Why I Lie to My Children—And Why You Should Too

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At the risk of sounding like a politician, “lying” is a very harsh word. You could say that I lie to my children, or, a more accurate description would be, “I color my words for age appropriate understanding.”

Once upon a time, we as a society understood that children are not height-challenged adults. Rather, they are in a state of maturing. Their minds work in different ways. They are often afraid. Too often, what they are afraid of is not the real dangers in life.

For example, an outgoing child might find an adult man with a smile and a cute dog a perfectly good prospect for a friend, while the mere sight of a doctor’s office brings sheer terror.

My theory is that we used to have a carpetbag full of fables to teach, admonish and warn children in a manner they understood. Today, technology has crippled our storytelling abilities, and in many ways, erased much of the wonder from the maturing process.

Have I scarred my children by “lying” to them? No. Not in the least.

Here are the rules I created for safeguarding my children’s trust while coloring their world so they can grasp it as gently as possible.

Rule #1. Never lie to children when they are fully capable of understanding the truth. If they ask you a direct question, answer it to the best of your ability, within the range of their understanding. A simple example is the question of Santa Claus. Once they are fully questioning, their need for understanding and truth outweighs their need for fantasy.

Rule #2. Never lie to make yourself look good in their eyes. Give them an opportunity to see that sometimes telling the truth comes at a personal cost.

So when is it ok to lie color the truth? Here is an example our family has used.

When four-year-old Liam needed to go for a sleep study, he was riddled with anxiety. Spending the night in a strange place, and a new bed, a room filled with strangers was bad enough. Then a couple of men came in and wanted to place wires all over his body. This was terrifying for him.

So his mother explained, “Liam, this is how we will find out what superpowers you have. These nice people are going to hook you up to their machines and watch them all through the night. When you wake up we will find out what your superpowers are.”

Turns out, Liam’s superpowers are running really fast and the ability to talk to dogs. The experience was a good one. Everyone came out the next morning with the information they needed—including Liam.

The litmus test to find out whether what you are about to tell a child is a lie or an imaginative, age-appropriate explanation is simple. If one day you know you will have to come clean and explain your rationale for what you told him, you lied. Your credibility and trust are damaged.

If, on the other hand, one day the answer is just known, that means the holding place of that imaginative story is no longer needed and maturity has filled the gap with understanding—and a smile.