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Should parents ever lie to their children?

The short answer is no. The reason is that TRUST is the basis of all human relationships.

Newborns acquire a sense of trust that their parents will meet their needs. Older children learn their parents are trustworthy when they are treated with honesty.

So, parents, if you want to be trusted and believed never lie about the big things. The trouble is that the big things are the things that are hardest to talk about. In the private sphere of the home things like death, illness, divorce come to mind. Terrorist attacks, horrific accidents, and natural disasters are in the public sphere which means they are on the news 24-7 and on every front page always with the most graphic photo the editor could find.

There are rules about truth and children:

* Truth must always be tempered with compassion (“How awful that the tsunami killed so many people. I am very sad.”) so that the child learns that emotion is OK to express.

* The truth must be presented at the age-appropriate level so it is accessible to the child.

* The truth must always be followed by reassurance (“Terrible things can happen but we don’t have tsunamis here.” or “Mommy and I will do everything in our power to keep you safe always!”)

* Encourage the child to talk about what is happening. When faced with strong emotions all of us must allow ourselves to FEEL them and TALK about them. If not these feelings get “stuck” in our subconscious and can cause trouble later.

* Whenever possible empower the child to deal with strong emotions of grief by taking some action. Involve the kids in things like sending money to relief agencies or funds to educate children who have lost a parent. Ask the children if they want to draw pictures of what happened or collect blankets to send or whatever.

* Turn off the TV! When a big disaster happens the event is shown and talked about repeatedly on TV. Watching the airplane hit the tower over and over again is scary and serves no purpose. In my opinion repeated images have a negative effect while talking about the event is a positive step to take.

What about the “little” things? What about “white lies”, those untruths we tell to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

As I have said elsewhere, how people feel about honesty varies from culture to culture. In Japan it is so important to preserve social harmony that it is virtually REQUIRED that one avoid telling the truth if it would hurt someone’s feelings. Western parents teach their children that any act of lying is bad.

All of us should learn to tolerate ambiguity. This complex world we live in can no longer be viewed as black and white–if indeed it ever could be. We have to teach our children two rules as they are growing up: 1) TELL THE TRUTH so you will be trusted. and 2) DON’T HURT PEOPLES FEELINGS because you must be kind to others. And we have to teach them when to use each rule.

Explain that we don’t say, “Your casserole tasted awful and we gave it to the dog! Instead we say “Thank you for sharing your new recipe with us!” If your child points out that you’re not telling the truth, explain that both truth and empathy are important.