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 403.

    390. samxool

    And the 2013 Award for the Most Deluded goes to....

  • rate this

    Comment number 402.

    One has to question the parental ability of parents who feel the need to lie to their kids in order to get them to do something or make them feel better. For many parents its just an easy escape on par with blackmail. If I showed off something as a child to my parents they would tell me their honest opinion what they thought of it good or bad. Parents are now simply scared of upsetting their kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    An example: On my way home on the spur of the moment bought a ball at a street stall for my son. At home I gave it to him as a surprise. My six-year old daughter came to me and closed her eyes and held out her hands. I told her they didn't have what I wanted and we had to go out together to get something for her. So we did.

    How would "I didn't think of getting something for you" have helped?

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    It's a shame that people are using this article to bash religion. Now it may be that you disagree with what others believe and in your eyes they are telling their children lies. This article however is talking about parents deliberately lying to their kids in order to achieve their own ends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    "The most frequent example was parents threatening to leave children alone in public unless they behaved."

    THAT's the most frequent? I don't think so!

    "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."

    IMHO, THAT is the most frequent, also in the run-up to Easter, Ramadan, Hannukah, Diwali...

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.


    Just one thing, where did God come from?

  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    Are the researchers sure that these people were telling them the truth??

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    I won't lie to my kids about Santa or the Easter Bunny- if they ask i will tell them the truth. They will then go into school and tell their friends that they don't exist, and other parents will then blame me for "ratting" them out on their lies, simply because i won't lie to my own kids about it. Strange how i'll become responsible for their kids losing trust in them...

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    and is this really newsworthy... a 'group' of psychologists interveiwed 200 families about something everybody is aware of... inferred that telling lies to children 'may ' influence family behavour, without suggesting how... concluded that it raises moral questions( which are ? )... i hope that this 'survey' was not done on sponsorship cash

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.


    Agreed, something doesn't come from nothing. That's what we have modern cience to explain - your stone age explanation has now been superseded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    The most damaging lies from parents have to be indoctrinating their children into believing in a magical man in the sky. In comparison the lies listed in the article are tame. Nobody grows up to kill people in the name of Santa or avoids contraception because of the Tooth Fairy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    Lying to children is necessary for them to learn how to be in society, and great fun. Look at Christmas, Easter, tooth fairies &c.

    If you're so pro-truth, inform your five-year-old today that at any point in their life they could contract cancer and die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    Try the brilliant essay by Sam Harris, "Lying"

    There is a tradition of lying to children; it is the lazy way out.
    Having raised three sons, we have resorted to the occasional fib, but have not touched the Tooth Fairy variety, and have kept firmly away from the bigger, damaging lies such as Heaven and Hell.
    Truth is the ideal; let's hope we can learn to use it well.

  • Comment number 390.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    @367 rollrunna
    "...i find it remarkable that the subject of indoctination was ignored"...

    you make a very good point. No mention of the greatest lie about heaven & hell & religion. Just in case anyone is in any doubt; Jesus did NOT walk on water. There are NO prophets because there is NO god. You will NOT end up in hell or heaven, you simply cease to be when dead. Get over it and live life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    Do what the parent of a 5 year old child did at my daughters school last Christmas and tell them that Father Christmas is really the anti-Christ.

    She ended up really upsetting some of her classmates.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    kids learn very quickly that parents lie, and then battle harder as they know that threats and promises are idle. they're not stupid.. blimey i know i made life a living hell for my parents!

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    I've never lied to my children.

    I told them there was no father Christmas.

    Everyone else told them their father was a liar.

    They believe nothing I say to this day. (18 years on).

    This country is full of stupid people, partly because many are taught to be so from a tender age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Its fair to say kids take the issue of lying seriously.

    Perhaps more so than parents realise but why this should be the cause of more moralising against parents I don't know.

    Lies are a fact of life or we wouldn't know to take what politicians say with a 'pinch of salt'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    One sometimes wonders if those researches have lives at all. Generations before were raise on parental lies, as they call them, and they turned just fine. Just stop the drama and find a real job


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