your child from terror while allowing your child appropriate concern.

MYRLAND: Okay, well, let’s go to Suzanna in San Diego who has another comment about this. Suzanna, welcome to the program.

SUZANNA (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Thank you. I just wanted to say this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I always knew growing up that I was going to be honest with my children. I didn’t like that my parents tried to sugarcoat everything or prevent us from like knowing all the bad stuff about life, like when my grandfather died and stuff like that. And I just – I didn’t like that and with my children, I’m very honest about everything. I don’t sugarcoat anything. I’m obviously the stricter parent but they also feel more secure with me because they know that mommy’s going to be honest. And I do it, obviously, appropriate to their level, but I think it’s helped them a lot more than me trying to sugarcoat anything and we’ve gone through divorce, death, everything and I am very honest about everything and that’s helped them.

MYRLAND: Suzanna, maybe you can help me understand, how do you figure out exactly what to say right in that moment? Or do you sometimes say, well, I need to think about this and then I’ll give you an answer?

SUZANNA: Well, actually, I have to say my faith has helped me a lot.

MYRLAND: Okay, so you…

SUZANNA: Yeah, that’s how…

MYRLAND: …you turn to a spiritual side. Well, thank you, Suzanna, for joining us and I want to just jump to another caller. Clayton is in San Diego and wants to talk, I think, a little bit about Santa Claus, and me, too, so, Clayton, you’re on the show.

CLAYTON (Caller, San Diego): Well, not so much Santa Claus as with the whole pantheon of childhood, make believe dreams. Is it really supportive emotionally or in any other way, shape or form to tell a child that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy does exist when, as adults, we all pretty much sit here creating these fantasies for the children. I mean, does it help them or does it hurt them in the end?


HEYMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think this is a great question and this is one of the directions that we’re interested in going in our research. I mean, fantasy in general is often very good for children but lying can cause all these negative problems for relationships so we don’t know how all these things fit together when there’s sort of a culture of Santa Claus or other kinds of things. So, unfortunately, the research just doesn’t have an answer. There’s no one to suggest that – there’s no research that suggests it’s bad for children but some of the people we interviewed who did talk about these kinds of things as adults when they said they were very, very upset about being lied to as children. So some people really do feel upset about this but whether it really has any longterm harm, we – there’s no evidence to suggest it now.

MYRLAND: How common is it? Your research shows that this is a pretty common practice, right?

HEYMAN: Well, in terms of the lying about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, I mean, this is extremely pervasive. Almost no children in the culture – I mean, almost all children are told these kinds of things, so that’s – But in terms of these other kinds of lies, even these kinds of lies most – the vast majority of parents tell their children, including the vast majority of parents who report in our study that they tell their child that lying is never acceptable.

MYRLAND: So they teach that lying is never acceptable but they have to compromise that principle with their children.

HEYMAN: Right, and a lot of the lies that they’re telling are not the kinds of lies that are sort of to protect their child in some – from deep kinds of harm. A lot of the lies that we saw that really surprised us in this research were lies of convenience to get the child to stop throwing a tantrum, and some of them were very creative. I mean, telling a child that – Well, we had one parent tell us that when her – whenever she went out, her three-year-old son would cry and scream and it would ruin her evening out so one time when the phone rang and her son said who was it, she said it was a witch – I mean, she said it was her friend Linda, who was captured by a witch and she had to go save her friend, and she made up this dramatic story and then her son was okay about her going out because he knew it was a really important thing. So I think some of these things are just ways to sort of – often creative to get out of these situations.

MYRLAND: David, I want to ask you about this but first of all I want to remind our listeners that we’d love to have you join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. David, what do you think about that kind of elaboration in order to get a child to calm down?

PETERS: Yes, the line for convenience, it really is the pervasive reason and it’s the one that is worth looking at from a family therapy point of view because parents are busy. They’re in a hurry. You’re in the store, your kid wants, you know, the sugar cereal and you want him to stop asking for it right away so you can keep moving, and parents will lie for convenience to get the issue over with quickly and get their child back in line. But there’s a price to pay for that over time. A little bit at a time, your child learns that you’re full of b.s., that you’ll say whatever you want to say in order to get them to fall in line. And if you take the time each time, a little bit longer, it’s a little bit less convenient, but to get to the truth to the degree your child can understand it, your child will trust you much more intimately. And I’ve seen this work wonders with some families that have come into the office where the parent can sit down and get to the heart of an issue and explain to a child what’s happening and why or why they want them to behave in a certain way. And the child respects that trust, that I’m going to leave you with detailed information that’s difficult to understand but try anyway. And I think over time children respect their parents more for that and you get a more accommodating child into their teen years later on that way, by telling the truth more often.

