Deep down inside we're all a bunch of liars, even to our children.
At least that's the conclusion of a new study on how and why parents lie to their kids. We're not just talking Santa Claus here. Parents lie about all kinds of things, usually to make life easier for their children, or to get the kids to toe the line.
In a new study out of the University of California, San Diego, researchers found that parents who stress honesty to their kids are just as likely to lie to those same children as parents who were willing to tolerate the frequent "white lies" that children, as well as adults, used to ease their way through the social maelstroms of every-day life.
But does it hurt? Yes, according to psychology professor Gail Heyman of UCSD, lead author of the study published in current edition of the Journal of Moral Education.
"It can undermine trust," Heyman said in a telephone interview.
The researchers disregarded those ubiquitous lies people feed to their children about Santa, the tooth fairy, and some dumb rabbit that left Easter eggs scattered around the house. They wanted to deal with more serious lies, like eat your porridge or you'll get pimples.
A total of 254 persons, half of whom were college students and half of whom were parents, participated in studies of what the researchers call "parenting by lying."
Some 79 percent of the students reported being taught that "lying is unacceptable," and there is no such thing as a "white lie."
And 74 percent of the parents said they taught their kids that lying is unacceptable, but 78 percent of the parents admitted they had lied to their own children.
"There was no evidence that the parents who strongly promoted the importance of honesty were less likely to lie to their children than were other parents," the study concludes. The parents were not related to the students, so this isn't a direct parent-offspring result, but the researchers believe parents lie routinely to their children, regardless of what they believe about lying.
And Heyman said during the interview that she really thinks all parents lie from time to time, including herself, and that is supported by other research into the pervasive world of lies, big and small.
So is it worth looking specifically at parents? Heyman said "yes," because kids have a lot to deal with in those early years, and a child who uncovers an "innocent" lie might tend to turn cynical.
"Some kids probably figure out that their parents are lying at a very young age, maybe 3-year-olds," Heyman said. She added that she tries never to lie to her three kids, because the issue dominates much of her research so she's a bit obsessive, but it isn't always possible. Sometimes, even a hardliner on truthfulness has to bend the rules to spare the feelings of the kid.
Her fellow researcher, Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, admits to also having had a problem always telling the truth. He told a Toronto reporter that he once told his young son to sit quietly in his car seat because the button on his seat belt was actually an "eject" button.
So why do we say such things? Because it makes life a lot easier.