Untruths told to children can elicit their compliance in the short term, but are associated with detrimental effects when the child becomes an adult, research led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) suggests.
The research team asked 379 Singaporean young adults whether their parents lied to them when they were children, how much they lie to their parents now, and how well they adjust to adulthood challenges. Adults who reported being lied to more as children, were more likely to report lying to their parents in their adulthood.
They also said they faced greater difficulty in meeting psychological and social challenges. Adjustment difficulties include disruptiveness, conduct problems, experience of guilt and shame, as well as selfish and manipulative character.
Many parents find themselves telling lies to their children, not necessarily malicious lies, just falsehoods or “little white lies” to spur them to do something where the real reason is too much trouble to explain.
“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. When parents tell children that ‘honesty is the best policy’, but display dishonesty by lying, such behaviour can send conflicting messages to their children. Parents’ dishonesty may eventually erode trust and promote dishonesty in children,”
said lead author Assistant Professor Setoh Peipei from NTU Singapore’s School of Social Sciences.
To complicate things further, there are a few limitations with this study.
Most important, there is no causal association implied by this study. In other words, all we can be certain of from the results is that young adults who recall to a higher vs. lower degree that their parents lied to them as a parenting tool also report higher degrees of things like lying to their parents as adults and aggressive behavior.
Also, one potential alternative interpretation (which would require related evidence to be substantiated) is that people who are prone to lie to their parents and behave aggressively may also tend to look for external explanations (blame) for their behavior, and “my parents lied to me” sounds to them like a valid excuse.
It is interesting to note, additionally, that in some cultures, for example, that of the Inuit First Nations as documented by Canadian anthropologist Jean Briggs, “lies” in the form of storytelling, are an effective parenting tool with positive outcomes, including less aggressive behavior.
379 Singaporean young adults completed four online questionnaires.
The first questionnaire asked participants to recall if their parents told them lies that related to eating; leaving and/or staying; children’s misbehaviour; and spending money. Some examples of such lies are “If you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself” and “I did not bring money with me today, we can come back another day.”
The second questionnaire asked participants to indicate how frequently as adults they lied to their parents. It asked about lies in relation to their activities and actions; prosocial lies (or lies intended to benefit others); and exaggerations about events.
Lastly, participants filled in two questionnaires that measured their self-reported psychosocial maladjustment and tendency to behave selfishly and impulsively.
The analysis found that parenting by lying could place children at a greater risk of developing problems that the society frowns upon, such as aggression, rule-breaking and intrusive behaviours.
Another area yet to be investigated would be the nature of the lies or goals of the parent.
“It is possible that a lie to assert the parents’ power, such as saying ‘If you don’t behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish’, may be more related to children’s adjustment difficulties as adults, compared to lies that target children’s compliance, e.g. ‘there is no more candy in the house’,”
said Asst Prof Setoh.
“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. Future research should examine the nature of the lies and goals of the parents so that researchers can suggest what kind of lies to avoid, and what kind of truth-telling parents should engage in,”
 Peipei Setoh, Siqi Zhao, Rachel Santos, Gail D. Heyman, Kang Lee. Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 2019; 104680 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2019.104680
 Jean L. Briggs. Never in Anger; Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Harvard University Press, 01/01/1971, ISBN 9780674608283