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 103.

    This doesn't need any research from a US University. It's just common sense and practicality. Kids are just kids and need to be told some bluffs here and there to get the situation in control. some common banter and bluffs are not classified as lies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Yes parents lie, and I'm glad they do.
    Do you want your children knowing everything Jimmy Savile has done? Or what those monsters in Manchester have done? Parents are meant to protect children, and lying is just one powerful way of doing it. They'll do it themselves, when they're parents. Although sometimes the truth is better.
    "I'll buy it next time","I don't have the money now"?
    Just say "NO".

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    HYS on Cameron's speech? - thought not. BBC showing their colors again...

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    This article strikes a chord as I've always tried to be honest with my daughter. There's no need to use outlandish claims or hollow threats - when we want the behaviour to change it's for a reason that can be explained.

    When she was 3 and wanted to watch cBeebies grandma automatically lied "it's finished today". I would say "no you can't, because the grown-ups don't want the telly on now."

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    So its acceptable to lie and allow kids to believe in Father Christmas so they are good at Christmas, but not acceptable to allow their kids to believe in God so that, in theory, they behave well all the time?

    Some people on here need to get over their anti-religion bias...

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Christmas wouldn't have been half as much fun as a kid if you weren't sat up late trying to hear the bells on Father Christmas' sledge!
    Father Christmas left presents every year, and the tooth fairy put in appropriate appearances...but I did used to wonder why the Easter Bunny was rather unreliable!
    But I've always known my pets went into a hole in the ground in our garden.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I've always tried not to lie to my child. I took a course in how to listen reflectively to deal with difficult situations like 'tantrums' and it worked well. I have always had an excellent relationship with my daughter, even during the teenage years.

    People tend to parent in the way they were parented; I decided I wanted to change. Read 'Faber and Mazlish' if you want to know more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    And as children don't learn by what we say, but by what we do. Then WE teach our children to lie. And then WE get angry at them for doing what we taught them.....

    Simple really ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    No mention of telling children they will burn in hell etc if they dont learn/abide by bible/koran etc, which is a bigger.worse lie than father xmas lie & far longer running than xmas lie

    They are all mainly behavioural lies to gain control in a situation, but some have specific indoctrination intentions

    Some are lies specifically to control one for life & the lie is maintained for life

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Some people are being very optimistic about how rational children are. When you tell them to stop something that they are doing, they will not present an 'articulate reasoned debate', they will be totally irrational and stubborn. My sister used to refuse to go to bed, and would kick down the stair-gate that was put across her door to prevent her

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.


    Maybe he did. And in your case it appears he was right. It is very childish to have a tantrum and stamp your feet when you don't get your own way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Some of the lies told to children:

    we will not raise tuition fees .
    the nhs is safe in our hands
    your bin will be emptied weekly

    and the latest whopper...
    if i win the election you will be given a big bag of referendum on europe sweeties

    It's like taking candy from a baby

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    This has to be taken into proportion. This totally depends on the situation and what the lie is.
    If you are trying to get a two year old to calm down you wouldn't say "I'm going to give you a minute to think about your actions" you'd tell them that they will get in trouble from the big manager of the shop.
    Also telling a child that Santa etc. is not real is potentially ruining a childhood.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Better than a thump on the head, I say.
    Anybody done any research on the prevalence on lying in:
    (1) a successful marriage?
    (2) a successful career in sales, politics, or religion?
    Does the end justify the means?
    If not, why?
    How many sociologists are employed researching the obvious? - nice work if you can get it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I don't think it's right to lie to your children. I didn't even feel comfortable with the Father Christmas lie. I have always tried to be honest with my children & have asked them to be honest back. Now they are in their mid-late teens,& as a family we seem to be more honest, open & understanding with each other in discussions about sex, relationships and lifestyle etc. It's healthier not to lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    IT makes me sad that so many parents lie to their children. they tell them that there is no GOD. They teach tem EVOLUTION and other lies based on so-called science

    There is only one truth-- GODS truth and we owe it to our children to tell them the truth about GODS love. To lie to them and turn them against GOD is a sin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Surely: "Yes, there IS a God!" has to be the biggest lie of all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    these parents sound unncanily similar to our politicians!

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Good grief. Did they really need to take on studies to work this one out?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Its important to tell certain lies to kids.

    They aren't broken when they find out Santa aint for real. If anything it makes them more questioning of bigger whoppers like God etc.

    That's Islam's problem I think... it doesnt tolerate false idols, and fantasy stories for kids. The kids grow up irrationally believing in their God without reason to question. The fear is absolute.

    Talking snakes?


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