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 123.

    Lying is a life skill, inherent to the human animal, and actually a side-effect of its intelligence. Watch some Robert Winston and learn what the human does WITHOUT requiring conditioning and the stages of life at which we all learn these things. "No, darling, you look beautiful" (even when she's had to shave her head because of cancer). And when adults have to lie, children have to learn to cope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Interesting to see the number of people trying to make this a debate about religion (as always), and others showing such moral outrage.

    The article seem to be more about false promises and empty threats and/or the types of "lies" told to try and temporarily protect young children from some of the harsh realities of the world.

    Do we have to be so PC about it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    I think you will find that professional "liars to children" - namely teachers -can give lessons here. This is not to denigrate teachers in any way, but whatever the subject taught, there has to be some simplification at any given stage in order to lead on to the next, a little truer stage - hence "lies". It's honourable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    As a parent I am 'guilty' of telling my children lies - justified by the fact I wish my children to remain as children for as long as possible without the worries of the world hitting them early. The lies are not threats to modify behaviour, they are more nicer ways of covering the not so nice topics. Should I really tell a 5 year old that her mother is being treated for Cancer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    "11. Realist

    No HYS on Dave's speech then?"

    Bearing in mind we can't believe anything Cameron says can we take it that he thinks we are all his children ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    @ 102 - I agree completely that those monsters in manchester should not be top of the league.
    Seriously though ... Santa claus and the tooth fairy are hings that kids LOOK FORWARDS TO

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I was seven years old before my parents told me there was no Santa, I was heartbroken and could not understand why they would lie to me. Did that tell me it was ok to lie!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    there are all sorts of lies people tell all their life - some to be kind, some to escape facing a major blow up and some to fool others or con. Lying to children can help in some cases especially when they are little but its a balancing act. Threats are useless if they can't be followed through and you can't reason with a tantrum. Parenting is never simple

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    A close relative of mine refused to talk about Santa Claus to her children, because she didn't want to lie to them. I felt like screaming that of all the fibs my parents might have told me, the Santa thing was the one ruse that gave our family years of happiness! (and a useful behaviour control tactic for my parents)

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Best lies told by parents:

    "If you're naughty, santa will give you some coal insead of presents."
    "Carrots help you see in the dark."
    "If you point, you'll get warts."
    "These are the best years of your life." - i have heard a 11-yesr-old told this, to which he responded :
    "You mean it gets WORSE?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    @18.Rob B
    "This raises "important moral questions for parents about when, if ever, parental lying is justified"?
    Whoever thinks that has obviously never had to get a two year old in the middle of an epic tantrum out of a shop.
    The means justifies the end... Negotiating with a toddler is the definition of insanity!"

    Yes! Thank you for posting. Thank you so much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Morally I hate the father christmas myth.Its perpetuated in schools,grandparents,the media,retail.Family went up in flames when I said I wasnt doing it,made it hard not to by perpetuating the lies instead.We're at a point where 2 children dont believe but didnt want to say so incase they didnt get their gifts.Its an ingrained social and cultural lie and I wish we could stop peddling myth as truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    88.DenyNothing: "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"............. imagine how sad your children will be when they realise that their parents rather believe in some made-up story than the truth which is based on facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    9 Minutes ago
    18.Rob B "Whoever thinks that has obviously never had to get a two year old in the middle of an epic tantrum out of a shop" Nothing more easy to stop.My wife used to carry a small brightly coloured bottle of "Tantrum Medicine " everywhere. Worked everytime .The kids soon stopped throwing tantrums . Good stuff, COD LIVER OIL........Yeuch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I cannot believe that any parent never lies to their kids.
    Even discounting the Santa thing, how many parents say ?...........
    "You are so clever."
    " You are so beautiful/ handsome."
    "You did really well." (After coming last in the sack race.)
    " It's not far now." (10 mins into a 2hr car journey)

    Any more, anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    We lie to each other much of the time, not just to children. Little white lies usually. But insititutions and politicians alos lie. Public Relations is all about lying and manipulation. And then there are the religions, nothing but lies. We are surrounded by lies the whole of our lives...

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    How many parents reading this tell the children Father Christmas is real?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    @88 Deny nothing
    They teach tem EVOLUTION and other lies based on so-called science

    I hate to break this to you but...

    Listen, when do you think the earth was created (roughly)? Cos, If you add up all the ''begets and begats'' in the bible it makes creation about 4000 BC...

    I have IOUs from the tooth fairy older than that....

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @76 - "If parents are brutally honest, they'd have to say, "You're average and probably won't achieve anything great." Where does that get anyone?"

    That is not being honest, that is giving your child the perception that they cannot achieve anything in life. Whereas, the reality and the truth is to tell them "You can achieve anything as long as you are prepared to do the work required".

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    The biggest and nastiest lie without reason or mitigation is the 'god' lie which is solely responsible for the survival of very unsavoury organised religions, be it catholic or islam. The catholics even once admitting they want to be given the child till they are seven so that they own the adult all their life. Minor expedient lies to get food eaten etc pale into total insignificance beside this.


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