(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)
Columnist

Hi, Carolyn: A neighbor invited my daughter for a play date, and Daughter didn’t want to play with that friend. I told the mom I thought Daughter needed some down time, which isn’t untrue, but also isn’t the actual reason. Both of my kids, 8 and 10, questioned the approach afterward and Daughter commented, “Well, honesty IS the best policy, but sometimes it’s not.”

Wow, THAT wasn’t the message I wanted to convey! Was I wrong to approach it the way I did? I couldn’t imagine saying my daughter just didn’t want to play with her kid. How to help kids understand “white lies” in a way that retains the value of being honest?

White Lies

White Lies: Honesty without cruelty is a balance even adults struggle to achieve — as your story so aptly demonstrates. So present it to your kids that way, instead of trying to come up with the definitive, parent-knows-best kind of message.

Taking your example from where you left off, you could say: “That wasn’t the message I wanted to convey! It’s important to be honest without being excessively so, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly where that line is.”

And then: “I was caught off-guard just now and told a ‘white lie’ — that’s when you lie about something trivial to protect a person’s feelings.”

And then: “What do you guys think, could I have given a better answer? If a friend didn’t want to come to our house, what would you want that friend to say?”

This isn’t merely an elegant punt. It’s a way for you to engage your kids in moral reasoning, to invest them in the way they choose to interact with others, to help them cultivate empathy, to learn from them yourself.

They might surprise you and say they’d rather friends just said they didn’t want to come over today. (And really — is that so bad?) They might question your reflex to give a reason, since “No, thanks” is a perfectly valid response.

Which brings us to the bigger problem that “white lies” present than their dishonesty: They grow out of a boundary problem. Our time and choices and bodies are our own — so unless we’re bailing out on an invitation we’ve already accepted, we don’t need reasons to say no, and no one acquires entitlement to know our reasons just by inviting us somewhere.

So get your kids thinking, talking and phrasing their way toward a position of strength, where they resist padding “no” with justifications, real or manufactured, and do so with the kindest intent.

Dear Carolyn: My niece called off her wedding a few months ago and returned the gifts. We got a pricey gift returned to us that we didn’t give. I have the same first name as the groom’s aunt and I think the bride may have just made a mistake. Would it be weird to send a private Facebook message to the aunt?

Returning Gifts

Returning Gifts: Obviously the person to notify of an error is your niece, but there’s no harm in trying this one back-channel first, to spare an ex-bride the extra hassle.

Just make sure you follow up if you don’t hear back; not everyone reads their private messages.

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/haxpost.