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My Kids Lied and Still Turned Out OK

Photograph by Twenty20

What is the most important trait you hope to instill in your children? Honesty was in my top five list back when my kids were little (and still teachable). But here's the thing about parenting—discretions that you might deem as unacceptable might not really be as important as you think. Because in spite of all my worries, both of my kids lied.

Wait, what? I feel your scorn and disapproval of my parenting skills. I always expected my kids to tell the truth, no matter what. My son was a very logical, black-and-white thinker, so honesty seemed like the only way to live as far as he was concerned—at least until opportunity came along. And when you want something badly enough, there is a fine line between happiness and a little white lie.

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Backed into a corner

Older me thinks younger me was a bit insane.

I was recently looking through a pile of old cards and letters when I came across something I had long forgotten. A carefully handwritten, two-page apology letter addressed to Mom and Dad. The crime? My son had sneaked a book into the bathroom. Apparently one of my "rules" was that books were not allowed in the bathroom. Um, what?

Older me thinks younger me was a bit insane (because reading). As I read his heartfelt letter of apology I remembered the incident. I suspected that he had a book in there and flat out asked him through the door. Talk about a setup! Poor kid had to make a split-second decision. He chose to tell me he didn't have a book, and when he came out of the bathroom he tried to conceal it under his shirt. Caught red-handed, he was assigned an appropriate punishment: Write a letter explaining why what he did was wrong.

But was it really that big of a deal that he lied about a book? He was an avid reader, which is certainly not a bad trait. Maybe my rule about no books in the bathroom was too harsh in the first place. And setting him up to lie certainly didn't help matters. Looking back at this incident—and the sweet letter—makes me cringe. What was I worried about? His lies didn't get bigger and he didn't choose a life of crime. He is probably one of the most honest people I know, even now.

The "don't ever do this" rules

Pretty sure I was over-parenting.

Another parenting habit that can lead your kids to lie is telling them that there is something they must NEVER DO. And when you are thick in the middle of parenting little people—from toddlers to teens—it's easy to issue these rules as a way to feel like you are nailing the parenting gig. When my daughter was in first grade she hurt herself while playing in her friend's backyard. When I arrived to pick her up she immediately started sobbing, which was unusual for her. Turned out she had a broken arm. We waited in the emergency room for what seemed like an eternity and she also had to miss her class trip to the pumpkin patch in favor of a cast fitting.

So where's the lie? Just a few years ago, probably nine years after the incident, my daughter admitted that she lied to me about how she broke her arm. Apparently I had issued a "rule" and told her never to jump off a swing because she could break her arm. Yep, I said it. So when she decided to jump and she really did break her arm, she chose to tell me that she had tripped and fallen in the tan bark. And of course I bought it—why would she lie, right?

The story is funny now, but I honestly have no recollection of this particular rule or warning of mine. Pretty sure I was over-parenting there. She too has steered clear of a life of crime, thank you very much.

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Is it really fair to expect kids to always be truthful? Aunt Mary doesn't really want to hear that you hate her rice pudding, and Grandma won't cherish hearing the words "you're fat" from her grandson. Teach your kids the difference between lying and being polite, then step back and let them figure it out. And if you catch your kid with a book in the bathroom, count your blessings—you're raising a reader.

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