New Study Explores Why You Shouldn't Lie To Your Kids (No Matter What)

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Why You Shouldn't Lie to Your Kids

Image by MaaHoo Studio / Stocksy

"If you don't stop eating so much pizza, you're going to start to look like a pizza."

That's a common warning I got as a young kid when pizza was my favorite food and the only thing I ever wanted to eat. Obviously the statement was a ridiculous lie, but at the time, my young brain definitely became concerned that I'd start to have a cheesy glow if I kept eating the stuff! That was a bit of an unusual one, but it's pretty common for parents to tell these types of small white lies to kids: "If you don't put on your shoes right now, I'm going to leave without you." "I'm just going to be gone for two minutes." "If you keep pulling your sister's hair, it might all fall out."

You might think telling small lies to young children isn't a big deal, especially well-intentioned ones designed to encourage good behavior or discourage unhealthy habits. But according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, lying to your kids might actually teach them some pretty negative social habits.

Researchers surveyed 379 adults about their memories of their parents lying to them as kids, how much they themselves now lied to their parents as adults, and their other social behaviors. The researchers found people whose parents lied to them more often grew up to tell more lies themselves. They also had a harder time dealing with psychological and social challenges: They were more disruptive, more selfish, and more manipulative, experienced more guilt and shame, and had more behavioral problems. Yikes.

"Parenting by lying can seem to save time especially when the real reasons behind why parents want children to do something is complicated to explain," Peipei Setoh, Ph.D., a professor of social sciences at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and one of the leading researchers on the study, said in a news release. "When parents tell children that 'honesty is the best policy,' but display dishonesty by lying, such behavior can send conflicting messages to their children. Parents' dishonesty may eventually erode trust and promote dishonesty in children."

Lying to kids not only erodes their trust in adults and models dishonesty; it can also undermine their sense of autonomy and feelings of worthiness because of the way it emphasizes the child's inferiority.

"It is possible that a lie to assert the parents' power, such as saying 'If you don't behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish,' may be more related to children's adjustment difficulties as adults, compared to lies that target children's compliance, e.g. 'there is no more candy in the house,'" Setoh said. "Authority assertion over children is a form of psychological intrusiveness, which may undermine children's sense of autonomy and convey rejection, ultimately undermining children's emotional well-being."

Instead of lying to your kids, Setoh suggests alternatives to lying like “acknowledging children's feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices, and problem-solving together.”

For example, if your 4-year-old asks where babies come from, no need to stammer through an excuse about storks; you can say babies grow in their mom's stomach until they're ready to be born, and you'll tell them more about what makes babies start growing in a mom's stomach when they're a little older because it's a little complicated. And for anyone looking to get their kids interested in meals other than pizza, here are some research-backed ways to talk to kids about eating healthy foods without making it about body image.

Honesty is the best policy—and as parents, it's important to actually model that behavior with our families.

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