How to Avoid Lying to Your Kids
I always said that when I had children, I’d never lie to them. I also said I’d do a million other impossible or contradictory things for them, but the lying rule was a promise I was sure I could keep.
When I told my partner, she looked at me like I had two heads — ‘what about Father Christmas?’ she asked. This was something I hadn’t considered. It was made clear I wouldn’t be allowed to destroy the magic of Santa for an 18-month-old just so that I could feel morally superior.
It troubled me for a while, until I thought I’d stumbled on the solution. If I said I didn’t know if a jolly man in a red suit squeezed down chimneys all over the world delivering presents, it wouldn’t technically be a lie. I mean, I’ve never seen an aardvark in real life, but I believe they’re real. Of course, my understanding of physics tells me it’s impossible, but I’m not arrogant enough to claim there’s nothing out there I don’t understand — I mean, I don’t even fully understand how GPS works! I decided this was completable with my aims and stuck to my guns, feeling pleased with myself.
So as my daughter learned to speak, and more importantly understand, I made a point of only telling her things that were true. There were teething problems, but to begin with it went okay. If she wanted yet another banana and I felt the urge to tell her there were none left — a lie — I found a long, complicated explanation of how bananas need to be held in higher regard when they’ve been transported across oceans after having been grown from seeds in jungles that first spent tens of thousands of years evolving tended to bore or confuse her into forgetting the original request. So I got by.
I wormed my way out of other conundrums, too. For example, any sort of fiction, I decided, was okay. You could pretend you were a monster for a game, or that the magical worlds of books were real, because they were lies we were building together — the kids were in on it, so it didn’t count.
I even managed to convince myself that the avoidance of lying was a magic antidote to the dreaded ‘why-stage’. We’d been lucky in that our daughter skipped it, but at one point our son seemed as if he was about to pick it up from an older cousin, belatedly entering the stage himself. Each time my two-year-old son responded to something with a ‘why?’ I answered truthfully, and fully, trying to use my tone to encourage engagement. Usually after no more than three whys he couldn’t help but try to make sense of my explanations, finishing with an ‘oh, right’, or perhaps a more genuine, ‘but why?’ So I maintained that my strategy prevented the stage from taking root, despite the evidence of its miserable failure when trying it out on his cousin.
But, inevitably, my ship began to run aground. It started when our daughter adopted the role of third parent. She independently decided that lying was a fitting strategy to manipulate her brother’s behaviour on our behalf. When he nags for his fourth banana of the day, and I tell him no, she helpfully explains to him there are no bananas left — when there are. While I waste time lecturing her in how it’s better to explain why too much potassium isn’t good for you, he proceeds to have a meltdown. Both methods prove equally ineffective; when it turns out there are genuinely no bananas left in the house and I cave, offering to buy more, he refuses, demanding non-existent house-bananas.
I now have to admit I was, essentially, lying to myself. And it continued to unravel around the issue of language. Our children are taught through the medium of Welsh, and I’m in the process of learning it as a second language. However, English is the main language of the home, and with my daughter having a two-year head start on her brother her Welsh is far more advanced.
They love visiting grandparents, and are understandably reluctant to leave. To aid the process, I appeal to my daughter’s competitive nature by asking if she wants to win a fictional race to the car against her brother. It’s an effective way of getting her to move. However, now he’s a bit older, it’s also an effective way of getting him to scream blue murder at the prospect of losing to his sister.
But if he doesn’t know about the race, he’ll happily follow her. So when I ask her, in Welsh, ‘pwy sy’n mynd i ennill?’ she shouts, ‘fi!’, and everyone is happy. Except for the little nag in the back of my mind that tells me it’s a deception akin to a lie. When their mam picked up on what I was doing, she took a little too much pleasure in calling me out on my hypocrisy.
But my moral experiment really came undone over the issue of Friday mornings. When my daughter started school, she seemed to think that me and her brother simply sat in the car all day waiting for her. It would have broken her heart to think we were playing at home, going to the shops, or worse — visiting Mamgu — so I never corrected her. A lie by omission, perhaps, but she never asked directly so it was easy not to count it.
However, when her brother started school I got her to help in the preparation. Her mornings were now about looking after him, and his being in school was a big deal for both of them. He enjoys being there, but not going, so every morning when we’re getting him ready I hear, ‘we’re not going to my school today’, confidently asserted. I tell him we are, and his sister reassures him that’s a good thing. On Fridays, however, his assertion is correct.
If I tell him he’s right in front of her, she’ll know she’s missing out. If I don’t tell him, we might endure an unnecessary tantrum, so I do so secretly in a different room. It’s a dubious practice, but mornings are rushed and it works. Except three-year-olds are repetitive, and he announces it again five seconds later. I run around, flustered as a I try to convincingly change the subject while watching my self-image as a beacon of honesty crumble around me. I tell him he’s right, while looking at her and cynically shaking my head: I’m a liar.
For a little while I embraced it. I discovered the pleasure of ‘finding’ things behind my son’s ears, his joy not tainted by the fact he really thought I’d found the coin, or toy, or satsuma stuck behind his lobe. Any object he lost could be discovered among the wax by dad! It was refreshing and I felt as if a restraint had been lifted — until he lost something I genuinely couldn’t find. He’d ask, then demand, that I retrieve it from behind his ear. And when I couldn’t, an absolutely earth-shattering meltdown commenced. I remembered why lying was bad.
From now on, like most people, I’m trying to walk the line of common sense. This Christmas they went to see Santa. I didn’t get to go along, but afterwards I let my daughter confidently tell me it was the real Father Christmas. I avoided a direct lie (after all, I wasn’t there so couldn’t be certain), but I made sure she thought I believed her, absolutely. I’m not in denial anymore — there are clearly times when the truth isn’t what a child needs to hear, and they won’t always be as trivial as these examples. Occasionally, it turns out, I’m a liar, and I’ve learned to be okay with that.