Wednesday, June 16, 2021
June 16, 2021

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Experts say parents shouldn’t hang their heads in shame if their children catch them in a little white lie

The Columbian

As a lawyer, Laurie Gray knows from experience that witnesses aren’t always capable of knowing, let alone telling, the whole truth. As a mom, she allows herself the same human quality.

Last year, she had her 10-year-old daughter lie about her age to register for a free email account, knowing the company’s minimum was 13.

“She had told me you have to be 13,” said Gray, in Fort Wayne, Ind. “I responded you don’t actually have to BE 13. You just have to enter a year for your birth date that was at least 13 years ago.”

Rare is the parent who hasn’t faced a similar “ethical” dilemma: How to model honesty for kids young and older while navigating the grays of telling a lie, especially one that isn’t an act of kindness but rather a fib of convenience, or even laziness.

Must we always ’fess up when caught in iffy lies by offspring, or is it OK to plead guilty to lesser crimes without seeking mercy from that old nag, bad modeling? The usual preach from parenting experts — NEVER lie to your mom but don’t tell grandma she’s fat — doesn’t leave much wiggle room for the less-than-necessary lie.

Child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger sees a couple of options.

“What helps children grow, whether they are 5 or 10 or 35, is a relationship with the parent in which authentic, intimate and deep exploration of thoughts and feelings is encouraged,” said Berger, also a New York City mom of two adult children.

“This does not mean that the parent must fall on his sword. It means that the parent listens respectfully to the child’s point of view, whatever it may be,” she added. “The parent can say, ‘Ah, well maybe I didn’t handle that situation so well. I’ll have to think this over,’ or the parent can say, ‘Ah, I did my best. Go eat your broccoli.’”

Sean Horan isn’t a dad. He’s a “deception researcher” at DePaul University in Chicago. Human beings lie all the time, “and we lie the most to people that we’re closest to,” he said. “Some scholars have proposed that lying is, in fact, a ‘competent’ communication behavior.”

Then how can we get away with telling kids as young as 10 that lying is bad, at least most of the time? “You know what, that’s not reality,” Horan said. “If we raise children saying that lying is always wrong, they’re going to grow up feeling really guilty.”

Deception, he said, is sometimes neither good nor bad.

And the parent whose social lie is overheard by little ones with big ears? Like making up a dental appointment when a fellow mom calls for the umpteenth time to bag on the carpool.

“What counts for the child is the child’s sense of the parent’s honesty and trustworthiness in relation to the child,” Berger said. “A child who feels loved and respected by parents who are reliable and devoted to the child is not going to have his faith shaken by a fib about carpools.”

For mom Lee Reed in Tampa, Fla., the nuances as she presented them to her newly minted 15-year-old daughter are these: “A little white lie allows the other person to keep their dignity and benefits them fully. Being dishonest, and true lying, is done to keep the person lying out of trouble. If she is the only one benefiting from the lie, then it is wrong.”

Was that the case when Reed cited her daughter as the reason she couldn’t join work colleagues for dinner after work one recent Friday? Truth be told, while she doesn’t leave the teen home alone at night, she could have arranged a sleepover at a friend’s house but plain didn’t feel like going out.

“I let her know that it felt easier to use her as my excuse and that it was purely selfish on my part,” Reed said. Will the teen survive without turning to the dark side? Likely, her mom said.

Kirsten Bischoff in Springfield, N.J., does worry about repercussions when caught fibbing by her 12-year-old daughter, who’s old enough to understand the “many shades of gray surrounding the concept of lying.” That emotional sophistication, she said, makes it more precarious for mom and dad when they’re found out.

“It makes the topic a veritable minefield,” Bischoff said. “Any misstep is a potential disaster.”

In suburban Chicago, Ruth Spiro handled it this way when she once tried to fudge the age of her now 13-year-old daughter for the price of a kid ticket at the movies: “I said something like, ‘If we had come to see this movie two weeks ago, it would have cost X, but since we’re coming after your birthday, it’s going to cost Y. Let’s pretend it’s still before your birthday, because it doesn’t seem fair that we have to pay more.’”

Funny thing is she doesn’t recall why saving a few bucks seemed worth it at the time. “With other things, I’m a stickler for the truth and being honest. I guess it’s a matter of degree, and whether the lie will have serious consequences or not.”

Was there any fallout for Laurie Gray and her 10-year-old over the email registration fib — the same fib she didn’t share with her husband because, she said, he’s “an Eagle Scout and the straightest arrow I’ve ever met.”

What about all those kids allowed on Facebook by their parents before the site’s minimum age of 13?

On a recent weekend visit with her grandmother, Gray’s daughter tried to log on to her email account and was prompted for her birth date. “She typed her real birthday, honest child that she is, and received a message saying she’s not old enough to have an email account and that her account will be closed in 30 days,” mom reports.

Gray doubts she’ll ever “explicitly say the words, ‘It’s OK to lie,’ but just might find herself saying, “‘See what happens when we don’t tell the truth?’”