Updated 22 October 2019

'If you're naughty I'll phone the police' - those little lies you tell your kids can do lasting damage

Sometimes a little white lie is a good thing. Other times it can have unfortunate effects, according to a new study.

Parents often bend the truth with their children, and feel justified in doing so. Sometimes it’s done to avoid upsetting them, or to handle difficult topics. It’s simply what parents rely on when dealing with their kids.

But, according to a new psychology study led by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore – in collaboration with Canada's University of Toronto, the United States' University of California, San Diego, and China's Zhejiang Normal University – these little lies could be associated with detrimental effects when the child makes it into adulthood.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in September this year and had 379 Singaporean young adults answer whether their parents lied to them when they were children, how much they lie to their parents now, and how well they adjust to adulthood challenges. 

Those who reported being lied to as children were more likely to report lying to their parents in their adulthood, and also said they faced greater difficulty in meeting psychological and social challenges. Some adjustment difficulties they noted were conduct problems and the experience of guilt and shame, as well as selfish and manipulative behaviour. 

Parenting by lying – the consequences 

Participants were asked to complete four online questionnaires that centred on the following:

  • The first questionnaire asked them to recall if their parents told them lies that related to eating; leaving and/or staying; children’s misbehaviour; and spending money. (Such as: “I did not bring money with me today, we can come back another day.”)
  • The second questionnaire asked them to indicate how frequently as adults they lied to their parents.
  • The final questionnaire asked them to complete another two questionnaires that measured their self-reported psychosocial maladjustment and tendency to behave selfishly and impulsively.

Based on the findings, the researchers suggest that parenting by lying could place children at a greater risk of developing problems that society frowns upon, such as aggression, rule-breaking and intrusive behaviours.

Common white lies parents resort to

Parent24 reported on a 2017 British survey that asked 2 000 parents if they ever told their kids little lies, and 60% said they do so every day, while 89% felt "white lies" were a necessary part of parenting.    

Some of the top white lies parents tell, according to a compilation by the Mirror, are:

  • When the ice cream van plays music it means the ice cream has sold out.
  • Mum and dad are not arguing, we're having a discussion.
  • Father Christmas keeps a naughty list.
  • Eating carrots will help you see in the dark.

The study’s lead author, Assistant Professor Setoh Peipei from NTU Singapore's School of Social Sciences said that parenting by lying can seem to save time, especially when the real reasons behind why parents want children to do something are complicated to explain, but that it can have negative consequences.

“When parents tell children that 'honesty is the best policy', but display dishonesty by lying, such behaviour can send conflicting messages to their children. Parents' dishonesty may eventually erode trust and promote dishonesty in children."

"Our research suggests that parenting by lying is a practice that has negative consequences for children when they grow up.

“Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children's feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together, to elicit good behaviour from children."

The bottom line

On the topic of parents and trustworthiness, ADHD parenting coach Siope Kinikini says that when the time comes for children to learn the truth about white lies, it’s always best to hear the truth from parents. If not, your child could question if there are other things you’re lying to them, or they may feel that it’s okay to lie. 

So, while it is unlikely that every child is going to have psychological issues because of white lies, researchers simply want to make parents aware of the possible consequences of lying to children.

The study is not without its limitations, though, one of them being that relying solely on young adults reporting on their retrospective experience of their parents’ lying. Future studies could explore using additional informants, such as parents, said Setoh.

Image credit: iStock


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