You might have Elf on the Shelf watching over your family right now. Or Mensch on a Bench.
Perhaps Santa is coming by soon. Or the Tooth Fairy. In a few months, maybe the Easter Bunny will drop in.
For most parents, small fibs like these are a no-brainer. They’re fun, carrying on a magical family tradition.
But is that the only kind of untruth we tell our kids? What if they ask us whether fairies are real, how babies are made — or about death or scary news events or whether we ever smoked cigarettes? Used drugs?
It can be tricky to balance preserving the wonders of childhood with keeping our credibility. Young children should have a healthy dose of fantasy, but they also need to trust us and look to us to help them understand their world. As kids get older, their questions get heavier and can be harder to answer.
We talked to some parenting experts about when it’s okay to tell our kids a white lie, what to do when we get caught, and when we should fess up and tell them an uncomfortable truth (and how to do that). Here are their suggestions.
Let’s start with fibs handed down from our parents.
If you grew up believing a jolly red-suited man slid down your chimney and brought you awesome presents, you probably want your kids to be in on the fun. Christmas is a magical time for most kids, and the idea of Santa can even help some young children stay on their best behavior.
“The Easter Bunny and Santa are just about maintaining tradition in a culture that celebrates them,” said Vicki Hoefle, an author and parent educator. “It’s upholding traditions that are important to you.”
She points out that all cultures have their own version of folklore.
But adults need to have a plan to transition away from the fantasy, because chances are that when the kids bring up the topic, it will take parents by surprise.
Between ages 5 and 7, children will generally start asking whether Santa and other imaginary traditions are real. When they ask, they are often ready to know the truth, Hoefle said.
Parents can put the question back in the children’s lap by asking what they think. If they say they still believe, they may not be ready to know, or they may want to continue the charade because they still want the toys or money that go along with the fantasy.
The day they come to you and say they think you’re the Tooth Fairy (or Santa) is often the time to confess, Hoefle said. Parents can share how much fun it was to believe in such things when they were kids, or talk about the history of the folklore.
“You can say, ‘You know, it’s still fun for me to put your Easter basket together, so can we still do it for a while?’” she said. “Bring it back into the tradition of the holiday.”
So how is that different from other lies?
Parenting experts say folklore fibs are part of a social pact we have made to preserve joys of childhood. Although adults often take delight in the ruse, it’s designed to benefit kids.
The scale tips in the other direction when parents lie for their own purposes. In weak moments, parents sometimes lie to kids because they think it’s easier than listening to them whine or cry or throw a tantrum.
Here’s a scenario: Your daughter wants to go ice skating, but you don’t feel like going or can’t make it work with everyone’s schedule. In a moment of weakness, you say the ice rink is closed. The next day your daughter hears from a friend who went skating. She catches you in a lie.
“That deception is not for the child’s betterment, it’s a parent coming up with a lazy answer. It’s a parent saying, ‘I don’t feel like getting pushback from my kid,’” said Alyson Schafer, a parent educator and author who lives in Canada.
Those little lies can cause big harm, she said.
“Kids globalize and say, ‘My parent is a liar. Are they also lying about loving me?’ The security system of the child is undermined. Kids need a lot of stability,” Schafer said. “We’re modeling that lying is acceptable.”
That’s when parents are supposed to come clean. Schafer said we need to tell our kids that we’re human and we made a mistake, we took the less courageous path and we will do better next time. But to make it work, we have to actually do better next time.
“Making a mistake gracefully is a really important parenting skill,” she said.
When it comes to the birds and the bees, experts say answer your kids’ questions directly and honestly as soon as they ask. It might be hard for you, but if you start when they’re very young, it won’t be uncomfortable for them unless you make it that way.
Hoefle said it’s important to use correct terms for body parts and explain how the body works, both to educate and to protect children. Children who understand their bodies are more confident, which is a defense against predators, she said. Predators carefully select and groom their victims, and they don’t tend to choose kids who are assertive and self-assured.
“Kids who talk about these things at home are safer than their peers who learn from friends and the Internet,” Hoefle said. “They are less likely to be approached by a predator, more likely to say no quickly, not as easily influenced by people on the Internet. Knowledge is power.”
The same goes for other hard topics, such as the death of a pet. Experts say you’re not doing your kids any favors by saying kitty is sleeping or went to the vet when she actually died. Kids can handle the death of a pet if you explain the cycle of life in a compassionate and accurate way. Families can honor kitty by having a funeral or ceremony acknowledging the pet’s life and place in the family.
This will help them begin to understand death, something everyone must deal with at some point.
Hoefle said one difficult topic parents should steer young children away from is scary news, including terror attacks and mass shootings such as the recent events in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
“It’s hard for adults to wrap their minds around what’s happening. Kids have no concept,” Hoefle said. “It’s such a mixed message for the kids’ brain: This happened, but don’t worry about it. The rule of thumb for people in the field of violence is that children should be shielded from this as long as possible.”
On other topics, such as crime, if it’s something close to home, like a car break-in on your street, it’s generally okay to explain to them what happened if they’re curious. But check in with them as you’re telling the story.
“The key is to find out what part is most alarming for the child, and help them settle with the facts they’ve absorbed,” Hoefle said. “You’re exploring how the child is processing the information before adding anything else to the story line.”
Don’t forget to talk about safety measures and the community helpers — police officers, firefighters, etc. — who came to aid the victims, Hoefle said.
As kids get older and want to know private things about your past, it can get increasingly awkward.
It’s important to figure out why they’re asking. If they’re teenagers, did they see something at a party? Are they thinking about trying marijuana?
Think of it as a positive, an opening to talk to your teens about drinking, drugs or other topics that can be hard to bring up, said Laelia Gilborn, a Washington-based therapist who works with children and teens.
“It’s good for kids to ask questions about things that can put them in harm’s way,” Gilborn said. “I tend to err on the side of honesty. You could say, ‘I did this one time, and I regretted it and I felt terrible after.’ Use it as an opportunity to create an open atmosphere for kids to ask questions, because as they get older, that’s what you want.”
Your honesty paves the way for theirs, she said. It doesn’t mean you have to tell them every little detail of your life; some things can be glossed over, and everyone needs a measure of privacy.
But if your teens are asking, seize the opportunity.
“If you shut them down, you can’t expect them to be honest with you. You don’t want to seem like a perfect, flawless person,” Gilborn said. “If they are in trouble, you want them to come to you.”
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Klein is a freelance writer based in Washington.