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 423.

    I don't have kids but I do have a dog, and if I want her to do something or not to I can't ask her, I need to offer her some kind of reward for doing so or a bad consequence for disobeying me, this is how i imagine parenthood would be and its the proper way to raise a child and teach them right and wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    A friend of mine got so sick of watching Barney the dinosaur with her kids that she told them he'd died in a car crash. They were devastated but at least she never had to watch it again.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.



    Brilliant answer samxool. Just lacking in one small detail :-

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    It saddens me that people still teach their children that there is God in the face of all reason. There are even some who don't believe in evolution and believe the earth is 6,000 years old and pass this belief onto their children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    Oh, woop de doo! Now we won't be able to tell our children that the clown under the bed will get them if they don't eat their potatoes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    The US Census Bureau states that there are 115m households with an average of 2.6 people per house.

    The Communiqué of the National Bureau of Statistics of People's Republic of China states there are 401,517,330 households with an average of 3.1 people per household.

    For a survey based on just 200 families isn't the story headline a little misleading and somewhat insulting towards parents?

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    Children can't handle the truth! They do not have the emotional maturity to deal with certain issues inside their own heads. A report on Jimmy Savile comes on the news and your 7 year old asks what he did. You aren't going to go into any details, are you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    I ate loads of carrots as a kid because i was constantly told by my parents that they would help me see in the dark. I have to wear glasses now, can't see a thing without them. My childhood was a lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    I hope, as someone once said: "if you will persist in telling the truth, one day you will be found out".

    (Particularly by the young, before they're too much older).

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    Why is it that some parents when outside and their children are misbehaving will point at a stranger and say "If you don't behave the man will come and tell you off". It's happened to me and why make me out to be the bad guy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    Irresponsible article. What is kids who believe in the tooth fairy, etc read this? The BBC is an authoritative site...should know better

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    "... STOP ASKING ... "

    typical rant from a religious zealot that lacks even the slightest insight into his place in the cosmos. Let me enlighten you. You are a speck living a pointless and futile existence on a rock that is orbiting one star amongst billions of other stars that are orbiting a galaxy, that in turn is hurtling through the void amongst billions of other galaxies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    My grandmother told me when I was a child that it's too cold to snow........

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    When my 2 year old son asked me how he was formed? We told him the truth - the sperm and the egg, the foetus, the baby development.

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.


    Well, I have to admit that before you used capitals I was a bit undecided but the use of them has really swayed me lol.

    I'm not surprised you believe in any old rubbish if you think the above drivel explains anything - other than it's either a troll or a lunatic making them:-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

    All parents lie to their children, it starts with them being told the big outside world is dangerous stifling their natural ability to investigate as their parents wrap them in cotton wool, they are told that if they get a good education, they will get a good job, they are told they will meet the man or woman of their dreams and live happily ever after - conned is the correct term I think..!

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    "Do you tell kids that mum and dad have sex in order to have a baby?"
    I told mine. They said "Urgh!"

    Babies happen, sometimes to people who didn't have sex because they wanted to make a baby. I wouldn't want any child of mine to say "But daddy I deliberately didn't look under any bushes!"

    Having been a Uni 'college tutor', I know that some 'little' lies can last a devastatingly long time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    no mention of parents lying to their children about religion?

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    I have never lied to my kids and neither them to me. That's a lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    parents do lie in that way either because they cant be bothered to explain or because they dont think that children will understand even if they explained. To be honest there is particularly wrong with this, but they should make the children understand the situation perfectly well and if they dont understand dont give-up. If you don't give-up on children they will eventually know in the end.


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