Distinguishing between “white” lies and malicious ones


Is it ever okay to lie? Of course lying to cover up something or make yourself look better is never good, but what about white lies that benefit others? Have you ever told a friend she looked fantastic in her new outfit when you really didn’t believe it? Or swooned over a gift that was totally wrong for you? You are not alone. White lies have been widely studied and are dubbed “pro-social”—lies told to benefit or help others. Most of us tell them. As kids grow up, they come to understand the subtleties of when to tell a white lie, and when to not.  

Lying in general is right up there on the bad behavior list—along with stealing and swearing—and rightly so. Honesty is the basis of all healthy relationships. People who lie are not trusted and therefore cannot sustain intimate relationships with others. It’s vital that kids learn to be truthful. Yet sometimes, it’s not as simple as a truth or lie. We’ve all had those moments when our preschoolers were brutally honest. I remember when my 3-year-old asked his aunt, “Why are you so fat?” Ouch. That’s when we can’t wait for our kids to learn self-control and the ability to discern when to blurt out their truth, hold it inside, or when to even massage it a little. The trick is helping younger kids distinguish between a white lie and a malicious or self-serving one.

How do we teach kids the gray area of when to be honest and when to tell a white lie? Mostly, growing up does that for us. According to studies, children as young as first grade understand the distinctions between types of lies—and soon after, most kids have told their first white lie.  

Why kids lie
Kids generally lie for three reasons: to avoid punishment, to ward off embarrassment and to protect someone. I can think of another one—to look good in the eyes of their peers. Occasionally kids lie to hurt someone, but that’s fairly rare. 

Addressing hurtful and self-serving lies
Sometimes, kids try out lying and go through a stage of telling a series of self-serving lies. Parents need to address this quickly so it doesn’t become a habit. For example, let’s imagine that your missing change is found in your son’s drawer but he emphatically denies taking it. What to do? Ask him to pause and answer again. Say, “Stop for a minute. Now, tell me how it really happened, just the parts you are sure of.” If your child still lies and you are sure it’s a lie, confront with the truth and hand out a consequence—one that relates to the lie, if possible. While some parents hesitate to do this in fear of hurting their child, it is a natural consequence to lying. When we are dishonest, results are unpleasant and people lose trust in us for a while. If kids continually get negative results from lying they will eventually stop.

One reason kids might fall into a pattern of repetitive lying is because they feel it is the easiest way to deal with the demands of parents, teachers and friends, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. If you have a “good” kid who always does the right thing and is a high-achiever, this might be the case. Lying might also release the stress of always being good, or serve the desire to please others. If so, it’s time to take an honest look at your expectations of your child or at your child’s own sense of perfectionism. If the lying pattern doesn’t cease, it could be time for professional help. 

Lastly, discuss the importance of honesty and trust with your kids from a young age; Read books about lies and honesty. Tell personal stories of your childhood lies or others who lied and got bad results. If a child witnesses you telling a white lie, discuss it. Explain that you felt it was better than the alternative—hurting someone’s feelings—and talk about the difference between white lies and lying to serve yourself or hurt others.