MYRLAND: At about what age is a child able to really understand the difference between lying and telling the truth from their own point of view?

PETERS: It might be a question for Gail.


HEYMAN: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of research on this and, unfortunately, the answer is not that clear in terms of when they understand but there’s some fuzzy boundaries. But I would say, you know, at three or four they’re starting to get the basic idea down. And children definitely do lie at least from a parent’s perspective, they’ll say – when they’re as young as two they’ll say things that aren’t true. Now whether or not they really understand it is a lie at two, probably not.

MYRLAND: So here’s another research question for you.

HEYMAN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: If parents tend to lie to their children for convenience or to protect their emotions or whatever, do you see any evidence that that causes children themselves to pick up that behavior? Is lying a learned behavior?

HEYMAN: Well, there’s some indication – We don’t have the greatest research yet to answer that question but there’s some indication that would suggest that, yes, children are learning from their parents. Their parents are a very important source of information about how you’re supposed to handle social situations and probably they are learning this is the right way to handle social situations from their parents from this.

PETERS: And it’s appropriate sometimes to lie, oddly enough. The children are learning from their parents when you should lie, such as when Aunt Irma says why don’t you want more cookies, the child shouldn’t say because your cookies taste like dog crap. You know, the child should say, well, I’m full today, I’d rather not. And children are watching parents very carefully with the white lies, which it’s unfortunate that we use the word lie to cover all these things because some are just social graces. To say, no, that’s okay, my feelings weren’t hurt, you know, will be fine to soothe someone is sometimes the better bet than to say, oh, you hurt my feelings and get into a big discussion about whose fault and that sort of thing. So parents are demonstrating social graces and what parents really don’t want is they don’t want their kids lying to the parent to get away with things. They don’t want a disruption of authority in the home but parents do want kids to learn social graces of when to say, well, you know, dad’s out of town on business rather than dad’s in alcohol rehab, you know, so it’s learning to protect family privacy, learning to protect someone else’s self esteem. Those sort of things are the appropriate lies, which we don’t like to say are lies. We like to say, well, it’s different. And it is different, it’s not the same as a lie that is selfish and manipulative.

HEYMAN: But it is difficult to figure these things out. I mean, I completely agree. And society expects people to lie but it’s very easy for both children and adults to lie for convenience or for all kinds of reasons and say, well, that’s just a white lie or I’m really doing it to protect this person’s feelings or I’m, you know, when you tell your child that they need to finish their dinner or they’re going to get pimples all over their face, parents can say, you know, this is a benevolent lie; you want your child to eat well. But these kinds of lies often backfire and have really negative consequences and I think parents need to think about alternatives to these ways of handling these kinds of situations.

MYRLAND: I would want to remind everyone, you are invited to join this conversation at 1-888-895-5727 if you are interested about whether it’s normal or abnormal to lie to your children or have them lie back to you. What’s okay, what’s not. I’d like to hear from you at 1-888-895-5727. In your study, did you discover some, I want to say, cultural norms? Did you find general agreement among parents about some certain categories of lies? Aside from Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny but…

HEYMAN: Yeah, I mean, I think certain kinds of lies – our cultural in particular. We live in a culture where children are – we believe children should have high self-esteem and we want to make them feel good about themselves. And the vast majority of parents tell their children things like – at the beginning I brought up, you know, if their child is learning to play the piano and they play terribly and the child – the parent will say great job. And I think that’s pretty pervasive in our culture but I think even that, you know, we think what negative consequences could it have for parents to tell their child good job even if it’s not? Well, I think it actually can have some negative consequences for children to go out into the world and think they’re great at everything when maybe they’re not. It can create problems. And some of my colleagues…

MYRLAND: Well, for – To stick with that example…

HEYMAN: Umm-hmm.

MYRLAND: …aren’t there – isn’t there a whole spectrum of things you might say rather than an out-and-out lie? Might you not say, gee, considering that you’ve only been practicing for a month, I think you’re doing pretty well?

HEYMAN: Exactly. I mean, I think it’s good for parents to think about alternatives. I think it’s sort of something that we learn that you’re supposed to just say something positive. And I think it’s hard in our society when people expect to see praise all the time and then they don’t, it can be a problem. But you can say, oh, you’re working so hard on it. Or, oh, you really seem to be enjoying it. And there’s research to suggest that that – actually telling children, getting them to focus on the process of what they’re doing rather than to constantly evaluate the outcome, actually is very, very good for children.

