Lying to Our Children

March 3, 2004 | 8 comments
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When I arrived home from work yesterday, my wife calmly informed me that she had just lied to our son. Sullivan, our oldest, has many quirky preferences (like a lot of other children, I believe) and he can be quite stubborn (gee, I wonder who he inherits that from?). One of his quirky preferences is that his sandwiches be made with grape jelly, not any other flavor, and especially not strawberry. I consider this preference to be quirky because Sullivan can’t really tell the difference once the sandwich is made.

Yesterday we had a household crisis — we were out of grape jelly of any kind. Sullivan initially asked for grape jelly and was told that we were out. He then refused to eat any sandwich not containing grape jelly. And so he watched suspiciously as my wife reached into the fridge and pulled out a jar labeled “four berry” jam (one that I had bought a week earlier, because I happen to like it). He asked what exactly that was, and at that point my wife lied — she told him that one of the four berries was grape, and that there was no strawberry in it. Content with that explanation, Sullivan ate his sandwich in peace.

I thought a little about this last night. The fact is, I think Mardell and I have used small lies of this sort quite a bit in raising our children. Sometimes they make it possible to avoid messy, spectacular, tension-building and energy-consuming conflicts with the kids.

When I think about this, a part of me starts to repeat Sunday School lessons: Honesty is always the best policy. This kind of lie is no better than robbing the bank (is it?). This will teach Mardell and I that problems can be avoided by dishonesty. We’ll teach that to our kids. And so forth.

I also feel accompanying church-parent guilt: If I had been a better parent, my kids wouldn’t be so stubborn. They wouldn’t have quirky preferences, wouldn’t throw fits in public, and would quietly obey. I could reason with them (“Sullivan, you can’t tell the difference between strawberry and grape jelly anyway.”) rather than butt heads with them.

And yet, I find it relatively easy to ignore both of these reactions. The fact is, I know that I have to work long hours; Mardell is raising three children, often without much of my assistance; and children can be high-maintenance, stubborn creatures. I reject any idea that all lies are the same or that there is no way of distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable lies. The slippery slope is itself a lie; and I don’t have to have any pre-set dividing lines to believe that Mardell or I can tell Sullivan that his jelly is grape without any increased danger of ever becoming bank robbers.

The real-world consequence of Mardell’s lie was that Sullivan was content with his sandwich, and that she avoided a potential messy, draining fight with a stubborn, determined six-year-old (who is also, I should note, a generally fun, cute, and smart kid). To me, the optimal choice is clear: Lie.

And yet I remain uncomfortable with the ease at which I arrive at this conclusion. And I’m curious: How much of an out-lier (pun intended) am I? Do we all use these kinds of lies? Just how bad are they?

8 Responses to Lying to Our Children

  1. brayden on March 3, 2004 at 12:50 pm

    This is an interesting dilemma. Your example is innocuous but I can see how lying “to protect the innocent” could have very serious consequences. It can do little harm to lie to a six-year old about the contents of a sandwich, especially if the lie is doing some good by encouraging him to get adequate nutrition, but often a similar logic is used in less benign ways. Say, for example, an elected leader lies to cover up an illegal arms deal. The intention of the leader may have been justified (we’re just protecting the security of the world and our nation) but the lies, I believe, indicate a more serious governance problem.

    The problem then is a matter of degree. It’s not just that we don’t want to teach our children that lying is appropriate (although I seriously doubt the white lie your wife is guilty of will have any serious consequences; if it does I’m a very, very bad parent); lying tends to be correlated with other bad behaviors. Take for example another famous presidential lie (and I’m not talking about WMDs). Bill’s public lie was so heavily scrutinized because it caused Americans to doubt the trustworthiness of our highest elected official. If his wife couldn’t trust him, who could?

  2. Julie in Austin on March 3, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    Kaimi–

    The problem is that Sullivan will be reading soon, if he isn’t already. And at some point, he’s going to notice that you lied. And he will conclude that lying is OK in some circumstances.

    In any case, you won’t be able to use this tactic with the next kid(s), because Sullivan will gleefully correct your assertion about the contents of four-berry jelly.

