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Family notes: Explaining white lies to children

  • July 6, 2013 - 2:00 PM

White lies: explaining the concept to your children

Of all the traits we want our kids to possess, becoming individuals of integrity is an extremely high priority. We want to raise children who are honest and authentic.

Children learn those values from us. They pay some attention to what to say, but they learn more by what we do. Moral parents generally raise honest children.

There are times when values come in conflict. We want honest children but we also want our kids to be respectful of others, and not do anything to intentionally hurt someone else’s feelings. We advise our kids to be thankful of a birthday gift and tell the recipient that they liked it, even if they don’t. They tell Grandma that her horrible beef casserole tastes great. In these situations, the value of treating others nicely becomes more important than being sincere. We’ve even made up a name of such deceit, calling them “white lies” to justify such behavior.

Psychologists call this dishonesty “prosocial lie-telling,” and it is very common with both adults and kids. Children begin telling white lies around age 3. At that age, they are developmentally sensitive enough to be aware of others’ reactions and tell lies in social situations to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Younger children have a difficult time with lying, as their words don’t always match their nonverbal behaviors. In one research study, kids who told an experimenter that a bad picture looked fine actually smiled less during the interactions than a control group of kids.

How well could we function if everyone always said how they felt? The values of politeness and respect help us get along with each other. How do you explain the conflicting values of honesty and politeness to kids?

1. Model the behavior you want. An occasional white lie will have no impact on your child’s ethical development if it is an exception to the way you live your life. Children learn from watching us deal with all of the routine tasks of daily life and will be most affected by our pattern of behavior, not an isolated lie.

2. Don’t lie to avoid tough situations. These are tests of your ethical principles, and your kids are watching what you do. Let your kids know that honesty isn’t always easy, and at times it can cause distress to you and them.

3. Label and discuss white lies. If you’ve observed your child lying in order to be polite, talk about that at the dinner table. Avoid criticizing their behavior (since they learned it from you), but caution them in its use.

4. Honesty within the family. Create a family where honesty trumps politeness. This may be uncomfortable for you and your kids at times, but it sends a strong message about the importance of honesty over politeness.

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