Lying to children: why parents should never do it

When parents don’t have the time or the inclination to explain to their children why they should or shouldn’t do something, some of them like to resort to lies. But this can have a negative impact on their development, as researchers have now discovered.

"If you lie, you’ll grow a long nose": This lie, which almost every child will have heard from his or her parents at some time or another, is rather grin-worthy in retrospect. Because the notorious long nose will be probably the fewest grown. But it could have been worse: children who were often lied to by their parents in the past tend to be less honest with their parents later on as well.

They also show behavioral problems more often and are poor at dealing with problems in everyday life. That is the result of a recent study by the Singapore University of Technology.

Exciting, but no time right now?

Researchers surveyed 379 young adults about whether they were often lied to by their parents when they were kids, how honest they are with themselves now, and how well they can handle challenges in adult life. To do this, they would have to fill out a total of four questionnaires.

In the first part of the study, they were presented with examples of "classic" lies from four different categories: "eating," "going and/or staying," "child misbehavior" and "spending money".

"If you’re not good, I’ll call the police"

They should then indicate which lies sound familiar, such as "Finish your plate or you won’t grow," "If you don’t come with me now, I’ll leave you here alone," "If you don’t be good, I’ll call the police," "Next time we’ll buy you that toy".

In the second part, the researchers wanted to know from the participants which lies they themselves resort to with their parents today. These were in turn categorized as "activities," "prosocial lies," and "exaggerations". For example, the young respondents were asked to indicate whether they had ever lied to their parents about school performance, not told them what they were really doing with their friends, lied to them so as not to hurt them, or made them believe that something in their lives was going better than it actually was.

In the last part, which consisted of two questionnaires, the researchers checked how the participants reacted to certain situations in everyday life: Do they tend to react impulsively and selfishly?

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Those who were often lied to are more dishonest themselves

The result: according to the researchers’ analysis, the respondents who were often lied to by their parents as children were more dishonest overall and also exhibited more antisocial behavior – they would be more aggressive, selfish and manipulative. They also break rules more often.

"Lying may save parents time, especially if the real reasons why their child should or shouldn’t do something are simply too complicated to explain," says study leader Pei Pei Setoh. But if parents told their child that honesty was an important virtue, while they themselves didn’t always tell the truth, they were sending contradictory signals. "This can disrupt the relationship of trust and incite children to be dishonest themselves".

Parents must be aware of the consequences of their lies and, in the best case, completely renounce lying as a parenting measure, advises Setoh. "Instead, they should acknowledge their children’s feelings, find solutions to problems by discussing certain situations together with them."

Also read:

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Expert thinks lying in parenting is unnecessary

Florian Klapproth, professor of educational psychology at Medical School Berlin, also considers lying in parenting to be "absolutely superfluous": "Parents usually resort to lying to control their child, to encourage it to behave in a certain way."

Klapproth cites a typical situation: when children vehemently resist washing themselves, for example, parents like to tell them all kinds of things that could happen if they don’t, such as that if they do, they’ll get a bad disease. "Yet they could simply tell them the truth: ‘I want you to grow, though, because if you don’t, you’ll start to stink.After all, what does the child gain if he or she eventually realizes that the parents have been lying to him or her all along??"

The expert agrees with the study director: Lying endangers the parent-child relationship. "Parents who lie themselves but punish their children for doing so are sending double messages. Children then do not know what is right and what is wrong, they lose trust in their parents."This could lead to the fact that they withdraw later more and more, in the worst case also sometime, as soon as they do not need their parents any more compellingly, break off the contact to them.

"For healthy relationship, honesty is extremely important"

"For a healthy relationship between parents and children, honesty is extremely important. Only then can children trust their parents and really be able to open up to them." Of course, there are also situations in which lies may be appropriate because the truth is too painful: In the case of deaths in the family, parents do not have to tell their children the unqualified truth, especially when they are still very young. "But these tend to be exceptions; as a rule, people often lie about little things," Klapproth states.

But what if parents are already honest and their children lie anyway? The expert is sure that children mainly resort to lying when they are afraid of punishment.

But sanctions in child rearing are also fundamentally wrong: Instead of taking the easy way out and punishing children who have misbehaved, parents should sit down with them, find out the background to their misbehavior and find solutions together. "What led to their behavior? And how can they do better in the future? Children need to understand what they did wrong so they can learn from it for the future."If children who have lied were punished for their lies, however, this would only lead to more lies.

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