Should Children Always Be Told the Truth?

Should Children Always Be Told the Truth?

August 2, 2007

It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Of course you want to teach your child to tell the truth. You may have punished your child already for lying to you. But do you always tell the truth to your child? And is it always the best course of action?

We know that the lies we tell ourselves can harm our health or destroy our happiness. If your partner is cheating on you, some part of you will know the truth, no matter how much you deny it. Instead of confronting him or her (they might actually tell you what you don’t want to hear), you eat too much, drink too much, pop a few too many pills. Maybe you even take out your anger on your children. And chances are, the whole time you’re lying to them as well as to yourself – for their own good, of course. Well, Daddy had to stay late at work again. Mommy’s too busy. He’s…[fill in the blank].

Meanwhile, the kids feel the tension, feel the disconnect between their parents, maybe even hear you mouthing off about that @#%&* to your friends. And because you’re lying to them, your kids have to discount the truth they feel in their bodies. But how do you tell them the truth when you can’t even admit it to yourself? When the inevitable breakdown happens, what do you say now? Are they old enough to understand the complex dynamics and emotional roller coaster of an adult relationship?

There have been a number of studies related to when, and if, a child should be told the truth about certain situations. For example, a British study into the lives of 25,000 “donor-assisted” children showed that children as young as three should be told they were conceived with the help of a sperm donor, or they risked psychological damage later in life. If the child finds out accidentally or from someone else, there are angry questions: Why didn’t you tell me? What else haven’t you told me? Why did you lie to me?

What about telling children they are gifted? Will their egos get inflated, making them arrogant and intolerant of others? For these children, like those with disabilities, it can come as a great relief to hear the truth – to know there is a reason they feel different. What about parents and doctors telling children they have cancer? Or that they’re too fat? Can you tell a child the truth in an open, shame-free, supportive, and honest way?

Many parents think they can protect their children by lying. However, even children as young as 3 or 4 can be told the truth, or as much of it as they can handle. When a 5-year-old asks where babies come from, it’s enough to say from Mommy’s tummy rather than give a lecture on sex education, and sure better than bringing up that old tired stork.

Many believe that there are age-acceptable lies – lies that cause no harm to a young child. After all, how many children have been badly hurt by finding out who Santa really is? But take into consideration: Will the child be hurt more by the truth than by a lie? Not only now, but in the future? These are difficult questions, and I don’t pretend to have an answer. But I know how I was hurt by the lies I was surrounded by in my childhood, and have seen the repercussions of lies in the lives of my clients. My recommendation is always to go with even a simplified version of the truth. Because the simple truth I know is that lies hurt… and truth heals.