MYRLAND: But on the other hand, it’s pretty tough when Aunt – David, to use your example, when Aunt Martha gives you a cookie and it really doesn’t taste very good. It’s kind of hard to find a – something that’s not a lie to say. So this is interesting learned behavior. I want to go David in Oceanside who has some thoughts about this. David, thanks for joining us.

DAVID (Caller, Oceanside): Hey, thanks. I just wanted to comment. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, how we teach our children to lie. You know, having grown up in a fundamentalist home, the cognitive dissonance between we’re teaching our children how to lie with our – we’re teaching them it’s wrong to lie with our words but we’re teaching them how to lie with our behavior. I mean, they don’t just get social appropriateness, which they’re really not old enough to fully absorb, but they’re really good at absorbing technique. That’s it.

MYRLAND: So, David, would you say that in your experience as a family therapist that that’s a true statement?

PETERS: Yes, David, the caller, has a very important point. I’ve found in working with families, kids learn to disrespect their parents very quickly once they realize the parents are two-faced, that they will profess one thing and behave in another way. If you’re warning your child about the evils of alcohol and drugs but you’re quietly getting drunk on the side, if you’re preaching to your child about honesty but quietly you’re stealing on the side or you’re lying on your tax return, this sort of thing, kids pick this up over time and they learn, oh, my parents’ standards are worthless, that there is no moral structure there. And so how we behave in front of our kids is really, really important as what we say to them.

MYRLAND: Josette in San Diego has a comment about this. Josette, thanks for joining us.

JOSETTE (Caller, San Diego): Hi.


JOSETTE: Thanks for getting me on. I wanted to say that lies are not healthy at all and at any age because even though a lie can be verbal, it can be picked up by a child very, very early with nonverbal cues. And so that the tone of the voice, all of a sudden there is a feeling inside that child or the feeling inside the person, we all know when we’ve been lied to.


JOSETTE: And I don’t know how early we are able to sense that within…


JOSETTE: …and so once our senses becomes misdirected bit by bit with a lot of lies, we lose that sense of center.

MYRLAND: Well, Josette…


MYRLAND: …Josette, thank you for that. I do want to stop there and talk just a bit about parents – children observing their parents and being very sensitive to their parents’ behavior and being able to tell when they’re being lied to. You think that’s true?

HEYMAN: To some extent it is. I mean, I don’t think – I think if children always caught their parents in lies right away this behavior would be a lot less pervasive. I think a lot of times parents do get away with it and it actually makes their child do what the parent wants but I do think in the long run a lot of times children start picking this up in subtle ways and in different ways and then it can lead to this mistrust. But I don’t think kids always – the caller has a good point in terms of that children really do sometimes pick these things up and it’s often from nonverbal cues but a lot of times parents get away with it and they feel like, oh, well, this works so well I’m going to come up with the next lie to get my child to stop misbehaving in the car, for example.

MYRLAND: Well, we have time to take one more call. Gemadene (sp) in University City has a comment, and thanks for joining us.

GEMADENE (Caller, University City): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.


GEMADENE: Excuse me.

MYRLAND: Your comment.

GEMADENE: My comment is on what the guest speaker, I believe, said about social graces and lies that are called social graces. I really think that teaching our children to lie in some social graces to spare other people’s feelings, especially on things like, you know, the cookies didn’t taste good or things that are not that big a deal is teaching them that, A, it’s okay to lie. It’s also teaching them and other people around them to not take responsibility for their own feelings because if somebody says something like I didn’t like your cookies, it’s not really a personal thing.

MYRLAND: Okay, well…


MYRLAND: …Gemadene, I need to cut you off right there because we’re getting real short on time but I do want to give our guests a couple of chances to comment about that. Do you think that we should take a harder line and really force children to find ways to be honest without being hurtful?

PETERS: Well, the older a child gets, the more sophisticated they can use language and gracefully get through difficult situations without telling a lie. But it is a challenge even for grownups sometimes. And so I – the caller disagrees with what I’ve stated but I do think it’s okay, children to learn the social graces, the ways of getting through difficult spots to support someone else’s feelings.

MYRLAND: Well, if there weren’t some disagreement then Gail really wouldn’t have any more research to do. So I’m sure we’ll cover this subject again in the future but we do need to move on and, Gail Heyman, Professor of Psychology at UCSD, thank you for joining us.

HEYMAN: Thank you for having me.

MYRLAND: And David Peters, family therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley, thank you for joining us on These Days. And you’re listening to These Days in San Diego.