The ugly truth about white lies
Do white lies protect our children from the truth or harm their ability to trust?
Does lying about things like Santa Clause/ Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy/ Tooth Mouse harm our children?

Sometimes we may feel justified in telling our children a white lie or two, as we see it as our job to protect them from the “big bad world”. We want them to live in a happy place that waters the belief that they can achieve anything they wish. But does this clash with our desire to raise children who have integrity?

Is it okay to encourage beliefs in make-believe characters?

Most parents treasure passing on the traditions of Santa Claus and the like. They want to see the sparkle of excitement in their child’s eyes when they talk about fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Make-believe is a part of children’s language. When parents engage in fantasy play, a wonderful bond evolves. However, each time we tell our children about these characters we know we are lying to them. When asked if this is a bad thing, Marianna, mother of two said, “I’m glad my parents ‘fibbed’, I loved believing in Santa Claus”. Kate (16) said, “I enjoyed it too and wasn’t cross with my parents when I found out he wasn’t real.”

Psychologist, Dr Victoria Talwar of McGill University in Canada says, “Such stories are often told as ‘cultural or religious’ ritualised stories that teach children about principles such as ‘the spirit of giving’. They are not viewed by society in the same way as  lies.”

It’s important to realise that in South Africa there are other issues to consider as you expand these stories. For example, your child is likely to ask you how these characters access your home. It can frighten them that a stranger can come into their home while they are sleeping. If an old man from overseas can do that why can’t an agile robber?  It is your choice as a parent how you decide to portray these characters.

Tips to minimise or eliminate the untruths

Explain that it’s a story.

The average child can only distinguish between fantasy and reality around the age of 7 or 8. Although they will know the truth they won’t fixate on it or have it damage their ability to enjoy the make-believe play.  Say: “Children, I want to tell you the wonderful story of St Nicholas. Each year we re-enact this exciting tradition to remember Christmas is about the spirit of giving.”

Engage in fantasy.

Play out the story. Dress up, create props and instil traditions. Make a special treasure box to keep the tooth for the Tooth Fairy for example.

Expand the prescriptive moulds

As much as these rituals are part of fantasy play they are prescriptive. For example, the children are told where Father Christmas lives, about the particular outfit he wears and the names of his reindeers. This creates a picture, but doesn’t expand their imagination. If you want to capture the tradition so your child can enjoy the festivities with the rest of society, ensure that you add your child’s flair to the traditions. For example, let her come up with her own stories about how Father Christmas can enter your house and what he may like to eat and drink.

If you’re not concerned about the traditions, it would be wise to educate your child about the traditional story so she understands what is happening in the world around her. Allow yourselves to indulge in complete fantasy. Decide what your South African St Nicholas impersonator will wear, do, drive and the like. Remove the boundary line – expand and create.

Develop shared fantasies and rituals.

Ensure your child knows to respect other’s traditions and that it’s not her place to inform other children these characters are not real.

What is the impact of real lies?

Lies have consequences When you tell a lie it is like trying to submerge a ball in water. Like the truth, it will always surface. It bounces back up and it often hits you in the face.

Lies double the trouble.

Albeit your intention to reduce issues by lying, you multiply them. Not only will the secret you’re trying to prevent from coming out be revealed, but the fact that you told a lie will add fuel to the fire. Worst of all it will reduce trust.

Breaks down relationships.

To engage in a relationship we need to know that we won’t be made a fool of, be manipulated or have our vulnerabilities taken advantage of. When someone lies to us we are provided with a reason to believe that this person may hurt us. We put up barriers to protect ourselves. This leads to unfulfilled relationships. In a child/parent relationship there is an innate trust because of the dependency element. Our children depend on our honest guidance through the overwhelming journey of understanding the world they live in. They view us as an extension of themselves. When they feel they can’t trust you, they feel they can’t trust themselves. Fear sets in.

Reduces respect.

Our lies send our children the message that we don’t respect them. They feel less valued.

How to disclose “ugly” truths

Is it okay to tell your child that Aunty Luiza has gone on a holiday when really she’s gone to a rehab centre for alcohol addiction?

No. It’s important to tell the truth.

Providing no information can be as damaging as lying. When this happens children learn not to ask questions because they think the answers will be scary. Their imaginations run away from them. Young children believe they play a big part in their world so they often blame themselves for matters for which they are not responsible. To tell the truth without creating anxiety or confusion you need to ensure the degree of disclosure is relative to your child’s maturity, understanding, involvement and age.

Judgement tips:

Extent of interaction.

The amount you disclose should be equal in proportion to the amount of time your child spends with her aunt, and the behaviour she’s observed. For example, if your daughter has seen her aunt’s drunken episodes and was caught in the crossfire of her stumbling and vomiting, include these behaviours in your explanation. You could say, “Remember how sick Aunty Luiza was she would vomit and stumble about. Well, she’s gone to a clinic which is going to help her get better.”

Personality type.

If your child is the serious type, she will want a detailed explanation and the opportunity to ask questions. If your child tends not to fuss over details, provide just as much as she is interested to know.

Age or maturity.

Age, and more often maturity, will indicate to you how much your child can comprehend. You can say, “I am going to tell you the truth. I will explain what you can understand as a smart girl at this time in your life. As you become older I will explain more.”  

False Praise

Around 3 years of age, children start to tell white lies to protect others’ feelings. But lies are destructive and we need to teach our children not to lie. Explain to them in very simple terms that while it’s not nice to tell someone they are fat if it’s the truth; it’s simply not necessary to say anything if it’s not nice.

In the same vein, false praise – for example telling our children they are really first class singers when they clearly are not – leads to reduced emotional growth and leaves a child feeling confused.
It causes damage to the trust system on two counts. First, your child starts to question whether she can believe you. Second, your child finds it difficult to trust her own feelings. Without belief in her feelings and judgement your child is vulnerable at times which require decisions to be made.  
To build integrity and self-trust you should teach your child to respect, acknowledge and understand her feelings.

Lies may appear helpful but they provide a false sense of security. They damage our children’s ability to trust others and themselves. To grow children of character we need to live in a conscious manner. To respect feelings. To listen to our children. To have the courage to engage in dialogue around uncomfortable topics.  


Deal with the emotions

Discuss feeling

Ask your child, “How do you feel?” Encourage her to tell you more and listen to her.

Affirm the feeling

Make it clear that feelings are neither right nor wrong. They simply are and you are comfortable with your child expressing how she feels.

Acknowledge the feeling

“I hear you Jo-Jo. We all make mistakes but it’s not fun when it is in front of so many people.”

Normalise the situation

 Relate their experiences to similar ones

 For example, “I did that when I was at school.”

What is the worst case scenario?

Let your child think about what happened and what didn’t happen so she can gauge the severity of this incident.

Discuss what she thinks she can do to make the situation better

 Make a card or gift for the child who’s feelings were hurt by the lie and see how to rectify the outcome.

 Ask your child whether it was her intention to hurt the person. Encourage her to share this. You could say: “I know you feel bad about hurting Dominique and I think it will help her feel better if you apologise for what you said and explain that you never meant to hurt her.”

Let your child tell you what would make her feel better and try to act on any reasonable ideas. 

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