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 203.


    I was with everything up to the empty crisp packet lol. Great to see children with an active imagination :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    I blame so called 'modern' parenting for all these lies that are being told to children. When I was a child our parents told us the truth: If we didn't do what we were told, we would get smacked. Children were in general less screwed up in those days than they are now. Go figure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    @195.KierLP1981 - "Too much to ask for a HYS on Cameron's EU speech then, or are 'the powers that be' too scared of what the plebs may say?"

    Perhaps they thought one HYS about lying was enough?

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    Parental lies don't always work.
    When I was about 5 years old my mother threatened that she would leave home if I didn't behave.
    I went and fetched her coat for her.
    Oddly enough she never used that lie/threat again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    My 5yr old had to have a metal wire removed from her arm. I told her it would hurt, but it would be over quick and we'd get a treat. The nurse told her it wouldn't hurt, she was well meaning but of course it was a lie. I think the lie made the whole experience much more traumatic for her.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    @167 - Dan - Agreed, luck is also the end point of the truth, I should have included that, But that is still better than saying "hey, dont bother with anything because you will never achieve anything".....

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.


    >How typical of HYS - cheap shots at relgion sprouting at the scantiest excuse!

    You are absolutely right, Megan. Some people claim religion is meaningless and nothing to do with them but are completely obsessed by it.

    Tell kids the truth to the best of your ability; tell them they are allowed to disagree with you, and vote against you; set an example of loving those you disagree with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    "If you don't quiet down and start behaving, the lady over there will be angry with you.''

    Potentially there is nothing wrong with this statement.
    In public places where a child is misbehaving and my wife has commented that the child is annoying when they continue to play up. All because the parent is incapable of keeping the child under control. Perhaps not angry but annoyed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Too much to ask for a HYS on Cameron's EU speech then, or are 'the powers that be' too scared of what the plebs may say?

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    88 Re existence of God; most of us answer our childrens questions honestly & let our children make their own mind up - rather than ram down their throat some doctrine which no one knows is true or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    I have never believed in hiding the truth from my kids but you have to respond in a manner fitting to the childs age. Telling a 4 year old there is no Santa Claus would be cruel. Telling a doubting 12 year old there is a Santa Claus equally ridiculous. There are a million examples of when the 'truth' is not appropriate unless we are going to do away with childhood altogether.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    I do recall adults warning about the risk of blindness, but it was not related to eating vegetables.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    159.Squiz of Islington
    The other thing is where parents tell their children outrageous falsehoods for their own amusement when asked a question about something quite sensible then promptly forget they have done so, but the child remembers the answer and believes it even into adulthood.
    My brother believed until adulthood that "if the wind changes, your face will get stuck like that"

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    "You have to go to bed early tonight as me and your mum are going to have sex on the dining room table"

    I can't wait to see how that one goes down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    This topic is universally true that certain truths are carefully repackaged for the benefit of managing our children. In Nigeria we do tell our children some lies to make them behave the way we wish. Otherwise telling a child he cannot have a toy that cost the same as his school fees is a waste of time!

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    My daughter thinks that Frost is caused by an old silvery bearded wizard being chased around by a flying bear waving an empty crisp packet. I told her she was probably righ. she's only 4.. who wants the truth at 4?

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Would you be truly honest about rape and murder, about about and famine to a four year? If you answer yes then you would be guilty of emotionally scarring the child. 2yos may not understand tooth decay but will understand that the tooth fair would be sad with not brushing properly. Children do not understand the world as adults.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Anyone who explained to their children 10 years ago that the reason we were attacking another country was because they had weapons of mass destruction that could hurt us, probably thought they were telling the truth!

    Turned out to be as much of a lie as Santa Claus!

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Funny how it runs parallel to the ways in which religions attempt to control their followers, promises about reward and punishment that cannot be substantiated, relying on the implicit obedience and lack of critical thinking of the followers and ultimately leaveraging authority rather than reason to get their way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    We've always taught my 5 year old sister about everything we can, atoms, molecules, evolution, she knows that dinosaurs don't exist anymore and birds evolved from them. She is now at a religious school (only decent one in the area) she's been so brainwashed with religion, that when we refer to us evolving form apes, she cries, put her hands over her ears and tell's us to stop saying evil things.


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