Parenting is hard work, and lying can seem like a valid option when trying to keep your kids in line. An international team of researchers, however, now reports that this may cause problems for them later in life.
The team notes that children who were lied to by their parents are likely to lie more as adults and face adjustment difficulties (disruptiveness, conduct problems, the experience of guilt and shame, as well as selfish and manipulative character).
You’ll go blind from that
“Parenting by lying can seem to save time especially when the real reasons behind why parents want children to do something is complicated to explain,” says Setoh Peipei, Assistant Professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore’s School of Social Sciences and lead author of the paper.
Children look to their parents when forming their own characters and values. What we tell our children definitely matters, but so does how we act. If parents tell kids that they should always be honest, then go ahead and lie later (dishonesty), it can send conflicting messages to their children. Peipei notes that such behavior “may erode trust and promote dishonesty in children.”
The NTU team collaborated with Canada’s University of Toronto, the United States’ University of California, San Diego, and China’s Zhejiang Normal University. The study included 379 Singaporean young adults, asking whether their parents had lied to them as children, how often and how much they themselves lie now, and whether they faced any difficulties adjusting to adulthood challenges. Adults whose parents lied to them more as children grew up to lie back. They also reported more difficulties in meeting psychological and social challenges.
“Our research suggests that parenting by lying is a practice that has negative consequences for children when they grow up,” adds Peipei. “Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children’s feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together, to elicit good behaviour from children.”
Participants were quizzed using four questionnaires. The first questionnaire asked them to recall if their parents told them lies that related to eating; leaving and/or staying; children’s misbehaviour; and spending money. (e.g. ‘if you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself.). The second asked participants to indicate how frequently as adults they lied to their parents, lies in relation to their activities and actions, prosocial lies (or lies intended to benefit others), and exaggerations about events. Lastly, participants filled in two questionnaires that measured their self-reported psychosocial maladjustment and tendency to behave selfishly and impulsively.
While self-reported data is subjective and thus not as reliable as objective data, the analysis found that parenting by lying placed children at a greater risk of developing problems such as aggression, rule-breaking, and intrusive behaviours later on in life. The team further notes that the study is designed to spot a correlation and should not be used to infer a causal relationship between the two elements.
“It is possible that a lie to assert the parents’ power, such as saying ‘If you don’t behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish’, may be more related to children’s adjustment difficulties as adults, compared to lies that target children’s compliance, e.g. ‘there is no more candy in the house’.
“Future research can explore using multiple informants, such as parents, to report on the same variables,” suggested Asst Prof Setoh.
The paper “Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.