Is It Ever Okay to Lie to Your Kids?

Woman in a striped yellow shirt talking to a little boy on the couch.

Getty Images / Thanasis Zovoilis

Whether it's saying "the park is closed" when you just want to go home or you are "out of cookies" when you know your child has had too many sweets, most parents know what it is like to lie to their kids. Sometimes channeling your inner Pinocchio seems like a better option than dealing with arguments or tantrums. Especially when those lies are for a sweet reason, like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the tooth fairy.

The idea of lying to your kids sounds harsh, but most of the time, it's a harmless part of parenting. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Psychology found that 84 percent of the American parents they surveyed lie to their kids to get them to behave. This is also known as "instrumental lying." If that sounds like you, you are definitely not alone!

That said, there are certain times when bending the truth is acceptable, while at other times, parents should be more honest. Here is how you can navigate that distinction.

The Most Common Reasons Parents Lie

Parents have a variety of reasons for lying to their kids, whether it's to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or end a public meltdown. The latter of those two reasons was the most frequent lie found in the Journal of Psychology study: participants told their kids they would leave or walk away if their child didn't stop misbehaving in public. (Which, of course, they did not actually do.)

Further, the researchers also found that one of the main reasons the parents lied was because they were stressed about the child's behavior—which any parent could likely attest to.

Common Reasons Parents Lie

  • Convenience ("The toy store is closed.")
  • Talent or ability ("You're a great soccer player!")
  • Uncomfortable topics (Death, sex, childbirth, etc.)
  • Childhood traditions (Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, etc.)

When Is It Okay to Lie to Your Kids?

While the decision to lie is ultimately up to you, there are certain situations where it's considered more acceptable. For instance, the fictional story of Santa Claus is universally known, and many young children learn it from their parents—and that's okay! (So long as you're not using Santa to threaten them into behaving.) One study, published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, found that children who eventually found out the truth about Santa Claus reacted positively to the news.

Moreover, it is actually healthy to engage in make-believe with your children. A young child's world of pretend play builds literacy, motor, and thinking skills. So, whether it's the story of Santa, the tooth fairy, or the St. Patrick's Day leprechaun, you're not likely damaging your child in the long run with these kinds of lies.

When it comes to white lies, the decision is less clear. It is important to consider exactly why you might decide to lie to your child, and if perhaps a simplified version of the truth might be a solution.

Use Your Best Judgement 

If you're contemplating whether or not to bend the truth, it's helpful to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you only helping them in the short term, which might affect things in the future?
  • Will your lie confuse them or give them unrealistic expectations of people?
  • Is the lie for you or them?
  • Are they able to understand the truth?

Many times, a child's age and maturity level determine whether or not a lie is appropriate. For example, you probably would not criticize a very young child's artwork. But a toddler can understand that it is time to leave the park so you can head to the grocery store. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide whether your little one is capable of the whole truth, and what the situation calls for.

When Does Lying Become a Problem?

Although parental lying is commonplace across various cultures, too much may lead to negative long-term effects. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers surveyed 379 young Singaporean adults who reported their parents lying during childhood.

They discovered that the participants who were lied to as children were more likely to lie to their parents as adults. The study also suggests that parental dishonesty can create trust issues and problems externalizing certain emotions, like aggression.

That said, the correlation between adult maladjustment and the nature of their parents' lies has yet to be studied. For example, it's possible that lies such as "there's no more candy in the house" may have less of a negative impact than threatening to leave your child in public.

How To Be More Honest With Your Kids

Parenting includes a lot of trial and error. After all, every kid is different! What works for your family might not work for others. Regardless, there are still some basic tips to help you be a little more honest with your kids.

Take Their Age Into Consideration

If they are old enough to start to catch on to your lies, it's time to tell the truth. Unlike very young kids, older ones can start to pick up on dishonesty, leading them to question why their parents are lying. (Which can cause a lot of trust issues.) Instead, help them understand your decision making process in a way that is developmentally appropriate.

Find the Right Balance

There are times when kids need the whole truth, but not always. As a parent, it's important to strike that balance. For instance, the news is often violent and graphic. Kids shouldn't be completely shielded from it, but they shouldn't be overexposed, either. They do need to understand the truth of the world, but it's up to you to decide which information you share, and how you share it.

Along these lines, family problems such as divorce can also be discussed in a delicate manner. For example, a complete lie ("Mommy/Daddy is going on vacation for a while") is not the best approach. In situations like this, it is necessary to be honest about what's happening, but also try to avoid stating facts too harshly.

Model Truth-Telling Behavior

The best way to create more honesty is to be an example. Kids are visual beings, and they learn more by seeing than by what they're told to do. When you act as a role model for honesty (no matter how difficult the situation), they're more likely to be truthful themselves. It also helps them develop effective communication skills and how to deal with whatever life throws their way.

A Word From Verywell

Every family is different, and there's no universal manual for how to raise kids. Lying to them is a complex issue, and it's nearly impossible to find a solution that works across every family. At the end of the day, you know your child best. Every situation will be different, but by evaluating your child and your relationship, you will be able to determine if honesty or a white lie is the best course of action. As long as you keep their best interests in mind, you're making the right decision.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Heyman G, Hsu A, Fu G, Lee K. Instrumental lying by parents in the US and China. Int J Psychol. 2013;48(6):1176-84. doi:10.1080/00207594.2012.746463

  2. Anderson CJ, Prentice NM. Encounter with reality: Children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus mythChild Psych Hum Dev. 1994;25(2):67-84. doi:10.1007/BF02253287

  3. Science Daily. Children told lies by parents subsequently lie more as adults, face adjustment difficulty. Updated October 2019.