The first time I seriously thought about the lies between my toddler and me was around the time he turned 2. On that fateful day, I asked him if he'd had a poo, and he answered so promptly and with such an unusual certainty that I knew something was up. I smelled a lie. Half a year later, it's still his go-to fib. He never wants his play interrupted and so, according to his fake news, he never does a No. 2.
Not that he's the only one lying. While he's consistent with his, the untruths going the other way have run the gamut. The streetcars are broken so we can't ride them. That cookie was the last one. And, yes, Daddy and Mommy are going to sleep now, too.
For a long time, I laughed off the mutual deception, but lately I've been wondering – and worrying – about our underlying motivations. Why the dishonesty, and was this going to continue forever? Research out of Dr. Kang Lee's lab at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has shown that 30 per cent of two year olds will lie about a transgression. That goes up to half by the age of three, and then 80 per cent or more after the age of four. While I don't have statistics to prove it, I'm fairly certain that by adulthood everyone lies – including to their kids. I've discovered, however, that my parental lies are more problematic than the ones my son tells me.
Toddlers' lies are inspired by wishful thinking, says Ann Douglas, author of 14 parenting books, including last year's Parenting Through the Storm. "If a parent asks, 'Did you break this?' and you wish you hadn't, you'll be tempted to say no," she explained. Although a deceitful child can cause concern, these early lies should actually be celebrated.
"He has made a psychological breakthrough," Douglas said of my son who never poos. "It means he now understands that other people have other ideas in their heads, so it's possible for him to not tell the truth." Dubbed "theory of mind" in the field of psychology, this cognitive milestone also means a child is on his way to building the ability to empathize. Lying becomes a red flag, says Douglas, if an older child who has learned the difference between truth and tall tales still lies about almost everything.
In her experience, Douglas says parental lies are motivated mostly by exhaustion, and "bridging the gap between what they want and what you can deliver." When I asked around for these fictions, I discovered they are vast and, in some cases, incredibly creative. One of the more common stories is that the ice-cream truck plays music when it's out of ice cream. One mom said she told her baseball-devoted toddler that Jose Bautista loves broccoli. And there was this amazing one: "I told my daughter McDonald's is closed because 'Old McDonald' is old and tired of making French fries."
While Douglas says parental lies are understandable, honesty is better in the long run. "Do you say, 'No, we can't go to the park because someone took all the slides away?'"asks Douglas. "Or, 'We can't go because Mom and Dad are exhausted, but we can do something else.'" The latter, she said, may result in disappointment, but the attendant tantrum is actually a hidden opportunity.
"Every time you help another person work through a difficult situation, it cements the bond between you. They can count on you to have their back." If you go for the lie instead, it teaches the kid that this is a valid strategy for emotional regulation and getting through tough times.
After learning about this downside of dishonesty, I have tried to move toward a zero-lie policy. When I recently told my son that we'd be saving the rest of the cookies in the jar for later, I admit I was surprised that the world didn't end. There was a series of whines, and an angry hand slammed onto the table, but the next day he was already trying out this new idea of waiting for something: "I'm saving that for later," he told me about an apple slice one second before eating it.
The odd fib still slips through, though, and to be honest, seems harmless. Like, is it really so bad to tell my son, who has recently become obsessed with the Beatles, that John Lennon loves to eat the fish his Daddy makes him? I mean, the once-macrobiotic musician likely did when he was (cough) alive.
In any case, it doesn't matter, because my toddler decided two could play at that game. "No," he replied. "John Lennon does not like to eat fish."