Extreme close-up of a woman biting her lip

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To Tell the Truth… or Not

When is a little white lie okay – and when does it do more damage than good? Is fibbing fine when your child’s pet goldfish floats to the top of the tank? Or will a story about Goldie “retiring” to a lake at the park affect the trust your child has in you when they later find out the truth? These do’s and don’ts from the experts can set you straight.

DON’T take the easy way out. Telling your child a tiny fib can seem innocent enough when thinking about the short-term effect, especially if the immediate benefit, convenience for instance, far outweighs it. Telling your child that you “lost” the TV remote so bedtime is happening now may buy you more “me time,” but imagine what happens if he wakes up later and hears you watching your favorite show. Be warned: Those little falsehoods can quickly pile up and come back to haunt you.

DO be protective. Certainly, there are events you want to shield your children from, whether they’re too young to understand them or the incidents are too traumatic. Tragedies like 9/11, the shootings at Columbine and Hurricane Irma need to be talked about truthfully, yet with extreme caution and care. “The more kids are seeing things happening, the more they’re asking those hard questions,” says Susan Bartell, Ph.D., author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. “You want to try to be as honest as possible.”

Your role as parent is to dole out the truth with age-appropriate information. “‘Kid-friendly’ means that what your child takes in should be appropriate to their physical age,” advises Allison Edwards, author of Why Smart Kids Worry: And What Parents Can Do to Help. Keep in mind that children are striving to make sense of what they’re seeing and hearing and, above all, looking for comfort and reassurance.

DON’T raise a doubting Thomas. “If children catch you in a lie, it may cast a shadow of doubt over their trust in the relationship,” says Marilyn Rifkin, LCSW, a licensed child and adolescent psychotherapist. “Their understanding of what’s real and what isn’t can become clouded and confusing to them. After all, children are supposed to believe their parents, whose responsibility it is to tell them the truth and teach them right from wrong.”

Many experts would agree that if you have to tell a fib, it’s important to weigh how that teeny untruth will impact your child’s development. “If your little one’s pet goldfish is lying belly-up in the fishbowl, that’s a powerful opportunity to help them learn about death,” notes Bartell. “And that lesson, shared in an age-appropriate way, will ultimately help your child become more resilient and better prepared to cope with reality.”

DO speak your truth. Honesty is the best policy for building trust, but there are those occasions when sharing isn’t always caring. In those instances, Rifkin says, speak truthfully with these forthright responses:

“I have to think about how I want to answer that.”

“I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

“Sorry, that’s not a question I can answer for you now.”

“Honestly, that’s something only for grownups to know.”