University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Pinocchio Parenting

Even parents who consider honesty extremely important frequently lie to their kids

Once, when I was little, my parents told my brother and me that the television set was broken. Confirmed TV addicts, the two of us spent the next week learning to entertain ourselves with books, games, and imaginary play. Then one day my brother discovered the truth. The TV wasn’t broken. Our parents had just unplugged it.

They weren’t the first or the last fibbing parents. In fact, parents routinely lie to their children, even while insisting that lying is unacceptable, according to Kang Lee, professor and director of the Institute of Child Study at OISE.

Lee and colleagues at UC San Diego call it “parenting by lying” – telling children lies either to spare their feelings, or to get them to behave. Lee’s study in the Journal of Moral Education found that most college students remember being lied to as children, and most parents admit lying to their kids, even as they try to teach them that lying is wrong.

Making a fuss about some crayon scribbles on a piece of paper (“What a wonderful horsey!”) is an example of a white lie. Telling the child that if he doesn’t finish his food he’ll get pimples (as one mother in the study admitted) is an example of a lie meant to control behavior.

Lee himself admitted to the Globe and Mail that to keep his son from fidgeting in the car, he tells the boy that the hazard lights button on the dash is an “eject button.” If his son fidgets, Lee threatens to eject him from the car.

Lee says that his next study will explore the consequences of lying to children.

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