We teach our kids that it is wrong to lie, even though most of us do it everyday. In fact, it is often our children who we are lying to. A new study, involving participants in the USA and China, is one of the first to investigate parental lies, finding that the majority of parents tell their children lies as a way to control their behaviour.
Gail Heyman and her colleagues presented 114 parents in the USA and 85 in China with 16 so-called “instrumental lies” in four categories – lies intended to influence the kids’ eating habits (e.g. “you need to finish all your food or you will get pimples all over your face”); lies to get the children to leave or stay put (e.g. “If you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself); lies to control misbehaviour (e.g. “If you don’t behave I will call the police”); and finally, lies to do with shopping and money (e.g. “I did not bring any money with me today. We can come back another day.”).
Eighty-four per cent of US parents and 98 per cent of Chinese parents admitted telling at least one of the 16 lies to their children, and a majority of parents in both countries admitted to telling lies from three of the four categories. The exception was the misbehaviour category – just under half the US parents said they told lies to make their children behaviour better, compared with 80 per cent of Chinese parents.
The lie that the greatest proportion of parents said they told was threatening to leave a child behind if he/she refused to follow the parent. Rates of lying by parents were higher in China than in the US, especially in relation to misbehaviour and eating. The Chinese parents also viewed instrumental lying by parents with more approval than the US parents did; at the same time, they (the Chinese) viewed lying by children with more disapproval. “This cross-cultural difference may reflect greater concern with social cohesiveness and a greater emphasis on respect and obedience,” the researchers said.
Asked why they told instrumental lies to their children, parents across both countries talked in terms of a cost-benefit trade-off and the stress of getting children to comply. Other times it was felt children would struggle to understand the truth, such as the complexities of the family budget.
As well as looking at instrumental lies, the study also asked parents about untruths they told their children regarding fantasy characters like the tooth-fairy, or to make their children feel better, for example praising a poor piano performance. Here there were no cultural differences in rates of lie-telling, although the Chinese parents showed less approval toward lying about the existence of fictional characters.
The study has limitations, as acknowledged by the researchers. The two samples differed in other ways besides their culture – the US parents being more highly educated, for example. And of course there was a reliance on self-report rather than an observation or record of actual lies told. Despite these issues, Heyman said their study “helps fill a void in an understudied area that may have strong implications for children’s social and moral development.”
What do you think about parents lying to their children? Do you lie to yours? Do you remember being lied to as a child?
Heyman, G., Hsu, A., Fu, G., and Lee, K. (2012). Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. International Journal of Psychology, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2012.746463