Thursday, March 20, 2014

Glass eyes, tragedies, and sex. Is it ever okay to lie to your kids?

I am a liar.

A few weeks ago I shared a vlog about having a positive attitude as we go about the things we have to do during our lives as parents.  In the comments on Facebook, someone raised the issue of dishonesty saying that smiling when we don't feel like it is being dishonest to ourselves and the children who look up to us.

I am a believer in the "fake it til you make it" happy attitude philosophy*, but I do see the very valid and well meaning point this commenter politely made and I appreciate the kindness with which it was said.

[*Note how I did not say I'm a believer in the "choking back your feelings until your soul is a black, emotionless void" happy attitude philosophy. There is a difference.]

Still, this comment gave me food for thought. In fact, I've been thinking about this topic quite a bit and just exactly how tenuous this whole honesty thing can be between parents and kids.

Do we really have to be 100% honest 100% of the time as parents?  It is ever okay to feign a happy attitude, stretch the truth a little, or even in certain situations to flat out lie to our kids? 

I hope you'll indulge me in a little thinking out loud here ...

Now this isn't the first time I've been confronted with the issue of dishonesty as a parent. Almost every time someone mentions Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Switch Witch, or the Tooth Fairy it comes up.

You're lying to your kids.
What a breach of trust!
I never lie to my kids.

The traditions associated with the holidays are a topic for another day, but it is the accusation of deception I want to talk about now.

Whenever I hear someone say they never lie to their kids I immediately feel like they are lying to me.

You never lie to your kids.  Never?  I'm sorry but that's one I have a hard time believing. Call me a skeptic, but I just don't buy the idea of a human being so flawless that they have never lied, let alone never to their children.

Yet, if a subject like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy comes up on a blog or on social media, you can bet that eventually somebody will type it:  I never lie to my kids.

 Cute kids. Too bad they are sitting on a throne of lies.

Never, ever, ever lied to your kids?

Never pretended to chomp down in culinary happiness over an offered mud pie?

Never went along as your three year old pretended to be a horse or a dinosaur?

No, "I've got your nose!" or sipping pretend tea from a miniature tea set?

Yes, but Kara, I hear you saying, those are pretend games.  Pretending isn't the same.  Okay, I'll give you that.

Never scarfed down a stress-relieving handful of chocolate chips while hiding in the pantry and then answered "nothing" when one of your kids busted you and asked what you were doing?  No?  Just me, then.

Okay, so I'm a liar.
But I'm not the only one.

How about this example? Nearly every day for four years of high school I walked out of my parents' front door with huge late 80s hair spray hair and a giant "mall claw" popping out of the top of my head and was told I looked beautiful. (Thanks, mom!)

Speaking of hair, I've been letting my white and silver roots grow in and my observant five year old was recently startled to discover during an afternoon game of let's get mommy back for all those times she makes me take a bath "hair stylist" that this isn't my real hair color.

No, it did not shatter all of her trust in me. In fact, she likes the idea that a person can change their hair color and is trying to convince me purple is a viable option.


Once upon a middle of the night my husband and I both lied right to our three year old's face, flat out and with no remorse, total co-conspirators fibbing about what we had been doing, and then escorted that kid right back to bed.

Author's note:  my twelve year old just read this over my shoulder and asked if she was the three year old. I totally lied again. And if she brings it up with her therapist in ten years I'll lie to her then, too.

Generations of liars.

In my family, lying goes back generations. My Grandma used to tell us kids that her mom, my Great-Grandmother, had a glass eye because as a child she ran with scissors. You'd better believe this had the effect of rendering me the most careful points-down scissor slow walker you ever did see.

Years later, when I found out that my Great-Grandma Cootie (no that name isn't a lie, she was married to my Grandpa Windy) really lost her eye due to ocular cancer I didn't feel lied to or betrayed by my Grandma.

I actually thought the lie was sort of clever of her, designed to keep us safe, and it was much easier to get over than her famous declarations that "eating raw cookie dough will give you worms" or "Right Guard deodorant spray stops mosquito bites from itching." (Ouch)

 Knitting?  Or weaving tangled webs?

Lies of omission

(Warning: switching to some more serious gears here, okay?) A few years ago, in the emotional days after the tragedy at Newtown, I can remember being glued to the news and spending a lot of time texting my friend Jamie, who lives in Newtown.

I was crying when my then six year old asked me what was wrong.

Instead of consulting the advice abundant at the time along the lines of  "how to talk to your kindergartner about tragedy" I took the fact that he noticed how upset I was as my cue to switch off the news and I lied to him. Sort of.

I simply told my son that my friend lived in a town that had some sad news and that I was sad for her, which was the truth, yes, and also sort of a lie for all of its understatement.

Me and my "friend who had a sad thing happen to her town" at Allume last October.

He's seven now and still does not know about Newtown, though it did leave an impression.  When we saw Jamie the following April at a homeschool convention Max heard me tell Christopher how I couldn't wait to give Jamie a long overdue hug and he said, "yes, that's your friend who was sad."

