Child Development: Lying by Omission

BK: I have a surprise for you!
Aristotle: *eyes widening*
BK: Here it is…
Aristote: I don’t like it.

That’s the brutal honesty of a child. Which is totally fine, until they say it to someone else and you feel like hiding and pretending that this rude little ingrate isn’t your child.

In an effort to teach Aristotle a little bit about etiquette, I talked to him about his brutally honest replies regarding gifts and surprises he had received recently. As we were talking about it, it occured to me how fine a line it is between being polite and dishonesty in the form of “white lies”.  I’m sure we all do it all the time without giving it a second thought. We tell white lies because they’re “harmless” and why upset someone over something that isn’t important?

As I fumbled with my wording, I realised that I was threading very close to telling Aristotle to tell white lies. They say that kids at this age experiment with lying all the time so I’m sure it’s nothing new to him even if I did tell him to lie about how he felt about a present he didn’t like.  Yet, to openly acknowledge that some lies are okay – I wasn’t so sure about that. So we ended up with the agreement that we should always say “thank you” for presents even if we don’t like it and that we shouldn’t volunteer the information that we didn’t like the present (a lie by omission is still a lie but let’s not nitpick).

I thought I’d escaped that one fairly well, until yesterday when the following exchange took place…

Aristotle: I told my teacher today that Santa Claus is not real.
Me: What did he say?
Aristotle: He said, “Shhh, not all the children know that.”

Another lie by omission and yet a necessary one if we didn’t want children in tears and irate parents looking for the scrooge who ruined their child’s Christmas.

How ironic it was that I had only watched Pamela Meyer’s speech on TED Talks a week before about “How to Spot a Liar” and was just questioning her statistics on how often people lied. Surely we don’t tell that many lies? I guess it’s because we’ve become so used to lies by omission and little white lies that we no longer consider them to be lies. We think of lies as those damaging ones that hurt people and destroy lives.

So we’ve accepted lies by omission and the little white lies as part of necessities of social etiquette but when it comes to our children who are new to the lying game, suddenly it all changes. If lying is acceptable and necessary, how do we make our children understand why some lies are okay but others not? And if we condone lying, are we telling them it’s okay to lie to us? Are you comfortable about the idea of your children lying to you? If it’s okay for us to lie to them, then why not for them to lie to us?

I wrote about this subject before – which is the lesser of two evils: lying or being rude? I thought it was important to realise that children cannot distinguish between little white lies and full blown lies. To them, a lie is a lie. So if we tell them a little white lie is okay, we’re essentially telling them that all lying is okay. Since full blown lies are not okay, we come back to the other extreme – no telling lies.  But if we tell our children not to lie, then we have to accept their brutal honesty – even if it means being embarassed by it when they tell the Aunt who has travelled all the way from Australia that the present she bought is meaningless to them.

The information on lying in Nurture Shock addresses full blown lies and lesser lies like little white lies, but they didn’t really talk about lies by omission. I wonder how a child would perceive a lie by omission? And if we tell our children not to say something even though it’s true, would they see it as being told to lie?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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