Kids, parents and white lies

© A. Chederros/Onoky/Corbis

A ‘white lie’ can be defined as a harmless lie told with good intentions – usually to protect the feelings of another person. According to one study, children as young as three were capable of telling white lies and this occurred mostly when a parent told them to do so in advance. An example of this is when a child is coaxed into saying that he/she likes a gift before actually receiving it.

In this situation, some children will still be honest by saying they don’t like it even if they do understand that this might hurt somebody’s feelings. This happens since children of this age are more focused on moral development, which encourages truth-telling.

As children get to primary-school age, their white lie telling becomes quite refined. By adolescence, they do so regularly to protect their friends’ feelings.

So is it ok for parents to tell their children white lies?

Telling your child a white lie can be relatively harmless. Some white lies are told to help protect a child’s innocence, foster creative development or teach them important social skills. For example, a child might be told that cuddles have special powers that will help him/her when they are hurt.

Also, some parents pretend to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

That said, white lies should be used sparingly. Young children lack the maturity to distinguish between a white lie and a true lie – one told with the hope of avoiding punishment, for example. Moreover, children who are used to hearing lies are more likely to tell lies themselves.

As parents, we’re often inclined to tell children white lies to manage their behaviour. If during a shopping trip a child is asking to have something that we might be reluctant to buy, it might be tempting to say that we didn’t bring any money. Such strategies might work as a one-off, but they can also be counter-productive if we’re caught out (with a purse full of money). They can also lead to arguments and lack of trust.

It’s definitely more effective to manage children’s behaviour in honest and productive ways.