White Lies vs. Fantasy
Kalen ran into the house and headed for his room. He quickly undressed then hopped into to bed. Suddenly, the 3-year-old remembered -- the Great Pumpkin wouldn't leave him a gift if Kalen didn't leave his Halloween candy. He jumped out of bed, grabbed his bright orange bucket of candy and placed it in the dining room for the Great Pumpkin to find. Kalen then snuggled back into bed to dream about the gift he would receive the next day.
Sue Reddy of Florida, Kalen's mother, says the Great Pumpkin was a spur of the moment invention she created to limit the amount of Halloween candy her son ate. "I told him about the Great Pumpkin because he was 3 and wouldn't understand that too much candy is bad for him," says Reddy.
Sue says her little white lie, or fantasy lie, about the Great Pumpkin saved her and her son from possible conflict. "He would have wanted to eat the candy, so there might have been some type of power struggle. He might have even tried sneaking to eat the candy. It's not malicious lying; my heart is in the right place."
Fantasy Lies Vs. Serious Lies
Sal Severe, psychologist and author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too, says the Great Pumpkin is a less common character used to get children to act in a desired way. However, fantasy lies like the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are a part of our culture. Reddy says she feels that discovering the lie about Santa Claus is a right of passage that does not harm the child.
These lies are harmless enough that Severe considers them to be more like fantasies or myths. He also feels fine about telling lies that are "in the best interests of the child." In his parenting workshops, Severe offers different strategies to make parenting easier. One of these involves telling "small" lies. One example uses a lie to help the parent convince his or her messy child that they can be neat.
"The parent tells the child, 'This mess is not like you,' even though he's not a neat kid," says Severe. "But, the lie lets the parent plant the idea in the child's head that they can be [cleaner]."
Still, Severe says a parent always wants to be honest with a child. He suggests that if a parent does not want a child to eat candy, the parent should explain why the child should not eat candy and then tell them about the Great Pumpkin. Severe, the father of three children, adds that a small lie benefits the child but a serious lie benefits the adult, and can be harmful.
Lisa Foster, mother of three, says her own mother used a more serious lie on her once. Her mom told Foster she was going to take a shower, but her mom actually went out of town.
"I was so sad when I found out my mom had left town, but she told the lie to avoid a huge scene, which it would've been," says Foster. "I don't think this is the right approach, however."
Severe agrees, noting that this type of lie is dangerous to the child and can blow a child's self esteem. "Big lies perpetuate anxiety in the child," he says. "The child will think, 'Mom lied to me once -- why not again?'" According to Severe, honesty and fairness are what matter most to children. "If you breech those two things before a child becomes rough around the edges, it really matters."
Reddy discovered the importance of these two qualities when her son became upset after her public relations job called her away. Her son knew she was going to be away and stayed with his grandparents, but she did not tell him she was flying. "They went to the airport to pick me up, and he was very upset," she says. "He said to me, 'I want to know next time.'"
Although Reddy did not exactly lie, she was not being honest. Severe says that by the age of 3, children can tell the difference, so it's best to be honest. Lying can cause dishonesty in the child. "If they discover you're not perfect, it gives kids a license to do the same."
Learning to Lie
Children learn how to lie not only from their parents but also from their peers. Severe says once a child sees what lying can achieve they might begin to lie. The best thing a parent can do is to be a good example for the child. "When parents hear that they should be a good role model they automatically think they have to be perfect," says Severe. "They don't."
Severe explains that parents should be responsible, but even that is not possible all the time. "We want to be perfect 90 percent of the time," he said. "That 10 percent we are not perfect, we should be responsible."
Severe suggests that if a parent makes a mistake, they should apologize for lying, cursing or whatever the mistake was, so that kids can learn that's bad. In the less serious case of fantasy lies, when a child asks real questions that deserve real answers like, "How do reindeer fly?" and "How does Santa get around the whole world in one night?" a parent should come clean. "Parents should explain to them that they said this so they'd be more excited about the holiday," says Severe. "Kids usually move on."