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Why lying to your kids is never a good idea

Mark Twain said, "If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything." That's one great reason to avoid lying to kids.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Mark Twain said, “If you always tell the truth, you never have to remember anything.” That is just one great reason to avoid lying to our children whenever possible.

As a mom, I’m tempted to lie to my kids on a pretty regular basis. “Is there any ice cream left?” “Do I have to get a shot when I go to the doctor tomorrow?” “Is the tooth fairy real?” “What were you doing last night that made all that noise?!” “Did you drink in high school?”

Should you lie to your kids?
Closeup up portrait headshot suspicious, cautious child boy looking up with disbelief, skepticism isolated grey wall background. Human facial expressions emotions body language perception attitudeShutterstock

And it’s not only the questions they ask that tempt me to tell them what I want them to believe. There are also those other moments. Can you relate?

  • Wanting to build self-confidence by giving a compliment that isn’t actually true?
  • Wanting to protect them from pain by pretending a family member is OK when they’re sick?
  • Wanting to have a darned adult conversation without having to explain things they shouldn’t be overhearing in the first place?
  • Wanting to get them to stop playing and leave, so pretending you would actually, really leave without them?
  • What else?

I totally get it. We don’t just lie to make our own lives easier, we lie believing that we are helping our kids. But, as Mark Twain warned — we’re gonna get caught. Not every time, certainly, but eventually they figure it out. The relative dies or they figure out that they can’t draw to save their lives or they come to the realization that we never, ever would leave without them, we were just manipulating them to get them to do what we wanted.

And then we have two new problems, and they are much harder to solve than any of these smaller ones.

  1. They don’t completely trust us anymore.
  2. They don’t feel bad at all about lying to us.

I’m not saying that lying to our kids means they’ll never believe a word we say. I’m saying when they’re not sure, we’ve cast some doubt. For example, I’ve told my teens that I will come drive them home from anywhere at anytime —– all they have to do is text. If their ride home is drunk, I’m not calling the cops on the party — I’m just driving anyone who needs a safe ride home.

That is a hard thing to believe for a 16-year-old, and it's even harder to convince your friends of it. My child has to be able to genuinely believe he can trust me, especially if he is trying to get his friends to trust me, too. So, when I say “I don’t lie to you — you can trust me,” he has to know it.

I’m also not saying that telling our kids the truth every time means they will do the same. They won’t. Lying to parents is something that kids try out again and again for different reasons at different ages. But once they figure out we do it to them? Much harder to tell them it’s unacceptable in our family.

So what are we supposed to do when they ask stuff we aren’t willing to tell them? Tell the truth with these incredibly useful and honest answers:

  • “That’s none of your business, sweetheart.”
  • “I’m not going to answer that right now.”
  • “Sorry, inappropriate topic.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about it.”

We don’t have to tell our kids everything. We shouldn’t tell our kids everything! But lying to them? Well, it causes more problems than it solves.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa is a Pittsburgh-area family physician, mother of four boys and author of multiple books including "Get the Behavior You Want, Without Being the Parent You Hate!".