Reading William Saletan's New York Times review of Juliet Macur's new book, Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, I was once again reminded of the dangers of lying to, or for, one's child. Saletan writes how Macur portrays Armstrong as a pathological liar, growing up in a "a culture of cheating." He highlights Macur's description of Armstrong's parents often lying in order for their son to gain an advantage over others. For example, when he was 14, she writes, "his parents doctored his birth certificate to qualify him for a race." While there is never a single cause for what determines character -- it is influenced by a myriad of factors such as genetics, inborn disposition, environment -- we can imagine that the lies Armstrong's parents told likely had some influence on his future behavior. His own extraordinary rise and equally spectacular fall highlights the important relationship between a parent's honesty and a child's ability to know and speak the truth.
While Armstrong's story is clearly a more dramatic one, in my practice with children, adolescents and parents, I repeatedly come across smaller, subtler, examples of parents fabricating the truth. A busy father tells his 3-year-old son, who is terrified of haircuts, that he is taking him to the toy store, when in truth they are going to the barbershop. Or the mother who writes a note excusing her son from taking a test saying that he was sick the evening before when he really was out with friends at a movie.
Another parent reasonably allows her older daughter, Lilly, a later bedtime then her younger sister, Grace. But in order to "not upset Grace," she suggests that Lilly "pretend" to be asleep and then sneak out of the room when her sister has fallen asleep. Grace, sensing something is amiss, not only feels upset at not getting to stay up late, but also more importantly, is now distraught at being deceived by her mother and sister.
These are common, everyday parenting mistakes, where lying becomes a quick, but poor, fix to a variety of difficult situations. The motivation for lying varies in each situation, but may include, protecting the child from an upsetting situation, getting the child to do something they don't want to, hiding a parents own bad behavior or as in the case of Lance Armstrong, giving the child an unfair advantage over others. Yet, we need to recognize that these untruths, whether small or large, have more far-reaching consequences. In essence when we lie, even in small ways, we are teaching our children to lie and telling them that what they can accomplish on their own merit is not good enough.
A child, needing to reconcile the parent's spoken words -- how honesty is valued -- with the parent's behavior, will likely have to distort the world to accommodate the lie. When a beloved parent bends the truth, the child will likely alter what they know to be true about the world. They grow up feeling they can no longer trust their perceptions, denying what they know to be real. At some level, the child perceives the inconsistency, but it may be years before they come to understand that they have been lied to. Yet along the way, without ever being spoken aloud, they are learning that the way out of a painful situation is to fabricate a story.
Then there was the couple that consulted with me about marital problems and plans to separate. When I brought up the question of how they were going to tell their two children, they informed me that they were not planning on telling them for several months. Instead, they were going to tell them that dad was traveling on business. I asked these well-meaning parents to try and imagine some of the questions their children might have about where their dad is week after week. At first, they made light of the situation, saying the kids would hardly notice since he often traveled for work. I then had them put themselves in their children's shoes and consider the many confusing ways a child might perceive the situation, what their childlike fantasies might be. As our discussion deepened they began to recognize the unintended consequences of this lie for their children. For example, how one of their sons, who often struggled with his father, might feel his dad was staying away because of his behavior.
Naturally, all parents want to protect their children from painful situations, as did this couple. Yet what originally was seen as protective can now be seen as possibly hurtful. When we look more closely at the wish to shield our children, we may find that it often hides the fact that we are really protecting ourselves. We may be avoiding the painful reaction of seeing our children's distress, or not wanting to be the disciplinarian, the "bad guy," the one having to say no to something and listen to the whining and yelling. In essence, when we lie, we are telling our children that we cannot tolerate and face their vulnerability and anger. Down the road this may have the unintended consequence of the child deciding that they can't confide in his or her parents when they are troubled for fear they will upset them, or worry that the parent can't tolerate their suffering.
The other risk of "protecting" a child by lying is that they may actually be creating a greater fear in the child's mind. For example, the younger son of the couple separating may recall dad had been ill and seeing a doctor recently, if his mother won't discuss where dad is, than the child may keep quiet, left to imagine and fear that his dad is sick, maybe even dying.
Whatever the reason, when we lie, we are depriving our children of the opportunity to grow and the resilience that develops from overcoming adversity.
Of course, being truthful does not mean we answer every question. As parents, it is our job to protect our children from information or frightening events beyond their emotional and cognitive level, to not burden them with unmanageable adult worries. For example, after 9/11, a parent would rightly limit the amount of news the child received, especially the disturbing images seen on television. At the same time, we need to appreciate that the child is aware of this catastrophic event and requires some truthful answers, always keeping in mind the level of information being offered must match their developmental stage. Similarly, parents have a right to their own privacy. When a child asks for information that is deemed inappropriate, such as a parent's sexual history, a clear explanation of privacy is another teachable moment.
As parents we all want our children to trust us -- sadly, if we lie to them, we are telling them they cannot trust us, or themselves.