Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/15/2008 8:10:36 PM ET 2008-07-16T00:10:36

On a recent shopping trip to Marshalls, Colleen Weston decided to skip the parenting advice about teaching kids life lessons at every opportunity. Instead of explaining to her son why he couldn’t have a toy that day, which surely would have triggered a tantrum, she took the easy way out: She lied.

“My son, who’s 3, started to fuss about wanting a toy, some gladiator or Transformers man I wasn't going to waste my money on,” Weston, 35, a Middletown, Conn., mother of two, recalls. “I told him, ‘That’s for 8-year-olds. The checkout clerk won't allow you to have it. You're too young.’”

In effect, she told her tot that he’d be carded at the toy counter — and he believed it. “Weak, I know,” says Weston. “But we got out of Marshalls with only what we needed and no fit.”

No meltdown. No embarrassed, distraught mother. No problem?

Child experts say the old advice about honesty being the best policy generally still holds — though not necessarily always. An occasional little white lie such as Weston’s probably won’t cause any lasting damage. And at times, telling the truth — particularly the whole truth to a child who’s not at an age to handle it — may do more harm than good, they say.

“It depends what you’re lying about,” says Victoria Talwar, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies children and lying. “The answer in many cases is that lies are not necessary.”

But Talwar doesn’t knock parents like Weston who, in moments of desperation, sometimes resort to a little white lie — as long as it’s not the parent’s standard MO.

Weston doesn’t see the harm in an occasional white lie for a good reason: “If you buy into Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, what's another here and there?”

The risk with too many lies, though, is that over time they can erode the trust a child, particularly a perceptive teen, has in a parent, Talwar cautions. And serious untruths, such as not disclosing an adoption, for instance, can be devastating. “We really feel betrayed when someone lies to us, especially someone close to us,” she says.

Teaching fibs
Talwar has observed that kids as young as ages 3 or 4 can detect when someone is lying to them. This is also the age when children start lying themselves, and the more they’re exposed to it, the more likely they are to model it.

“They’re definitely influenced by their parents,” she says. “If the parents’ lie, the kids will pick that up more as a strategy. They learn it as a way to manipulate and get what they want or conceal things they want to get out of.”

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In some cases where it might be considered socially appropriate and even polite to tell a lie, such as when receiving a disappointing gift or being served an unsavory meal, parents may actually encourage kids to lie — and kids generally do as they’re told, Talwar says. In a study published last year in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, she and her colleagues observed how more than 300 children ages 3 to 11 responded after receiving a wrapped up bar of plain white soap instead of an expected cool toy. Kids were more likely to lie to the gift-giver and say they liked the gift when parents encouraged them to lie than when parents didn’t coach them at all.

In more serious circumstances, such as the death of a relative or even a pet, young children cannot always process all the unpleasant details of the truth, Talwar and other experts say.

At these times, “parents have to weigh the risks and the benefits” of telling the truth and how much of it, says Dr. William Coleman, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

A young child, for instance, could be deeply troubled by knowing that a relative or beloved pet was buried in the ground or cremated, he explains, so what’s the point in divulging those details?

That doggie farm in the sky
When Eileen Neuwirth’s dog died several months ago, she and her husband told their preschooler that the dog went to heaven. In hindsight, though, she wishes she’d told her son the classic white lie about the dog going off to a big farm to live happily ever after frolicking with the other animals.

“The idea of heaven really weighs on his mind and he is constantly asking about it,” says Neuwirth, 32, who lives in the Los Angeles area. “I think that the notion is too abstract for him but he gets it enough for it to make him insecure. … He tells me all of the time that when I go to heaven he will be so mad that he will knock all of his toys and our whole house down. It's so sweet and heartbreaking because I can see the anxiety in his face when he thinks about it.”

After an elderly neighbor died, Neuwirth tried to use the occasion to explain to her son, who’s 3, that people — and dogs — usually die and go to heaven when they get really old, like the neighbor and their dog. But it doesn’t seem to have helped. “Again, it was too much info,” she says.

Neuwirth says all the parenting advice she heard and read about prompted her to be true to her beliefs. But her own experience hearing the farm story from her mother when she was 7 and her dog died showed her that sometimes honesty may not be the best approach. “It wasn't until my sisters and I were in our teens that we all figured out what had really happened,” she remembers. “I feel that her white lie spared us all from the anxiety and trauma we likely would have felt had she told us the truth.”

Snowballing tales
The risk of telling the farm story, though, is that the child may then endlessly ask to go visit the dog on the farm and wonder why he can’t, says Talwar. “The problem with telling a lie is it’s not always as easy as you think.”

Lies have the potential to snowball and cause more problems, she notes. One of her colleagues, for instance, decided to replace a child’s dead hamster rather than explaining that it died. But the new model was thinner, leading to more lies about how the animal went on a diet while the child was away on a day trip, and on and on.

Every situation and every child are different, and there aren’t always simple solutions, says Jonathan Pochyly, a psychologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago who specializes in anxiety disorders and counsels youngsters who are grappling with issues such as moving, divorce, and death or illness in the family.

He recommends that parents ask themselves how much they think their particular child can handle. “Stop and think before sharing something questionable,” he says.

In many cases, Pochyly says, a simple response might suffice, and the parents won’t need to lie at all. If grandma has cancer, for instance, parents can say, “She’s sick and she’s being taken care of.” If the family is having financial troubles and the mortgage company keeps calling, parents can say, “Mommy and Daddy are taking care of that.”

As a mother and stepmother of four children, ages 6 to 22, Nancy Helton says she firmly believes in telling her kids the truth, though she acknowledges this isn’t always easy, particularly as they get older. Sometimes she’ll even delay answering one of her kids until she’s had time to think over what she’ll say so that her response is honest, informed and, for things of a sensitive nature, delicate.

“I believe a large part of building trust is to be there for them and to shoot straight with them whenever possible,” Helton, 46, of Leawood, Kan., says. “I know that I trust people who are honest and forthcoming so I have to assume if I operate this way, then my kids, too, will know it.”

Occasionally, though, she might stretch the truth, just a tad. “When my [8-year-old] son asks if his hair looks good when he has a bit of a bed head, I say he looks more handsome than anyone. Again, not a lie, because when I look at his ruffled hair and his expression as he asks the question, there is not a more handsome one in the world!”

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