Dear Mr. Dad: Like most parents, I encourage my kids to tell me the truth and I always give them consequences for lying. The other day, just after I’d taken away my 9-year-old’s video game privileges for lying to me about having done his homework, I realized that I lie to my kids all the time. Is there a difference between a parent’s lies and a child’s?
A: What a great question. As adults, we know how important it is to tell truth and we teach our children that it’s wrong to lie. But then we turn around and do it—right to their face—every day (and this goes far beyond the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus). In fact, several recent studies have found that about 90% of parents have a repertoire of completely BS stories that we tell our kids. According to researcher Gail Heyman, those lies tend to fall into four categories: diet and nutrition, getting the kids to either leave or stay somewhere, changing behavior, and money. Here are some of the best ones (if you haven’t used them already, you’re free to add them to your arsenal).
- – Clean your plate or you’ll get pimples all over your face (and carrots make you see in the dark).
- – A small hungry princess (or prince) lives in your tummy and only vegetables will satisfy her or his hunger.
- – Stay in the bath too long and you’ll get washed down the drain (or will be stay shriveled up forever).
- – Come with me right now or I’ll leave you here.
- – Keep making faces and your face will stay like that forever.
- – Put those scissors down right now or you’ll put your eye out.
- – Sorry, I don’t have any money with me.
- – I have your teacher on the phone right now, so you better do your homework.
- – That music the ice cream truck is playing means they’re out of ice cream.
- – Winding the clock forward to trick the kids into going to bed earlier.
So why do we do it? Most of the time we justify the lies by telling ourselves that it’s to keep the kids healthy and safe. For example, eating vegetables is actually good for them and they really do need to be careful with scissors. Sometimes it’s to protect a child’s ego (“That painting of yours is so good it should be in a museum!”). But in a lot of cases, it’s simply to make our life easier—because we have to be somewhere or we’re embarrassed at our child’s bad behavior. Moms have an average of nine lies that they cycle through, which dads have only five.
Just about every kid knows the story of Pinocchio. We tell them the story or have them watch the movie as a cautionary tale. But strangely enough, there may actually be some truth to the claim that your nose changes when you tell a lie. Using highly sophisticated thermal imaging cameras, a team of Spanish scientists identified what they call the “Pinocchio Effect.” It turns out that when telling lies, the temperature around people’s nose gets noticeably warmer and so do the muscles around the inner corner of the eyes—the part closest to the nose. You can’t see the change with the naked eye, but this may explain why some people touch their nose when lying.
So how often do you lie to your kids? And what are your favorite—or most successful—lies?