Mind & Body

Kids Told Lies by Their Parents Are More Likely to Lie as Adults

Kids can be difficult. They don't want to eat their vegetables or go to bed, and your logical explanation of "but it's good for you" doesn't seem to get them to do what you want.

To make things a little easier, parents sometimes turn to "little white lies." It's time to leave the park but Junior wants to keep on playing, so maybe you say, "I'm going to leave you here by yourself if you don't come with me." That'll usually get your little one running along behind you.

Well, new research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests parents may want to take a different tack. Scientists found that these little white lies can have a big impact on kids later in life, leading them to lie more often and have a harder time adjusting as adults.

Tangled in a Web of Lies

The research team, led by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, asked 377 young adults to complete two surveys asking how often their parents lied to them as kids and how often they now lie to their parents and two more questionnaires assessing how well they adjusted to challenges in adulthood (including the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale).

The questionnaire about parental lies asked participants to indicate whether their parents had ever told them each of 16 lies, which centered on eating ("If you swallow a watermelon seed, it will grow into a watermelon in your stomach," for example), spending money ("I didn't bring money with me today; we can buy the toy another day"), the child's misbehavior ("If you don't behave, I'll call the police"), and staying in or leaving a place ("If you don't come with me right now, I'm going to leave you here by yourself").

The lies the participants told their parents that the researchers asked about were related to their actions (concealing bad grades, for instance), exaggerations of events, and little white lies meant to benefit others.

Those who reported being lied to more often as children were more likely to report lying to their parents as adults. These people also reported having a harder time dealing with psychological and social difficulties. Students who reported lying to their parents more frequently were more likely to both internalize their problems (through anxiety and social isolation) and externalize them (by being disruptive and causing trouble).

"Parenting by lying can seem to save time especially when the real reasons behind why parents want children to do something is complicated to explain," Setoh Peipei, the study's lead author, said in a press release. "When parents tell children that 'honesty is the best policy,' but display dishonesty by lying, such behavior can send conflicting messages to their children. Parents' dishonesty may eventually erode trust and promote dishonesty in children."

Trust is an essential element in building relationships, be they familial, professional, friendly, or romantic. The relationship and trust built between a parent and a child is often the first relationship developed in a person's lifetime, so it carries extra weight. The researchers suggest that children whose parents erode their trust by lying to them throughout childhood have difficulty forming close, unguarded relationships with others, which could leave them feeling socially isolated and depressed.

The scientists also found that those whose parents lied to them often were more likely to develop problematic behaviors like aggression and rule-breaking, which could also affect their ability to form positive, lasting relationships. Taken to the extreme, the researchers even suggest that pathological lying that begins in childhood may be a marker for psychopathy later in life. Aggression and lying are well-known traits of serial killers, for example.

Parental Power Trip

As with any study, particularly those involving questionnaires, there were several limitations.

The surveys relied on the young adults' recollection of being lied to. Future studies can survey the parents as well to see if the level of lying matches with what their kids reported.

The surveys also did not distinguish between different types of lies as they relate to the parents' motivations. Telling a child you're going to throw them into the ocean to feed the fish if they don't behave is likely an empty threat meant to assert the parent's authority, which the researchers say is more harmful than telling them that you ran out of money to buy candy so they quit bugging you about it.

"Authority assertion over children is a form of psychological intrusiveness, which may undermine children's sense of autonomy and convey rejection, ultimately undermining children's emotional well-being," Peipei said.

Instead, Peipei suggests acknowledging children's feelings, giving them information so they know what to expect, and problem-solving together, especially by offering them choices in how to deal with a situation.

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For smart parenting tips, check out the New York Times Bestseller, "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success" by Julie Lythcott-Haims. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker October 23, 2019

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