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Why It's Okay to Lie to Your Child (Sometimes)

When I was at the store picking up more milk and cereal a couple of years ago, I bought superhero underwear on sale for my 4-year-old son, Jack. I also bought a pair of cute polka-dot socks for me, because all my socks had holes in them. I didn't buy my 7-year-old daughter anything.

I realized my tactical error the moment I walked through the door.

Jack pulled out his new underwear and launched into his happy dance. Annie looked betrayed. "Nothing for me?!"

I thought fast. "These cute polka-dot socks!" I said, handing her the pair. This appeased her (even if they were too big), and disharmony was averted for the night. Too bad I had to keep lying every time I wanted to wear "her" socks.

Moms aren't supposed to lie  -- ever. But, of course, we routinely do. Our fibs can be damaging  -- or not. It all depends on how and when we tell them.

Little whites

How we justify them: Anyone who's ever hoped to get through most of the day without a tantrum understands why telling less than the truth can be rationalized. "There should be another word for what moms say to their kids sometimes," says Deb Widner-Cannon, a mom of five in Columbus, Ohio. "'Lying' is too strong."

When they're okay: Little white lies can be a convenient way to get around saying no. When Kate Taylor's 3-year-old daughter smelled chocolate on her breath, Taylor said, "That's my face lotion. I'm eating raisins. Want one?" Taylor, of Portland, Oregon, says that while she may sometimes need her secret chocolate stash, her daughter doesn't need the sugar and caffeine.

Experts agree that this sort of situational bending of the truth isn't likely to harm your child. In fact, she probably won't even notice. Widner-Cannon found this out when her daughter Chelsea was a toddler, and Chelsea thought the ice cream truck was simply the "music truck" come to spread joy. "We just didn't bother correcting her," says her mom.

One day a neighbor bought her daughter her first ice cream from the truck. "She was delighted. She came to me covered in Creamsicle and said, 'Mommy, the music-truck guy decided to start selling ice cream! Isn't that a great idea?' I agreed that it was, and left it at that," Widner-Cannon says.

The downside: Constant little fibs can be a crutch  -- allowing you to avoid putting your foot down. Invoking the all-powerful "I said no, because..." is unpleasant at first, but it's the better strategy in the long run, at least most of the time.

What also works? Redirection, especially with the toddler set. Just explain why something can't go the way your child would like and get her interested in something else.

Julie Tilsner blogs at badhomecooking.com.

Social lies

How we justify them: Because we don't want our kids to hurt people's feelings. "I try to encourage my kids to say what they feel while omitting the negative," says Gamin Summers, a mom of five in Flagstaff, Arizona. "Like, when your sister gives you a rock for your birthday, say 'Thank you for the gift!' instead of 'Why would I want a rock, you dweeb?' It doesn't always work, but looking for the positive is a good skill to learn."

When they're okay: "For society to function, it has to be civil," says Michael Lewis, Ph.D., director at the Institute for the Study of Child Development at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, New Jersey. "So there's a whole set of social rules that require you to be less than honest."

The downside: You want your child to learn the difference between being polite and being so polite she can't say what she means. When she was 4, Annie would weep at a playdate's house before she got up the nerve to tell the mom she really didn't like PB&J sandwiches. (She's learned to speak up.)

Tall tales

How we justify them: One of the joys of being a mom is getting to relive cherished moments of childhood  -- and for many of us that means opening presents from Santa or finding tooth-fairy money under the pillow. And so we pass on these little traditions without another thought.

When they're okay: I've yet to find a mom or expert who thinks this is harmful. And you've got to admit: There's nothing more joyous than experiencing your child's delight when she finds a surprise  -- whether it's under her pillow or under the tree.

The downside: None, really. Kids learn the truth sooner or later while they're in elementary school, and usually by the time they do, they're old enough to know the difference between lying and pretending. But should you fess up when the questions start? It depends. Sometimes your 5- or 6-year-old is just looking for reassurance; she really doesn't want to stop believing even if some of her classmates have. But if she comes to you with a specific question ("Are you the one putting money under my pillow?") or evidence ("I saw you stuffing my stocking!"), then it's probably time to come clean.

Protective lies

How we justify them: Because young children can't understand complex or scary situations. When Jennifer Greenberg's 3-year-old asks, "Mommy, will you be with me forever?" the answer is always yes. "In a sense, it's true. I'll always be in his heart," says Greenberg, of Portland, Oregon. "But I also know that three-year-olds don't want to hear something abstract  -- they're too literal at this age." Then there's the question we dread hearing: "Who's your favorite?" Obviously the answer is "I don't have a favorite. I love each of you the same." As mothers, we know that's true. But we also know, if we're being totally honest, that there's often one child with whom we share a particular bond.

When they're okay: Developmentally, little kids can't understand the concept of death, so don't feel guilty. You're just going to scare them if you try explaining the circle of life. As for who's your favorite, if you're honest, you'll end up doing more damage to your child than if you'd just lied. "To admit you have a favorite child would devastate you and the child," says Lewis. "It's the lie we can never admit to."

The downside: It's one thing to lie to shield kids from truths they can't process. It's another thing to shield them from stuff that's happening at home. Never underestimate what your child senses about the impending divorce, the serious illness, the layoff. In fact, a University of California, Santa Barbara, study found that when college students were asked to recount the most damaging lies they'd ever been told, many cited the ones meant to protect them as kids from deaths in the family.

Just make sure your honesty is appropriate for your child's age. When Bernard Wolfson's late wife's breast cancer worsened, he knew he couldn't deny the situation to his kids. While Caroline, 2, just knew her mommy was sick, Oliver, 5, needed to know why the medicine she was taking seemed to be making her sicker. Both children needed continual reassurance that their daddy wasn't going to leave them alone. "Young kids already feel totally powerless in these kinds of situations," says Wolfson, who now lives in Paris. "We never considered not talking about it. At least this way we could give them a sense of what to expect."

When it comes to the big stuff, if you want your kids to be honest with you, you have to be honest with them. At bottom, it's common sense. "Are they going to care that you lied about their Power Ranger Blaster being broken? No," says Kristin Dawson, a mom of two in Houston. "But don't lie about anything they're going to care about ten years from now."

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