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Reality Check: Little White Lies

Q. Sometimes I tell my child little fibs -- we're out of cookies, the TV show's not on right now, I don't have enough money. Is there really anything wrong with this?

For a while when my eldest was little, I had her convinced that museum gift shops were just a different part of the museum, where you could look at and even touch things (!) but not buy them. In addition to not wanting to be bugged to buy this! buy that!, I didn't want her to associate art and natural history with shopping. Anyway, it didn't take her long to figure out what people were doing at the cash register.

From an ethical standpoint, there's nothing wrong with the occasional white lie. Lapses of total honesty don't automatically brand you a perjurer and won't make your child one, either. Used sparingly, this kind of fib can be a useful parenting tool, a variation on distraction to move a child out of a demanding, whining jag and into something more constructive. It is, of course, a form of cheating, but when you're heading into the umpteenth conflict of the day, you deserve the easy way out.

But these white lies can become dangerous when they're used too often as a substitute for being the parent. No matter how you rationalize it, "We're out of cookies" is the coward's way to avoid saying, "No, you can't have a cookie right now." Most of the time, for the good of your child and the good of your integrity as a consistent authority, this is what should be said. Children need, even if it's only very occasionally, to hear the word "no," accompanied by a short, simple explanation of why something is forbidden. Parenting isn't pretty, it isn't a popularity contest, and they don't call it "tough love" just because it's tough on kids  -- it's tough on parents, too.