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  Lying to Your Kids       From: WebMD

goodhousekeeping featurelogoBy Marissa Cohen
Originally published on June 11, 2009 on

Like most parents, I am trying to teach my kids that honesty is always the way to go. But truthfully? There are times when I'm such a liar that my pants are undeniably on fire.

  • I recently swore to my 5-year-old, Molly, that the letter she'd left under her pillow really had been spirited away by fairies who lived in our flowerpots.
  • I lied to my girls about the real reason their uncle was getting divorced, and
  • I cringe just thinking about the day they'll ask, "Mom, did you ever smoke pot?"
    (My answer will remain no, regardless of what my college roommate tells you.)

I realize there are moms out there who are shaking their heads, eager to point out how hypocritical it is to ask your kids for total honesty and then turn around and lie to them. And yes, experts stress that truthfulness is crucial to a healthy parent-child relationship. But they also all agree that sometimes less than the whole truth can be a good thing. "A parent's job is to protect children and nurture their development," says Robin Altman, M.D., a child psychiatrist and medical director of the Children's Home of Reading, in Reading, PA. "At times, that means telling a small lie — or holding back some of the truth — when they don't have the capacity to deal with all the facts yet."

Whether your kids are in preschool or high school,
      here are some of the times it's OK to fib:

Lying for Santa's Sake

My girls are fiercely committed to the existence of fairies; for others, it's all about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. And as long as young kids believe, go with the flow. "Children ages 3 to 6 are deep into their fantasy life, and they are delighted when parents play along," says Adele Brodkin, Ph.D., senior child development consultant for Scholastic. In fact, she says, these fantasies help children develop creativity and language and cognitive skills.

Of course, at some point an older sibling or pal will try to burst your child's bubble, and he'll ask the dreaded question: "Is Santa/the Tooth Fairy/the Easter Bunny real?" Your kid's behavior will reveal whether he can handle the truth, says Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of educational and counseling psychology at McGill University. If your 5-year-old comes to you in tears because his friend said Santa is fake, he's not ready to give up his fantasy. You can say, "It's OK for people to believe different things. Do you think Santa is real?" If he says yes, you can add, "Then I think he's real, too." If he says he isn't sure, you can explain, "No one knows if Santa's real, but we all love telling stories about him. He reminds us that Christmas is about the spirit of giving."

On the other hand, if your 7-year-old asks, "Hey, how can one Tooth Fairy visit every kid in America?", she's ready to hear the truth. Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Parenting Bible, suggests you let your child take the lead, asking, "Hmm, what do you think?" If she says, "I think you put the money under my pillow," you can say, "Aha! You figured it out. Parents tell the Tooth Fairy story so little kids won't worry about losing their teeth. Now you can feel like a grown-up."

Lying About Family Problems

As kids get older, you'll probably wonder how much truth to reveal when your family or a close friend reaches a difficult crossroads, like illness, divorce, or unemployment.

"When I was in graduate school, I briefly didn't have health insurance," says Jenna Hatcher, 44, a mom of two in Lexington, KY. "I never told my 9- and 15-year-old daughters, because they would have worried. Once when I was sick, my older one asked why I didn't go to the doctor. I lied and said I was feeling better."

Hatcher chose to hide the truth from her daughters so they wouldn't stress about circumstances they couldn't control. And that instinct was correct, says Goldstein: "Kids need to put their energy into developing their own identity at school and with friends."

Not all family situations can be glossed over like Hatcher's. "When there's a divorce or a sick relative, most kids will figure out that something is going on," points out Steven Friedfeld, LCSW, a child therapist in New York City. If you don't clue them in, Friedfeld adds, they'll be upset that you're keeping secrets, and they may mistakenly assume that the problem is all about them.

The best way to air the topic is to share the basic facts and explain how the news will affect them: "You know that Dad and I have been fighting a lot, so Dad is going to live in an apartment for a few months while we try to work things out. We both love you very much." Allow your child to ask questions, and let him know he can always come to you if he has more.

However much of the truth you choose to share, spin it in the most reassuring way possible: "Grandma is very sick, but the doctors are doing their best to be sure she isn't in pain." And when it really does impact their lives — like when a parent loses a job — communicate that you'll all work together to get through this situation.

