Should you always tell the truth to children?

‘White Lies’ are regularly told by parents for various reasons, including: to preserve a child’s innocence (“Father Christmas and the tooth fairy are real”), to avoid undesirable behaviour (“if the wind changes you’ll stay like that”), to promote healthy choices (“carrots make you see in the dark”) or to avoid awkward explanations or their own embarrassment (“babies are found under gooseberry bushes”).

– according to a survey of 1000 parents *:
75% of parents have told a white lie to their children
90% tell a white lie to protect their child’s innocence
44% tell a white lie because they don’t know the answer
40% have told a white lie in the last month
Tooth fairy most popular white lie (86%)

According to survey of 2500 parents**
Of those who opt for myths instead of truths, seven in ten parents use the explanation that “babies are delivered by storks” and 23 per cent say “babies are found under gooseberry bushes”.
16% parents tell their children that dead people are buried or cremated, while 25% tell children that dead people become angels.

(*commissioned by Lotus Thirst Pockets, **Commissioned by Shine TV)

Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman believes that white lies can actually be good for children’s development:

stork“It is a natural parental instinct to be economical with the truth with our children, but parents should not feel guilty. White lies are told for a number of reasons… which if told literally would confuse a child, and most importantly because they can be fun. White lies, like the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas, stimulate imagination and create a sense of enchantment and excitement for children.”

But how easy is it as a parent or caregiver to cross the line between an innocent white lie and more serious deceit which may ultimately have a detrimental effect on a child? Should facts be told in difficult situations, such as when a loved one dies, marriages break down or a parent is sent to prison?

Traditionally, it was thought that children should be protected from difficult facts, with adults believing that children were not emotionally mature enough to cope with being honestly told about difficult situations. Most parents worked under the assumption that what a child doesn’t know won’t harm him, and being ‘too honest’ about a difficult situation will cause someone so young too much distress and confusion.

In contrast to this, modern psychotherapeutic practices encourage parents to tell children the truth, even in challenging circumstances. Virginia Mallin, Little Parachutes’ Resident Psychotherapist, explains how being told the truth is very important for a child (or for anyone – none of us like to feel we are being mislead). She acknowledges how hard it can be for parents when faced with needing to disclose something big and/or painful to their child, but it is often the parent’s own difficulty with the reality of the situation that makes it much harder to find a way to handle it. Denying the truth to a child is often a way out of facing the reality for the parent, and this coupled with a fear that the child will be unhappy with the situation can make putting words to things even more unpalatable. It is often not easy for distressed parents, say going through a divorce or bereavement, to have to deal with the distress of the children as well, and so things get left unsaid with the misguided hope that the children will not notice.

“It is extremely important that a child, when a life event is impacting on him or her, is given the truth. This does not mean that they have to have all the ins and outs, and finding a simple but adequate and honest way to explain a complicated situation is not always easy. But the tuned-in parent will be lead by the child – when a child is not understanding, he will ask for more explanation.” -Virginia Mallin

Research  has revealed that even very young children have an extremely well-developed sense of intuition when it comes to judging people’s emotional states. A child has an almost uncanny ability to see through a ‘false smile’ or a ‘brave face’, and will sense there’s a serious problem occurring even if they are not told about it. Telling them there’s ‘nothing to worry about’ may teach them to stop trusting their own intuition and judgement, or possibly to begin to ‘fill in the missing blanks’ of their knowledge of the situation with terrifying fantasy scenarios (a child not given the true story behind why their parents are divorcing may imagine that they caused it to happen by being naughty, for example) .

“Being told the truth means for the child that they are worth being open with, that they are seen as capable of dealing with reality, and not fobbed off with deception. And when a parent tells the truth, the parent is modelling that reality can be dealt with, that pain or upset can be got through and emotionally survived. The truth gives us all the chance to deal with life and therefore more chance to move through its difficulties. Being told the truth makes us feel of value, and that builds strength of character.” – Virginia Mallin

There are many books featured in Little Parachutes which may help an adult to open a conversation with a child on challenging situations:

Situation: Divorce

  • Mum and Dad Glue: Truth revealed: Marital problems can’t be ‘fixed’ with effort and will.
  • Molly and Her Dad: Truth revealed : Estranged parents can often have awkward relationships with their children and a period of adjustment may be required.

Situation: Bereavement

Situation: Parent with serious illness

  • Mummy’s Lump: Truth revealed: Cancer is not caused by someone being naughty or bad, and you cannot catch cancer (some common yet harmful myths that children may believe if not given the full truth).

Situation: Parent in Prison

  • Tommy’s Dad: Truth revealed: Children are often more at ease with a situation if they are given the facts rather than shielded from them. Tommy is much less anxious once his mother has explained that his father is in prison.

Situation: New baby

  • My baby sister/Just like you did/Wilbie’s Gift: Truth revealed: Life does change and parents may not have as much time for older siblings as they once had. But this doesn’t mean they are less important than they once were or less loved and cherished.
  • Where did that baby come from? Truth revealed: Children can feel negative about new siblings and often want to ‘send them back’ and go back to how things were before the new sibling arrived, but over time they will usually accept the situation and come to see it as a positive thing.

Article by Claire Ward-Dutton

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