It's that simple. You cannot lie to your kids. Ever. If your son thinks he's dressed to the nines but you know he looks awful, you shouldn't lie when he asks your opinion. If your daughter asks if you have ever cheated or stolen, you shouldn't lie to protect your squeaky-clean image. There are a million reasons we invent stories for our children—both blatant ones and ones in which we lie by omission—but none of these reasons ever seems to win out in the long run. In fact, they just undermine a teachable moment. So when I am the pediatrician and parents seek my advice, this is what I tell them:
Don't lie, because if you do, then you are a hypocrite when you ask your kids to be honest with you.
Don't lie, because your kids will always do as you do—not as you say. And you don't want to set an example that lying is OK.
And ultimately, don't lie, because you'll always have to remember what you said. Which you won't. So you'll get caught. And once you are caught, you have lost your kid's trust forever.
This is what I tell everyone, and what I believe deep in my core. But sometimes I am tempted to be the biggest liar of them all.
You see, it's easy to tell people what to do. But doing it yourself is a whole other beast. Life is never as black-and-white as we'd like it to be. This is my most recent foray into the gray zone.
My daughter is about to celebrate her ninth birthday. She's not a demanding kid in the least, not spoiled or selfish or entitled, but her birthday is the one special day of the year when she becomes the center of her universe. She just wants one day to be about her.
So the day is really all about the ritual we have established: a mani-pedi, a trip to the toy store and a special dinner. It's really about family time, and for most of those waking hours it is about time with me. And any minute now, she's going to ask me to reveal my plan for the day.
This year, I knew I would need to make a trip for work around my daughter's birthday. With a pair of books coming out in the spring and an amazing publishing team behind me, I pinch myself, knowing that the marketing machine is already in motion. I knew I was going to need to travel for a couple of days, and I was certain—in the same way that Murphy's law is certain—that I would be asked to travel on my daughter's birthday. Of course, I was right. And there wasn't a darned thing I could do about it.
I was called about the trip two weeks ago. The ticket was booked last week. I just received the hotel confirmation, and I know the schedule for the meetings that day. The only thing I haven't gotten yet is her bright-eyed question, "So mom, what are we going to do on my birthday?"
The big day is still three weeks off, and I have the kid who will lie in bed at night for hours thinking and worrying and processing everything in her world. If I tell her now, without being prompted, I know full well that she will eat up two or three hours of precious sleep time several nights in a row, staring at the ceiling and dwelling, occasionally a tear trickling down her cheek. So I haven't said anything—already beginning my lying by omission.
And when she finally asks if I will be gone on her birthday, what do I do then? Is it better to continue the charade and spare her three weeks of unnecessary sadness? No, I should be honest. Always be honest. I will tell her that her dad and brother are still here, but she won't care, because her ritual will be on a plane to New York. Between now and when I leave, she'll want to have lots of talks—in the car, after her lights go out at night, in the bathroom (not sure how this one evolved, but the bathroom is the site of the most heart-wrenching talks in our house)—and by the time her birthday rolls around, we will have analyzed the situation from every possible angle. Honesty seems somewhat cruel.
As parents, we become masters of rationalization. Maybe I don't tell her. Maybe I tell a little white lie but save her the angst and sleepless nights and let her enjoy the anticipation of her special day. Maybe I wait until the day before and then I spring it on her as if it has just been sprung onto me. That's really the kinder thing to do … except that it's dishonest. And it doesn't really matter because any second she's going to ask. Parenting is full of reasons that justify decisions—especially bad decisions that have a bigger long-term impact than we realize in the heat of the moment.
So I am going to practice what I preach, which is easier said than done (just ask your own pediatrician sometime). I am putting sympathetic mom on hold and fully engaging in teachable-moment mom. I am doing it for the same reason that I believe kids should actually win and lose soccer games at age 6 and for the same reason that I think they shouldn't get trophies just for showing up. I am doing it because over-parenting is easier (but usually not better) than under-parenting in the same way that saying "yes" is easier (but usually not better) than saying "no." When we hover like helicopters and concede to our kids, we don't have to explain anything; when we give them a taste of real life or set limits, there is more work involved for everyone—but there are also better life lessons.
Of course she asked, in precisely the sparkly manner I had fully expected. "Mom, I have been thinking about my birthday," she started, and from there followed a plan of activities for just the two of us, capped off with dinner at her favorite local restaurant and, yes, even the boys could come. When I told her about the trip, she burst into tears, and we have had several long sessions in the bathroom since. I have shed a few tears, too. But when I left the house the morning before her birthday, she was my last hug out the door, and she whispered, "I am OK, mom. And you go get 'em."
Lying is the easy way out. For you, and for your kids, too. Don't forget that. It doesn't allow them to rally or to grow. Whether they are asking if you are going to be around for a birthday, or if you always wanted to go to school, or if you did stupid stuff when you are a teenager … the question doesn't matter. But the answer sure does.