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Study: Chinese parents bigger fibbers than American ones

A parent takes photos of her daughter playing the drums at a children's play area in a shopping mall in Beijing on Jan. 10.
A parent takes photos of her daughter playing the drums at a children's play area in a shopping mall in Beijing on Jan. 10.Alexander F. Yuan / AP, file

BEIJING -- Parents throughout the world have been known to tell a white lie to cajole dinner into a fussy child or explain the pile of gifts that appears under the Christmas tree as if by magic. 

According to a new study, Chinese parents rank among the biggest fibbers. 

The study in the International Journal of Psychology titled “Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China found that most respondents -- 84 percent of Americans and 98 percent of Chinese -- admitted that they lied to their children. Chinese parents, however, were far more likely to lie to force changes in behavior, it found.

“A larger proportion of the parents in China reported that they employed instrumental lietelling [sic] to promote behavioral compliance, and a larger proportion approved of this practice, as compared to the parents in the U.S.,” the authors said in the report.

The researchers from the University of San Diego, the University of Toronto and Zhejiang Normal University interviewed 114 American and 85 Chinese parents who had at least one child aged 3 years or older.

The participants were given a list of fibs and asked to report which ones they had told their children.

For example, 68 percent of Chinese respondents reported telling their children, “If you don’t follow me, a kidnapper will come to kidnap you while I’m gone.” Only 18 percent of American respondents made similar claims.

Sixty-one percent of the Chinese parents said they would tell their children, “Finish all your food or you’ll grow up to be short.” Just 10 percent of American parents utilized that particular little white lie.

According to the study, Chinese parents surveyed told 15 out of the 16 “specific instrumental lies” at higher rates than American parents.

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The only exception was a false claim that there is no more candy in the house, which was reported by 57.5 percent of parents in the United States as compared with 42.9 percent of Chinese parents.

American parents reported using more of what the study calls comparison lies -- untrue statements intended to generate positive feeling or to promote fantasy characters.

Sixty percent of Americans said they would use the line, “That was beautiful piano playing,” even if they thought it sounded terrible. In contrast, 44 percent of Chinese declared they would lie in those circumstances.

The results could be interpreted to mean that Chinese parents are more comfortable lying in general, but the study’s authors said that Chinese parents “made more negative evaluations of children’s lies,” and expressed more negative views than their American counterparts on fibs about fantasy characters like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Indeed, 88 percent of American respondents said they had used the lie, “Santa Claus will come to deliver your present on Christmas Eve.”

The study suggested that the wide acceptance of parental lying among Chinese adults could be driven by a strong desire for social cohesiveness and an emphasis on respect and obedience, according to the authors.

In other words, lying can be an effective tool in socializing children.

Or as one Chinese parent put it, “When teaching children, it is okay to use well-intentioned lies. It can promote positive development and prevent your child from going astray.”