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 363.

    18.Rob B
    "The means justifies the end..." no it doesn't

    " Negotiating with a toddler is the definition of insanity!"

    No it isn't. its just a question of when you can negotiate and when you have to dictate. Children can understand simple choices and deals; you just need to know what to trade on. But in some situations you just need to act and deal with why later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    Beyond the usual tooth-fairy type instances I made a particular point of not lying to my children. I wanted to give them a good example and for them to lead honest lives. I was sorely disappointed as they grew up when they learned to lie elsewhere and did not treat me with the same respect I showed them - but that's human nature. I have got over it and we all understand each other better now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    Well done BBC - you may not realise that quite a few children read your site - this article was the headline and as a result you have probably destroyed the magic for a few of them - by mention of a couple of characters . . .
    Not lies - but the magic of childhood innocence!

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    If we could redirect the resources used on thousands of "studies" into the bleedin' obvious into proper science, we would have cured cancer and landed a man on Mars by now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.


    A lie is a statement which is known to be untrue by the person saying it. If a parent believes for example that God exists, then telling their child that is not a lie, it is at worst (if we assume that they are wrong) an error.
    Tell them the truth, that you believe god exists but you don't know. Faith is an unreliable process for discovering the truth (Peter Boghossian)

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny is lying. We use the fact that it is Jesus Birthday and because it is a special Birthday we all get presents. If think Jesus does not exist then you should not be celebrating Christmas in the first place

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    Surely the most common and also the most disturbing lie told to children is that there is a god. Children are told that if you do not believe in him you will burn in hell for all eternity. This lie is so damaging that even some people continue to believe into adulthood. Could you imagine an adult still believing in Santa or the tooth fairy???

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    And parents get angry when their children lie to them! They taught them how to do it in the first place!

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    "The tune playing in that colourful little van means they have run out of ice-cream" :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    "348. Francis
    The problem is getting out of the lie later. When some children believe in Father Christmas and the others don't you end up maintaining the lie for the one who hasn't woken up and smelt the coffee yet."

    Smelt the coffee??

    Are you implying you let a child drink or smell coffee?
    With all that dangerous caffiene?

    Better to keep up with the lies!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.


    10p each or 5p if they're ginger.


    Don't worry, he lied because he didn't do it; he cut the gerbils head off instead

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    You should never lie to children. Where I come from, the truth is always best:
    "You were adopted and we wish we could send you back."
    "Your dad was a sperm donor and doesn't love you."
    "You were an accident/mistake and I wish I had an abortion."
    "You cost a fortune and I'd rather spend it on partying and alcohol."

    This would do wonders for the kid's self-esteem and confidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    Just reading all this pro/anti religion drivel. If there's no God, please tell me where we all came from. Something doesnt come from nothing. So scientists can "prove" that the earth formed at the Big Bang - but formed from what? And where did THAT come from? Ultimately....there's no explanation in Science either. How do you explain that? Lie of course!

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    Lies are evil and sinful. If anyone utters a lie to a child, no matter how small and trivial, THEN THEY ARE A TERRIBLE PARENT!!

    That's it mate - you take the middle road and sit on the fence lol! And what about children lying to parents - the same? In which case you are saying ALL children are evil as I guarantee ALL children lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    We all lie hugely, then complain when the kids do the same. Then the politicians assume they can, followed by police, councillors, estate agents, teachers, bosses, workers.... basically the world is full of it. Its a shame as it makes it difficult to know what is really what.
    Watch the EU referendum - both sides will be tell pork pies like they are going out of fashion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    The problem is getting out of the lie later. When some children believe in Father Christmas and the others don't you end up maintaining the lie for the one who hasn't woken up and smelt the coffee yet. It's particulary awkward when your teaching science or geography ...or RE when the children can't distinguish Santa from Jesus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Seeing a few comments about lying to tantrumming 2-year-olds. Why lie? During the one and only public tantrum my now 7yo had, I walked about ten paces away, crossed my arms, and waited it out. Once over, I said if she ever did it again I'd slap her backside. We were outside at the time; had we been in a shop I would simply have picked her up and left the shop. No talking/lying needed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    I see the comment in the article "The most frequent example was parents threatening to leave children alone in public unless they behaved." quite disturbing. That's not a lie that's cruel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    It would be interesting to know if there is any correlation between parents who tell lies to their children and politicians who tell lies to the voters.

    Telling a lie as a short-term way of getting what you want may seem an attractive option, but at some point the chickens come home to roost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    Telling a child that they'll get kidnapped if left alone isn't a lie if the paranoid parent telling it, actually believes it......

    The most common lies seem to be those of punishment for misbehaviour, not following through on your threats to remove toys/sweets/whatever, will give your child this perception that nothing bad can ever happen no matter what they do.


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