Sept. 30, 2009 -- 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.
Researchers Study 'Parenting by Lying'
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.
Kids Who Uncover 'Innocent' Lies Might Turn Cynical
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.
Kids Go Through 'Mental Gymnastics' to Sort Through Mixed Signals
As author A. J. Jacobs told ABC News' David Wright recently, when he decided to spend a year observing the ninth commandment - which he interpreted as Do Not Lie - it was the "worst experience of my life."
Try telling your mate that fat is beautiful.
So you lost the game, 57 to zero, but you played well. Right.
We lie, according to many studies, because we think we have to. Our social graces demand it. Even if we are children.
Adults can excuse a little lying because we're sensitive and don't want to hurt someone's feelings. But kids have it tougher. They have to go through "mental gymnastics" just trying to sort through a batch of mixed signals, Heyman said.
"The big question that motivates me is kids have to figure out the social world," she said. "Unlike a lot of other things, like math, where they get a lot of direct instructions, in the social world they get little direct instruction and the instruction they do get is often completely going to get them in trouble, or it is misleading. They are told never to talk to a stranger, but then they are expected to talk to a stranger in a variety of circumstances or the parents get mad at them if they don't. It's just really confusing."
Kids Learn Early of the Value of a Little While Lie
Or they are told never to lie, and then they get in a whole mess of trouble when they admit that the pool of water near the dog dish really didn't come from the dog. And in most cases, they've probably heard a parent lie just to spare the feelings of a friend. So it's likely that kids learn early of the value of a little white lie.
"Children start lying when they are about two," Heyman said. "Do they understand it's a lie? It gets messy" because growing up is filled with contradictions.
Heyman was around 5 when she caught her parents in what to her was a really big lie. Her kindergarten classmates got into a discussion of the tooth fairy, and as it turns out there were a few cynics in the crowd.
"My parents would tell us all these stories about the tooth fairy and all the things she did and I loved it," she said. "I was very excited about it, and then some of the kids in my kindergarten class were saying there is no tooth fairy. I had to defend the tooth fairy, and the more I talked, the more I realized that it didn't make sense."
So that evening she confronted the Big Guy, old dad.
"I was really sad, and I told him there is no tooth fairy, is there," she added. "Then he told me the truth, and I remember thinking I could never believe what he said again."
A five-year-old cynic? Kids learn early. Maybe there really is no such thing as a little white lie.
But say you will never tell one and you'll be lying.