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 263.

    Apparently my father moved out for a bit when we were kids, he was an actor so often worked away from home and we were just told that he was on another acting job. My parents reconciled and we were none the wiser. Should they have told young children the truth or did the lie protect us? Personally I think they did the right thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    The Sunday school story, told to children, that shooting stars are actually angels burning to death because a child somewhere has told a lie takes the biscuit. Every one, including kids, has the right to lie, and thus find out why it's not a good idea. Experimentation is a good way to learn about this universe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    Is it me or has HYS turned into some kind of strange cyber secure mental hospital wing where all the patients are controlled in what they can say and think?, look at this odd debate, the world has manydeeply inrestesting and Momentous changes going on and all we get is lying to kiddies so they eat their greens, wow what an interesting and deep subject not

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    Santa.... the Tooth Fairy....

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    Once when I was 3 years old I was going for a walk with my parents in the country, when i decided I didn't want to go any further. I sat down in the middle of a field and refused to move at all. I was told that they were going home, and then they walked off around the corner to hide. I was adamant that I wasn't going to move however and called their bluff. I was soon carried off victorious.

  • Comment number 258.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    Biggest lie parents tell their children must be that there is a God they should believe in and other religious terrorism like hell and sin !

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    @235.Andy B
    re 100
    "Did you stick to the truth about everything, like say there was no such thing as Father Christmas or did you lie for that? I'm intrigued at where the moral boundary might be"

    Thanks for the question. I do play along with the FC story, albeit in a considered way. And I think it's an ethical boundary not a moral one - I have a duty to teach my child about life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    Telling lies to children, is largely laziness &/or inability of explaining the truth, or in religions case, for pure indoctrinational purposes. There are enough reasons in truth to use as persuasion.

    Once you start lieing, then you have to remember the lie & continue it,

    Children mainly learn to lie from their parents, it is NOT a good lesson to teach any child

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    What planet are you from? Stories and films are works of fiction, and the audience knows this. A lie is when something is told as if it were actually true.

    As an example, Santa Claus is a fiction - but it's up to the parents whether they want to make the child believe Santa is real or not.

    So if a child pretends to be a fairy, they are lying to themselves? Don't be ridiculous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny etc isnt lying really, more about creating some magic and fun for children. I have never shielded my children from the stark realities or truths of life altho i've tried to tell them in ways they will understand. As long as your attempts make your child think then it's all good. Some people dont give their kids enough credit and mine often surprise me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Your dog that bit the postman has gone to live on a farm. Yeah, right!

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    I used to tell my children that Jesus would cut their tongues out at night if they told lies. Such fun observing how long it took them to go to sleep. Someone said it may have caused my eldest one to stammer and wet the bed, but I think he was biased against religion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    For years I used to worry about Mother really putting me in the dustbin. I think it was a joke rather than a threat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    "A child need not be very clever, to know that 'later, dear' means never".

    Kids can often be complicit in this - we were very bad at remembering the 20p under the pillow for a tooth. The second time, cue a very arch four year old with his hand out and 'the tooth fairy appears to have forgotten again'...

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    As a parent, you have to use a white lie to get a point across, as long as it is not threatening. My frequent one is "Eat your vegetables, as God is watching you!" Who says, God doesn't help in parenting!

  • Comment number 247.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    @ 232 Living By Logic
    lying is simple laziness.

    Rubbish. Nothing to do with being lazy at all. I have a foster child at home who asks dozens of questions a day, some need quite long and protracted answers. Depending on how old the child is and their understanding of the adult world answers can be adapted, if that is a little white lie then so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    I think lying to kids is OK if done in the right way - eg as devil's advocate or as a game.

    I've had interesting discussions with my kids when I've said things like 'The moon's made out of cheese, isn't it?'. They know I'm lying, but we can then get into their reasoning why they think it's not so, and what might happen if it was

    Or we say "Mum's never wrong", and they then try to prove it false

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    5. Martin Reilly
    The most common lies parents tell their children usually go by a different name... I think they call it "religion".

    You think? Are you not sure? Have you put some serious, open-minded study into this? Religion has its faults, certainly, but it is also a force for good. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.


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