A new study suggests that children who were told lies by their parents are more likely to lie as adults, as well as face difficulty in meeting psychological and social challenges.
According to researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, those difficulties include disruptiveness, conduct problems, experiences of guilt and shame, as well as selfish and manipulative character.
For the study, researchers 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.
“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,” said lead author Setoh Peipei, Ph.D., an assistant professor in NTU Singapore’s School of Social Sciences.
“When parents tell children that ‘honesty is the best policy’, but display dishonesty by lying, such behavior can send conflicting messages to their children. Parents’ dishonesty may eventually erode trust and promote dishonesty in children.”
“Our research suggests that parenting by lying is a practice that has negative consequences for children when they grow up,” she continued. “Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children’s feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together, to elicit good behavior from children.”
For the study, the 379 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 misbehavior; 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, such as aggression, rule-breaking and intrusive behaviors, according to the researchers.
Some limitations of the study include relying on what young adults report about their retrospective experience of parents’ lying.
“Future research can explore using multiple informants, such as parents, to report on the same variables,” suggested Setoh.
Another area yet to be investigated would be the nature of the lies or goals of the parent, she added.
“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.’”
“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,” she explained.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.