Liz Ergle has one major rule for her kids: In this family, we tell the truth.
She wants her children to develop honesty, both as a character trait and for their own safety, she says. If something is wrong or they need help, she wants to know.
So she tries to be honest in return. Ergle has two young daughters. The oldest is 5 years old — prime age for questions that can be tricky to navigate.
Ergle has the right idea, says Lynn Louise Wonders, MA, LPC, RPT-S, an early childhood development and parenting expert.
“Parents are there to model the behaviors they want to shape as the child grows and develops,” she says. “I would advise parents to always find a way to tell the truth.”
Of course, that isn’t always easy. Here are five falsehoods parents tell their children and how to tell the truth instead.
1. Lies of convenience
Telling a child “no” — no, you can’t have ice cream, or no, we can’t go to the playground — might result in a tantrum. So sometimes it’s easier to pretend the decision is out of your hands.
These fibs are a choice between short-term convenience (no one wants to deal with a meltdown) and an opportunity to build trust and resilience over the long term, Wonders says.
Ergle remembers telling her 5-year-old, who wanted a new toy, that the store “closed early.”
“I was being lazy, and I didn’t want to deal with the fight,” Ergle says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would tell her the truth. But that particular day I was just feeling extra tired.”
It backfired anyway: Her daughter responded with a million questions that Ergle had to figure out how to answer and that, arguably, required as much effort as dealing with the child’s reactions to simply saying they weren’t going to the toy store.
2. Lies about talent or ability
You want your children to grow up with a healthy self-confidence without being delusional about how good they are at sports or art or whatever else. That’s why we sometimes tell children that a drawing is stunning when it’s not or that they’re great at gymnastics when they can’t do a somersault.
This is avoidable by simply changing the focus from external validation (grades, awards, winning games) to internal qualities, Wonders says.
“We always want to reflect effort rather than product,” she says.
So instead of “you’re such a great violin player” when the child hasn’t hit a single correct note, try: “You have been practicing so hard. I can tell you’ve put so much work into this. I hope you’re proud of yourself for how hard you’ve been practicing.”
This approach helps build the child’s self-esteem from within, so that self-worth isn’t based on accomplishments that will come and go.
3. Lies about stuff that’s difficult to talk about
Maybe your child is asking hard questions about life and death.
Instead of hiding the fact that sometimes bad things happen, Wonders recommends tuning into the child’s feelings and reflecting back what you hear.
Ergle used this technique when her 5-year-old asked her whether people “come back from heaven.” Ergle gently told her no, and her daughter was upset.
“Obviously, I wasn’t going to say, ‘We’re not going to die,’” Ergle says. “Instead, I said, ‘It’s sad, and it makes me sad, too, and it’s OK to be sad about it. But I try not to think too much about these things, and instead I try to enjoy every day I have with you.’”
That’s the right approach, Wonders says, and so is keeping the information age-appropriate. Children don’t need to know everything; you can omit details that are too grown-up for them.
And if your child really stumps you, it’s OK to ask for time. “You can say, ‘Wow, that is such a great question. I don’t know if I know how to answer that right now. Let me go and think about that a little bit, and let’s talk about that later,’” Wonders says. And be prepared to follow up the conversation if your child asks about it again.
4. Lies about childhood folklore (we’re talking to you, Tooth Fairy)
Here’s one type of fib you can relax about. It’s not damaging to play along with childhood fantasies of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny or an imaginary friend. In fact, believing in these things is developmentally appropriate for young children. Imaginative play is how children develop their understanding of the real world, Wonders says.
That said, it’s best to avoid manipulating children into good behavior by telling them they’re being watched.
That’s how Ergle and her husband do it: “We don’t connect it to behavior. The Elf on the Shelf isn’t reporting to Santa. We’d rather that come intrinsically; they’re just expected to make good choices.”
And what if your children start to ask questions, such as, “How could one person visit every house in the world in one night?” Wonders says that’s a good time to encourage critical-thinking skills by replying, “What do you think?”
5. Lies about lying
If you tell your child a lie and get called on it, it’s best to own up, Wonders says. Explain why you didn’t tell the truth (“I wanted to keep the party a surprise for Daddy” or “I thought knowing that would make you sad”) and ask the child how he or she is feeling.
If appropriate, you can apologize to your child, Wonders says.
“It depends on the situation, but if you feel you should have told the truth, it models something really beautiful for children when parents say, ‘You know what, I realize I should have told you the truth. And I want to tell you I’m sorry, because it’s important to be honest.’”
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