I’m a big fan of honesty in relationships. I especially like to be honest with my kids because I want to have a close and genuine bond with them for life. Good relationships are built on trust and, of course, that requires honesty. But I was recently asked if it was ever appropriate to lie to children, for the sake of preserving their self-esteem. I realized that my opinion on this issue was absolutely, unequivocally, YES.
Well, quite simply because the goal is a trusting relationship. There is more to a relationship than telling the truth. Other aspects of a trusting relationship are safety, comfort, and support. There are times when a child doesn’t need or want honesty. She needs to feel safe, comforted, or supported. It becomes a matter of putting these principles into levels of priority and knowing when, where, and why we should be honest in our relationship (or not).
How can a lie promote safety or comfort?
Let’s say your child comes to you with a funny story about something that happened that day in school. He goes on and on about the details of the story. He tells you how his friend looked, what she wore, what she said and how he responded. He tells you details that don’t make sense and the story drags for 20 minutes before you even know what it’s about. Then you find out it’s a joke about a robot and a rabbit. And it’s the most boring story you’ve ever had to endure in your life (at least it feels that way). Your child is laughing and giggling and bright-eyed as he shares his day with you.
You do not tell your child that he is a miserable storyteller. You do not tell him that his story is so boring that you considered putting a toothpick in your eye just to escape the pain of listening to it. You do not correct his story-telling skills. You never say to him that you are horribly disinterested or ask him to hurry up already because you would rather be getting a root canal than listen to this awful joke about a robot and a rabbit. Would that be truthful? Perhaps. But it would also be very, very hurtful and maybe even mean.
Your child doesn’t always need to hear the truth from you. Sometimes she just needs YOU.
The more important priority in a situation like this is providing a safe haven for your child to talk to you. You have an opportunity to demonstrate to your child that you are a good listener, that you care about what she says, that you will pay attention, and that you are on her side. Your opinion of her story is far less important than your willingness to listen and be present.
Isn’t lying setting a bad example?
I think it’s setting the right example that sometimes it’s far more important to protect a person’s feelings than it is to share our own opinions. In every relationship we have, there are times when our loved one (or associate or even a stranger on the street) is not seeking honesty from us. We have to have the wisdom to discern when our honesty is required and when it is not. Sometimes people look to us for comfort and support, and we are able to give them that. They don’t want our opinion and we have no right to force it on them. Other times, honesty may be necessary or even the true motive behind another’s questioning or sharing. This requires practice, critical thinking, compassion and morality to implement in life. A wife may ask her husband, “How does do you like my new haircut?” He has to determine if she wants his real opinion or his loving support. Does he tell her, “I hate it. You look like a trashy celebrity from a reality t.v. show,” or does he tell her, “You look beautiful! You are always beautiful to me”?
Does this mean we should always falsely compliment our kids and never offer correction?
Of course not. There is a time and a place for teaching. If the child is required to do his homework neatly and correctly but has handed you a sloppy worksheet, that’s an appropriate time to hand it back and tell him, “You can do better than that. Try again.”
But we have to evaluate each interaction to decide what is the most important lesson for that moment. If your child is sharing his day with you, is that the moment to criticize his story-telling techniques? If we do, what message are we sending him?
- Truth: Your story is boring. If you make some changes, I might be more interested.
- Message: I’m not really that interested in what you have to say.
- Lie: Thank you for sharing with me. That was really funny!
- Message: I love when you share with me. I care about what you say.
Which message would you prefer to send to your child?
I have chose to fake my way through some extremely boring stories and jokes because I knew there would be times my kids would have something to say that I would consider critically important. They would not know the difference between what I valued and what they valued. I wanted to show them I valued everything that was important to them. I couldn’t ignore or criticize what was important to them at nine years old, and then expect them to share with me at sixteen. It just doesn’t work that way. And while I found stories about robots to be very tedious, I never wanted to miss a conversation about sex or drugs. So I embraced each conversation with equal enthusiasm (even if I didn’t really feel it).
As with all things parenting, it’s important to find a balance. We shouldn’t lie all the time and we shouldn’t be truthful all the time. Sometimes we need to tell our kids the reality of a situation and sometimes we don’t. Most important of all, is learning to tell the difference.
Do you think it’s ever okay to lie to your children? Why or why not? What do you teach your children about honesty?