At Allume last fall, he saw Jamie again and afterward he remarked something along the lines of "that's your friend who had a sad thing happen to her town, right, mommy?"

He hasn't asked for any more details and I haven't given him any.  I hope to keep it that way for as long as I can.

Yes, but Kara, that's easy for you to say, living in your homeschool bubble where your kids aren't exposed to daily playground chatter and you don't have to give explanations you aren't ready to give. Some of us have to tell the truth about those things to our kids because if we don't someone else will.

You're right.  You're exactly right. That part is easier for me. In that sense, my kids are sheltered, and I'm keeping them that way at their young age.

I have no qualms about not burdening my young children with information about this world and all of the hurts in it before they are ready. I'm grateful that my reality is that most of the time I don't have to.

However, we don't live in a bubble. My kids have had to learn about things like cancer, death, and loss earlier than some of their peers. I think that is enough hard truth for now.

I believe in honesty.  I believe in kindness.

Now, friends, please know I'm not advocating a life of dishonesty or lies (though God knows I've told my share of both whoppers and little white ones in these 40 years I've lived so far). I try to be a good example to my kids, I really do.

I'm cracking some jokes here, but there's a serious side to all of this, too.

I've learned some hard lessons about the truth. I lost much because of things I did in my late teens and early twenties, lies I told and lived, vile words that slipped right from my own lips.

I believe in honesty and trust and I know first-hand the value of telling hard truths.

Years ago, when my scared and sad four year old looked up at me with big, blue eyes and her curly mop of hair and asked if me her Grandpa John was dying, I answered her honestly, even though there is nothing I would have liked better than to tell her a lie in that moment.

There are times when the whole truth and nothing but is absolutely the right thing to tell, no matter how difficult.

I believe that.

But I also believe in kindness and appropriateness.  Sometimes as a parent there are situations when it is kinder to lie. Sometimes we have to make judgement calls about what is appropriate for our children to know. 

I'm not just talking about keeping your little pretend horse's sense of wonder alive or filling a five year old's stocking up on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes a lie is the kindest thing. 

Sometimes a lie can come from love. 

Let me tell you a story about my childhood dog Beans (I'll leave it to you to guess how she got her name).  Beans was a gorgeous Irish Wolfhound. Sweet tempered and lovable, this great beast of a dog put up with my three siblings and I and brought a lot of solace to my angst ridden teen years. Pets are wonderful like that.

My nineteenth birthday fell during my first university finals week ever.  It also happened to be the day that Beans was hit by a car. Yes, my dog died on my birthday. Totally sucked.

When I talked to the folks at home that night, never once during that phone call was the death of my dog mentioned.  My mother hid it from me on purpose, not wanting to add additional stress to my first college finals week and not wanting to ruin my birthday, the very first birthday I had ever not been home surrounded by my family.

When I found out about Beans later, was I angry at my mother?  You bet. At first.

(And let's not even go into the irony of me feeling any sort of righteous indignation about the honesty regarding events that happened on my 19th birthday.  Good grief. Sorry, mom.)

But, afterward, I was grateful for the kindness and love. She was right, it would have been tough news on my birthday and it would have made my already pretty shaky chances at passing my finals even shakier.

Chocolate chips. Kool Aid. Santa Claus. Mud pies. Glass eyes. Sex. Tragedies. Death.

Sometimes we lie to our kids accidentally, sometimes we lie deliberately.

Not all lies are harmful, though that doesn't mean we stop striving to be honest.  I don't think all lies shatter trust. I think it is okay to "fake it until you make it" if you're having a bad attitude.  I think it is okay to write"from Santa" on a gift tag and to sneak a tooth out from under a seven year old's pillow.

I'm not naive.  I know my kids have lied to me and I know they will lie again.  I also know that I'll lie to them in future, too. But we all keep trying. Age four or age forty, we keep doing the best we can in the best ways we know how to at the time.

At the end of the day, I don't hold my kids to a higher standard than I hold myself. We're human.  We're flawed.  Sometimes we say something in one moment that we wouldn't in the next. Sometimes we don't have all the answers. Sometimes we just don't want to share our chocolate chips.

So, is it ever okay to lie to your kids?  This mom says yes, sometimes it is.

Whether or not you believe me, of course, is another matter.


  1. PS - a family member pointed out to me that Great Grandma and Grandpa's names were actually Lula and Roma, everyone just called them Cootie and Windy. But, growing up I honestly thought those were their names. More lies! :-)

  2. Yes! I think relationship matters more than strict truthfulness. I know my kids, I know what truths they're developmentally ready to handle, and which ones can wait awhile.

    So while I would never try to deceive them out of unkindness, I might redirect their attention out of love. Or in pursuit of chocolate chips. Or both, as the case may be.

    (And I love these graphics! Cracking me up.) :D

    1. "Yes! I think relationship matters more than strict truthfulness." <--- wow! I love that. I think I could have saved myself an entire blog post if I had just thought of :-)

      Thanks, Melissa! Here's to relationships, doing the best we can, and chocolate when we need it!