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When is it okay to lie to your children?

Chewing baby dressed with bunny ears
Credit: iStock.com/ywan88

Stomping on the ‘magic’ around the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy may earn you the wrath of other parents, but there are mixed views on whether perpetuating the myths is delightful or deceitful.

There is a fundamental question, often ignored in favour of tinsel, over-priced baby teeth and chocolate eggs, and that is whether or not misleading your children (even kindly) can harm your child.

University of the Sunshine Coast Senior Lecturer in Psychology Dr Rachael Sharman says if children are old enough to ask “Is Santa real?”, they should be told the truth.

“A ‘lie’ in its purest sense is a deliberate attempt to implant a false belief in another, for example, I tell you my name is Sally when I know it's Rachael because I wish to deceive you in some way,” Dr Sharman says.

“Lying is actually a very important social skill and one children need to learn. In fact, the better the liar at an earlier age, typically the higher their IQ.

“We all lie, and we do so for different reasons.  Some reasons may be malicious or nefarious and even border on criminal conduct.  Other so called ‘white lies’ actually help keep harmony and maintain social relationships.”

In the case of all children, a good rule of thumb is if they are old enough to ask "Is Santa real?" you should probably tell them the truth. But also explain why the lie was told in the first place.
Dr Rachael Sharman

Dr Sharman warns parents against using Santa as a bargaining chip against bad behaviour.

“Negative social intent would be for parents to use Santa as a bargaining chip.  ‘Be good or you won't get a present.’  Again, in this instance children are unlikely to develop a positive attitude towards the deception once it's revealed,” Dr Sharman says.

“So, the question of lying about these issues depends on the parental intent, the context, and the child's developmental social understanding.  

“In the case of all children, a good rule of thumb is if they are old enough to ask "Is Santa real?" you should probably tell them the truth.  But also explain why the lie was told in the first place (because it makes kids happy, and Christmas is a time of joy). 

“Also, you should be very certain to explain to your child why it's mean to reveal the truth to other children - ruining other's fun etc.  In this way, you are helping to develop your child's higher order social skills.”

Macquarie University Centre for Emotional Health, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Talia Carl, says parents need to teach their children when telling lies is appropriate in social situations and when telling lies is problematic and unacceptable.

“Many parents report lying to their children and consider it acceptable in certain situations (Heyman, Luu, & Lee, 2009).  For example, lies told about mythical creatures are common and are told simply to preserve the joys of childhood,” Dr Carl says.

“There are also other situations in which lies are encouraged, such as lies told to benefit another individual in order to improve social relations, known as prosocial lies (Talwar & Crossman, 2011).

“For instance, lies told to be polite (e.g. tell an adult you liked the present they gave you when you did not) or to protect the feelings of others (e.g. tell someone they look nice when in fact you don’t think they do). These lies can be grouped into other-oriented lies.

“On the other hand, self-oriented lies are lies that are condemned and discouraged. These antisocial lies are told for self-serving purposes sometimes to the detriment of others and violate trust with bad intent. For example, lies told to avoid negative consequences (i.e. punishment) or to promote self-interest (i.e. obtain a reward or incentive or to gain social praise).

“These different types of lies (i.e. lies told with different intent and in different contexts) highlight the complexities of lie telling.”

Parents can share how much fun it was to believe in such things with their children, and bring it back to the history, the tradition, and the joy at this point. That way, the child learns that the intent of this lie was good.
Dr Talia Carl

Dr Carl says for most parents the small fibs around Santa, the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy are not told with bad intent, instead, these lies are told to carry on magical family traditions in a culture that celebrates these mythical creatures.

She says these lies trigger a child’s imagination and for the child it is fun to believe in such creatures.

Dr Carl suggests however, that it is a good idea to tell children the story behind the magical creatures, not only because it adds to the excitement, but also because it will help when the child is ready to know the truth.

“When a child asks whether these creatures are real or myth, they are probably ready to know the truth,” she says.

“Parents can share how much fun it was to believe in such things with their children, and bring it back to the history, the tradition, and the joy at this point. That way, the child learns that the intent of this lie was good.

“While most lie telling is frequently condemned and discouraged, lie telling is also an important part of development for children. In fact, children’s developing understanding of lies and their actual lying is associated with the maturation of their cognitive abilities, such as their growing understanding of the mental states of others.

“Whether a lie is discouraged or encouraged by parents depends on the moral consequences and intent of the lie.”

Dr Sharman agrees that in terms of Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, it is the intent behind the lie that is most important.

“Positive and high-functioning social intent would include understanding that children at their developmental stage have an intense curiosity and imagination and such ‘lies’ feed into their excitement and wonder about the world,” she says.

“It creates a positive association with Christmas-time that is likely to last a lifetime.  By the time the child is old enough to realise Santa is made up, if they have well developed social understanding, they will also understand their parents’ motivation in going along with the game.  That it was for their enjoyment and benefit.

“Children with poorer developed social skills may become quite angry however, and feel they have been deceived. 

“They won't understand their parents’ motivation and be confused as to why their parents have lied to them. 

“I would very much recommend against going along with the Santa/Easter Bunny myth in the case of children on the autism spectrum for example.  They are unlikely to appreciate the social intent behind such deception.”