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Pants on fire: Should moms lie to kids?

April 11, 2012 at 7:40 AM ET

As a mom, it’s a good thing I never swore to tell truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to my children; if I had I’d be deep into the “so help me” part of that oath by now.

My white lies range from ones told since the beginning of time like, “if you keep crossing your eyes they’ll stay that way,” to the more creative, “take a bath or weeds will start to grow from your ears and between your toes.”

OK, so even my 3-year-old son doesn’t believe that one, but it sure sounds better than what I’m thinking at the end of a long day.

Although moms routinely chastise their children for fibbing, I’m comforted by the fact that when I lie I’m in good company. Angelina Jolie reportedly told her kids she had to work on Oscar night, and got ready outside of her home, so her children wouldn’t think they were missing out on something fun.

Sometimes we are even complicit in our children’s lies to help them get what they want. More than a few of the 7.5 million underage Facebook users have parents who know they’re on Facebook.

In fact, a 2008 survey conducted by a British parenting website revealed that parents will tell children approximately 3,000 lies throughout their childhood; that’s nearly one a day. A TODAY Moms poll in January found that 31 percent of moms say they lie more often since having kids; 42 percent say they lie less often; and 27 percent say their truthfulness is about the same.

Related: The lies moms tell

Lying to children is so prevalent I never thought much about it. But Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of more than a dozen books about children, says it is never a good choice.

“If, as a parent, you model altering the truth, you open the door for hearing your child color the truth,” Newman said. “Your son or daughter might then say, 'I did my homework,' when in fact, only part of the homework was completed.”

Does this mean I can no longer tell my children that every public sign says "no whining" and every fortune cookie says "be nice to your mommy"? Perhaps.

Avoiding tantrums is another frequent reason parents resort to white lies. Jim Grimes, the dad of a five-year-old girl, tells his daughter the music from the ice-cream truck means there’s no more ice cream.

Even in these situations, Newman says taking the fallout from a tantrum is much wiser than modeling that it’s acceptable to lie.

“It’s OK to say ‘no,’” she said. “It can even be a teaching moment, depending on the age of your child.”

So instead of telling my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son that Chuck E. Cheese is closed on Saturdays, Newman suggested it’s preferable to say, “I could have told you Chuck E. Cheese is closed, but I wanted to be honest with you.”

Well, I’ll think about it.

What about the really difficult situations, like a death or serious illness? A good friend of mine told me it wasn’t until she was 35 that she realized her dog didn’t really “go to a farm,” after it snapped at her.

Newman advised telling the truth in an empathic way, since making up stories is being over protective and we can’t protect our children forever. That being said, we can postpone topics children aren’t ready for by saying, “some things are parent talk, I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.”

Newman added, “The bottom line is by white lying you’re telling your children it’s acceptable to lie to me and others.”

Which white lies, if any, have you told your children?

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