When it comes to parenting, lying to your children is a very gray area. For the most part, it is universally known, and taught to children, that lying is morally wrong. However, sometimes it is necessary for parents to lie to their children in problematic situations, whether it is to teach them a lesson, or to protect them, or even control their behavior. In this case, it becomes acceptable for the parent to lie, contradicting exactly what parents aim to teach their children about lying. This can cause some moral conflict and confusion for both parents and children, so why lie in the first place? In some situations, lying is important for parents to protect their children, or is sometimes used as a teaching tool. This also introduces a notion to children that not everything in life is completely right or wrong, making not only the lies themselves but lying as a concept a lesson that they must figure out for themselves. Lying actually becomes an important part of childhood, as young children discover the differences between types of lies, when lies are used, and whether or not those situations are morally acceptable for lying, or where lying is not as wrong as we are taught in the early stages of life. When it comes to parenting, lying becomes an important and necessary component to solve problematic or challenging situations, so that parents can teach their children important life lessons or use lies to protect them.
A study of Mayan farmers in Tenejapa, conducted on the topic of parental lying, researchers found that parents often lied to their children to control their behavior by making “idle threats.” This research concluded that there is “strong and consistent evidence that there is no culturally universal taboo against parents lying to their children,” (Heyman). Even in other cultures, parents use lies to control and teach their children. This is an especially gray area, since lying to control a child’s behavior could become manipulative and harmful to the relationship between the parent and the child, depending on the extremity of the lie. However, this research shows that it is almost universally accepted that parents often use small and harmless lies to control or teach their children. In this specific study, parents sometimes threatened their children with dog bites or the prospect of being kidnapped in order to control them. Although these lies may be frightening to children, they are accepted as normal in these communities and has been practiced for generations. This method of controlling children’s behavior through lying to them is also used to protect them. According to Gail Heyman, who conducted this research, “Despite the broad disapproval of lying, parents do not always indicate to their children that lying is wrong. For example, a parent might lie to a child to protect the feelings of others or to keep family matters private,” (Heyman). Parents often use small lies to protect the feelings of young children, or to protect the family as a whole. For example, because young children do not always understand complex or strained family situations, but become exposed to those situations, parents may lie or alter the truth of the matter to help their children understand or protect them from information that they cannot grasp, especially information that may upset or cause distress for the child. In Sissela Bok’s writing entitled Lying to Children, she writes: “Children are often deceived with the fewest qualms. They, more than others, need care, support, protection. To shield them, not only from brutal speech or frightening words, but from apprehension and pain– to soften and embellish and disguise– is as natural as to shelter them from harsh weather,” (Bok).
Parents use lying to help ease or solve a problematic situation for themselves and their children. This is a natural and widespread occurrence, and is widely accepted as moral because it is for the protection and benefit of children. From these standpoints, lying becomes not only an acceptable behavior, but a necessary parenting tool.
In the problematic situations when lying becomes part of parenting, it also becomes a very important teaching tool. When parents lie to their children, the children begin to pick up on what is the truth and what is not, and they begin to decipher those lies and the reasoning behind them. These are the moments when children learn the complexities of lying and morality. “Even by the time they reach early elementary school, children have learned to make distinctions among different types of lies. For example, they find lies more acceptable when the purpose is to protect the feelings of others than when the purpose is to conceal one’s transgressions,” (Heymana). Children eventually begin to recognize problematic situations and understand when and what kind of lies they can use that are acceptable to solve or remove themselves from those conflicts. Children learn important life lessons through the lies their parents tell them, but also from the concept of lying, especially when it comes from their parents. At such young ages, children are very impressionable and pick up on every little thing adults do, and they learn more and more complex ideas as they get older, especially when it comes to lying. Those are the instances when lying as a concept becomes a teaching tool for children, and an important milestone in development. When parents lie and their children recognize the act of lying, they discover for themselves ideas about morality and how some situations call for hard but necessary decisions that sometimes include lying. This makes lying to solve of a problematic situation a necessary evil for parents when it comes to raising their children.