    Look, I have a 5 yo and a 2.5 yo (both of whom, incidentally, just ran past me completely naked), and I know what a royal pain these sorts of situations are. But I think to lie is to set yourself up for more grief in the future.

    And, no, we don’t lie to them about Santa Claus either.

  3. cooper on March 3, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    Oh heck, (to draw from another thread at SOM). This one seems so cut and dried. Simple. Lie to the child and get your way, peace, contentment. Then there’s Julie’s example. It is never a good thing to have to tell your child you’ve lied to them. You’re the most important person to them. They trust you. It is a tangled web of deceit that begins with a simple white lie.

    On the other hand, letting the child get the upper hand at mealtime and you’ll be a short order cook forever. The simpler way to handle this is to say “this is what we’re making, this is what we’re eating. If you don’t want it, that’s fine too. You’ll be hungry later and then maybe you’ll want to eat.” No child ever died (especially a lawyers) from starvation by skipping a few meals. But parents have wanted to commit hary cary after a few meals of fifteen different things trying to please everyone.

  4. Kristine on March 3, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    Kaimi, this is similar to the question I was trying to get at with my post about FHE: to what extent to the practical difficulties of raising children complicate/defeat our philosophical commitments? While we value truth-telling and integrity, we also value peace. And let’s face it, sheer exhaustion can defeat the most idealistic of parents on a regular basis.
    You also said:

    “I also feel accompanying church-parent guilt: If I had been a better parent, my kids wouldn’t be so stubborn. They wouldn’t have quirky preferences, wouldn’t throw fits in public, and would quietly obey. I could reason with them (“Sullivan, you can’t tell the difference between strawberry and grape jelly anyway.”) rather than butt heads with them.”

    I don’t believe this anymore (though I can’t tell you how smug I used to be when I saw other people’s children throwing public tantrums!). I think some traits, particularly the kind of stubbornness that requires one particular kind of jelly applied in one particular way, any deviation from which can bring on a spectacular meltdown, just come with the package, and parenting requires living with and working around these traits, rather than significantly modifying them. No amount of “good” parenting is going to make a child less persistent than he was meant to be–you can hope (on good days, at least) to channel that persistence into worthy objectives.

    That’s what I tell myself on the good days. On bad days, I repeat my grandmother’s mantra: “Dumb kids are easier to manage.”

  5. Russell Arben Fox on March 3, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    Julie,

    But there IS a Santa Claus.

  6. Greg Call on March 3, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    You can find Russell’s explication of his above comment here ( http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000192.html#more ), along with other views on the Santa Claus issue.

  7. Mardell on March 3, 2004 at 10:21 pm

    Kids come with their personalities attached. Every one of my kids are different. I used to be really critical of parents who let their kids do certain things, but I have since realized that the parent knows her child and is doing her best in most cases.
    I have also figured out that what other people think does not matter. For example when we were at the airport coming home from Phoenix, my 4 year old decided he wanted to be some where else than at baggage claim. So he started screaming loud. I tried the normal things to calm him down but nothing worked. Now I learned long ago with him that he is not usually crying about what is really wrong. What was most likely wrong was that he was hungry, had just spent 5 hours on and airplane and was furustrated. I realized that there was now no way around a huge scene. So I took him over to a corner and told him to scream loud all he wanted. After about 2 minutes and many angry looks later, my son turned and looked at me and said, “OK mom I feel better!” He just had to get it out of his system. I am sure that many people had a bad opinion of me, but that does not matter to me. Kace felt better and that was all I cared about.

  8. Lois on March 4, 2004 at 3:42 pm

    The issue has far less to do with Sullivan and parenting than it does with our own inner battles. Every parent makes so many mistakes (by mistake, I mean something that we would have done differently had we been sane at the moment) that it is a wonder children grow up to be such amazing human beings. The point is that parenting offers us to chance to daily come face to face with our shortcomings. I don’t think any of us can maintain our perfect personna in the ongoing, day-to-day trenches of parenting. We constantly have the opportunity to say such things as, “Okay, I just lied to my kid. How do I feel about it? Will I do it again? What am I going to say when the bishop asks in the temple recommend interview if I am honest in my dealings?” And then next time, we find a better way.