Lying to Protect Your Privacy

You didn't give up your right to privacy when you had kids. And, sometimes, maintaining that boundary involves telling a few lies. "I went away for the weekend with my boyfriend last year when my daughters were 13 and 19, and I told them I was going with a girlfriend," says Clair Davison,* 44, a single mom in St. Louis. "I didn't want to share details about my sex life with my kids."

Whether it involves your love life or a fight with your sister, it's OK to fudge the specifics sometimes. "If your child asks for details, say, 'Sorry, but that's grown-up business,'" suggests Dr. Altman.

Questions about past indiscretions are trickier — say, if your child asks, "Mom, have you ever tried drugs?" It's fine to dodge the truth, says Friedfeld: "The key thing is to impart your family's values, so you can say, 'I'm not comfortable discussing this, but here's how we feel about people who do drugs.'"

You can also let the question provide an easy opening to an important discussion, says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Building Moral Intelligence. An answer like "I tried pot once and didn't like how it made me feel" can segue into, "Why are you asking? Have kids been talking about pot in school lately?"

*Name and location have been changed to protect privacy.

Lying to Skirt Harsh Realities

Last September 11, my daughter asked me a question I'd been dreading: "Mommy, my teacher asked us to remember the people who died on 9/11. What did she mean?" Bellamy was just two months old on that awful day, so I'd never mentioned the event to her. My reply was, "Some bad guys flew airplanes into a building, and some people died." She was silent, and then she said, "But it could never happen again, right?"

With a twinge of liar's remorse, I answered, "You're safe. The bad guys on that plane are gone." Did I do the right thing? "Filtering the truth is not the same as lying," Borba explains, noting that telling a child too much is unfair: It adds to the fear without helping her handle it.

So when there's a school shooting or tornado on the news, ask yourself, Is it going to directly affect my child's daily life? If the answer is no and your child is not yet in kindergarten, don't say anything, says Dr. Altman. If she overhears you talking about it and asks questions, try a little fib, like "We were worried because there was an accident, but everyone is OK."

With older children, remember, "playground gossip is huge, and your child will hear things from his friends," Borba says. "You want to make sure you are the one guiding the info." So bring up the news and dole out the truth bit by bit, gauging how much they can handle. "Give them a snippet — i.e., 'Did you hear about the earthquake?'— and then pause. Say, 'What did you think about that? What are your friends saying?'" Borba suggests. Teens and tweens get news from the Internet or TV, so it's even more important to answer their questions honestly.

When kids ask you about scary news, figure out what they really want to know, says Goldstein. For most kids (as was the case with my daughter Bellamy), the real question is, Are we going to be safe?

Someday I'll tell Bellamy and her sister the rest of the story. And someday, if they ask, I may share some of my own less-than-stellar moments from the past. But for now, I'm sticking with a gently filtered version of the truth — and feeling fine with it.

Little White Lies — Good or Evil?

Raise your hand if you've ever told a fib to avoid a scene or to get your kid to do what you want. I've told my girls the restaurant is out of mac and cheese to get them to eat something healthier, and my friend Randi admits she used to tell her son the toy store was closed for various made-up holidays so he wouldn't whine about buying Pokémon cards after school.

These little lies of expedience seem harmless — and used sparingly, they can be, so don't be too hard on yourself, says Victoria Talwar. But be careful of overdoing it. "Young children may never realize you lied," she says. "But if you lie on a regular basis, or to older kids, then they'll recognize that you're not trustworthy. You're also teaching them that lying is an appropriate strategy to avoid things they don't want to do."

Instead, try the tougher but more rewarding approach: honesty. Adele Brodkin suggests diverting your kid's attention ("Sorry, no Pokémon cards today. So, did you finish painting that dinosaur in school?"). If that doesn't work, offer a succinct explanation without being drawn into a discussion about it ("You've had macaroni twice this week, so choose either chicken fingers or the soup"). You may have to suffer through a few public meltdowns, but ultimately your child will accept it and, more important, you'll promote the fact that honesty is your family's best policy.

Lying to Children

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