Most parents 'lie to their children'


People share some of lies they have told, or been told while growing up

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Most parents tell lies to their children as a tactic to change their behaviour, suggests a study of families in the United States and China.

The most frequent example was parents threatening to leave children alone in public unless they behaved.

Persuasion ranged from invoking the support of the tooth fairy to telling children they would go blind unless they ate particular vegetables.

Another strategic example was: "That was beautiful piano playing."

The study, published in the International Journal of Psychology, examined the use of "instrumental lying" - and found that such tactically-deployed falsehoods were used by an overwhelming majority of parents in both the United States and China - based on interviews with about 200 families.

'I'll buy it next time'

The most commonly used lie - popular with both US and Chinese families - was parents pretending to a child that they were going to walk away and leave the child to his or her tantrum.

"The pervasiveness of this lie may relate to the universality of the challenge parents face in trying to leave a place against their child's wishes," say the researchers.

Another lie that was common in both countries was the "false promise to buy a requested toy at some indefinite time in the future".

Start Quote

Your pet went to live on your uncle's farm where he will have more space to run around”

End Quote Well-intentioned or immoral? An example of what parents told their children

Researchers established different categories of these untruths.

There were "untrue statements related to misbehaviour", which included: ''If you don't behave, I will call the police," and: "If you don't quiet down and start behaving, the lady over there will be angry with you.''

If these seem rather unheroic examples of parenting by proxy threat, there are some more startling lies recorded.

Under the category of "Untrue statements related to leaving or staying" a parent was recorded as saying: "If you don't follow me, a kidnapper will come to kidnap you while I'm gone."

There were also lies motivated by protecting a child's feelings - labelled as "Untrue statements related to positive feelings."

This included the optimistic: "Your pet went to live on your uncle's farm where he will have more space to run around."

A rather self-serving untruth was used for a quick getaway from a toy shop: ''I did not bring money with me today. We can come back another day."

There was also a selection of lies relating to "fantasy characters", also used to enforce good behaviour, such as in the run-up to Christmas.

'Broccoli makes you taller'

The study found no clear difference between the lies used by mothers and fathers, according to researchers, who were from psychology departments at the University of California San Diego in the US, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua in China and the University of Toronto, Canada.

Tooth fairy The tooth fairy, bringing wishes to stressed parents

Although levels of such "instrumental lying" were high in both countries, they were highest in China.

The study found there was an acceptance of such lies among parents when they were used as a way of reinforcing desirable social behaviour.

For example, the lie told to children that they would grow taller for every bite of broccoli was seen as encouraging healthy eating habits.

The study raises the longer-term issue of the impact on families of such opportunistic approaches to the truth. It suggests it could influence family relationships as children get older.

The researchers, headed by Gail D. Heymana, Anna S. Hsua, Genyue Fub and Kang Leeac, concluded that this raises "important moral questions for parents about when, if ever, parental lying is justified".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Imagine a world where everybody told the truth! Hi, gosh you are ugly by normal standards. Hello, you are an old man and smell of wee. And so forth. Lying spares blushes. Telling the truth leads to bullying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    What's the truth and what's a lie? This story has made me question my entire childhood... when Mum used to tell me that she loved me was she just making it up?

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    What nonsense- shock horror, parents lie to children. er guess what people lie to each other all the time. In fact more newsworthy would be so and so found to actually be telling the truth, doubt many people take anything anymore without massive pinches of salt.

    Feel there are bigger liars out there than parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    My mother's favourite lie was 'I suffer from a mental illness which can only be treated if I never say sorry for anything as that would damage my self esteem'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Can you put some kind of age restriction on this page before my kids find out?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    As a chiold, I was lied to pathalogicaly. Not only by parents, but by the braoder family. The real frustration for me came from the obvious transparency of these lies: telling me that the dog had gone to the big kennel in the sky? The biggest problem I had and still have is that the clear inference from my family was that lying is wrong, unless it serves your own ends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Every kid starts out as a natural born scientist, a curiosity to learn and explore, to develop, and to become good humans - and then we beat it out of them with lies about God and religion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    My observations are kids relentlessly grind their parents into submission. Parental lies about toys, consequences of bad behaviour etc is a reponse to the endless "can I get..." and tantrums when the answer is no. It can teach kids basic negotiation and how to avoid being duped for later life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    My 11 year old was profoundly affected by the "Santa Claus Con". We expected him to be upset when he realised that there was no Santa.This was in fact no big deal for him compared to the realisation that we had used many layers of deceit to convince him that Santa was real for 10 years. He will not readily let us forget and it is suprisingly hard to justify. Do as I say not as I do ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Most of the examples given in the article are relatively benign and help parents cope with the challenges of bringing up a child. Lies are also a unfortunate necessity of human existance in a complex society and children need to learn: when it might be appropriate to lie, how to lie and how to spot a lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    In order to keep me from running away in fields when we went on country walks my dad used to tell me that the circular sheep feeder cages were to put the 'rogue sheep' in - should it become too angry and want to attack children

    I have a fear of grassy meadows to this day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Children should be taught the difference between stories and truths at an early age, and we should let them know which are which. Generally parents shouldn't tell lies to their children. Apart from setting a bad example, it will come back to bite them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    How about the lie about a sky dwelling deity who observers everything you do, has intercessory powers over your life, and an unhealthy interest in your sexual preferences?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Really? Who's have guess that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Father Christmas - say no more

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Is there anyone who hasn't been aware of this fact since they were a kid?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    People lie and have done so for centuries..

    I doubt if few people have never told a lie let alone to children.

    So why does it remain socially unacceptable to tell some lies but not others?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Most parents "lie to their children"

    Most politicians "lie to their citizens"

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    If you lie to your children, they will lie to you. There are usually perfectly good reasons for eating healthily, or being well behaved - to lie in these situations is simply lazy. If you can't be bothered to educate your own children by investing the time and effort to explain things properly, you shouldn't have children in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Surely parents have been doing this for centuries. Just look at the fairy tales that the Brothers Grimm collated - they all contain admonitory messages (don't go into the woods or you'll be eaten by the big, bad wolf). Some things are too complicated or unpleasant for children to be told at an early age, so what else do you do? (Telling a child they'll be kidnapped is going a bit far, though.)


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