Monday, 31 December 2012

When parents lie to their children

We teach our kids that it is wrong to lie, even though most of us do it everyday. In fact, it is often our children who we are lying to. A new study, involving participants in the USA and China, is one of the first to investigate parental lies, finding that the majority of parents tell their children lies as a way to control their behaviour.

Gail Heyman and her colleagues presented 114 parents in the USA and 85 in China with 16 so-called "instrumental lies" in four categories - lies intended to influence the kids' eating habits (e.g. "you need to finish all your food or you will get pimples all over your face"); lies to get the children to leave or stay put (e.g. "If you don't come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself); lies to control misbehaviour (e.g. "If you don't behave I will call the police"); and finally, lies to do with shopping and money (e.g. "I did not bring any money with me today. We can come back another day.").

Eighty-four per cent of US parents and 98 per cent of Chinese parents admitted telling at least one of the 16 lies to their children, and a majority of parents in both countries admitted to telling lies from three of the four categories. The exception was the misbehaviour category - just under half the US parents said they told lies to make their children behaviour better, compared with 80 per cent of Chinese parents.

The lie that the greatest proportion of parents said they told was threatening to leave a child behind if he/she refused to follow the parent. Rates of lying by parents were higher in China than in the US, especially in relation to misbehaviour and eating. The Chinese parents also viewed instrumental lying by parents with more approval than the US parents did; at the same time, they (the Chinese) viewed lying by children with more disapproval. "This cross-cultural difference may reflect greater concern with social cohesiveness and a greater emphasis on respect and obedience," the researchers said.

Asked why they told instrumental lies to their children, parents across both countries talked in terms of a cost-benefit trade-off and the stress of getting children to comply. Other times it was felt children would struggle to understand the truth, such as the complexities of the family budget.

As well as looking at instrumental lies, the study also asked parents about untruths they told their children regarding fantasy characters like the tooth-fairy, or to make their children feel better, for example praising a poor piano performance. Here there were no cultural differences in rates of lie-telling, although the Chinese parents showed less approval toward lying about the existence of fictional characters.

The study has limitations, as acknowledged by the researchers. The two samples differed in other ways besides their culture - the US parents being more highly educated, for example. And of course there was a reliance on self-report rather than an observation or record of actual lies told. Despite these issues, Heyman said their study "helps fill a void in an understudied area that may have strong implications for children's social and moral development."

What do you think about parents lying to their children? Do you lie to yours? Do you remember being lied to as a child?


Heyman, G., Hsu, A., Fu, G., and Lee, K. (2012). Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. International Journal of Psychology, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2012.746463

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Demis said...

Santa Claus was a big whopper my mum told me...

Anonymous said...

We've chosen to tell our kids that Santa is a story only. They get presents from people they know. If other kids talk about Santa, I encourage my kids to respect others beliefs.

Anonymous said...

What about Jesus? A majority of American parents lie to their children about his existence, and the origins of the universe

Anonymous said...

I can't help but feel a little betrayed whenever I think of the instrumental lies that my parents told me.

I have always taken things very literally. When revealed, the truth behind these lies would always arrive accompanied by shame for having been tricked.

I'm too young to have children at this time, but one day wish to. I want to believe that I will be honest to my child. Societal pressure, and the want for your child to be accepted, has a funny way of influencing you to turn your back on your ideals, though.

Anonymous said...

Can you prove that these are lies? How can truths be given if real truths are unknown, especially on the origins of the universe. It is a good idea to get children to think for themselves and to ask questions allowing them to come to their own answers.

Black guy from the future past said... People have been waiting for "Jesus" for the pass 2000+ years. It aint gonna happen. We have over 2000+ years of solid evidence and proof that not only "Jesus", but ALL gods are lies. THAT is the truth. Telling our children otherwise, that he exists or that he is instrumental to mankind's functioning is a blatant and egregious LIE.

MacKenzie Drake said...

I remember the lies quite well, as well as the discomfort of knowing I'd been lied to and as a result not really trusting them again. After all, if someone will lie about the relatively small stuff like Santa, why should I believe them about Jesus or other social constructs?

Anonymous said...

What about our schools and educators lying as well. I was told such hogwash like socialism is the best for the U.S., or guttertalk about Global Warming, and how women should betray their inner feelings and embrace feminism and come into the lesbian fold. ALL done by our progessive and liberal schools. Utter crap. I'm incredibly happy I managed to uncover the lies and be at peace with the school system. I refuse to let my children be engulfed in the liberal lie machine in public schools and opt for them to attend a private (but not religious) school.

Unknown said...

It's acceptable to tell the lies that our cultures have taught us to tell to our children.
It actually and paradoxically builds our mutual trust in the end. Children that were't lied to for their own future protection have a very hard time adjusting to their cultures, as all cultures have rules for lying properly that all kids were expected to learn early on.
It's not a bad thing for children to be told the truth at a later date, and it's a bit surprising how much they don't resent the early lying that has actually pleased them in the process.
Some of this is in my book, and I'm not lying.

Unknown said...

I was going to comment that some lies of course are harmful, regardless of their cultural acceptance or not, but since you haven't published my previous comment, you know what you can do with this one.

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