Speaking Truth: When Can Parents Lie to Their Children?

A few weeks ago I ran across a list of lies parents tell their children. The list includes some fairly predictable fibs from weary parents: “Maybe we’ll buy that next time.” “Don’t be too noisy, or the people over there will get upset.” “Eat your vegetables, or you won’t grow strong.”

Where is the boundary when it comes to lying to your children? Most parents want their kids to tell the truth, and to do so consistently. But when it comes to our own tricky situations, parents find themselves tempted to fib their way out of an uncomfortable situation with our children rather than tell the truth and risk an embarrassing confrontation. Is this wrong? Where is the line when it comes to lying to our kids?

Where is the line?

The Bible clearly calls people to an ethic of truthfulness. One of the Ten Commandments specifically addresses lying (Ex. 20:16), and Christians are urged to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully… for we are members of one body” (Eph. 4:25). If God calls us to such a standard in our daily lives, why would our conversations with our children be exempt?

Who does a lie serve?

Most of the time, the “white lies” parents tell their children are nothing sinister. Sometimes, such as our dire warnings about the consequences of leaving the vegetables untouched, we stretch the truth with the best of intentions. However, the problem with falsehood is that it often meets my needs; it does not address the needs of my children.

What my child may need is not just to get away quickly from the candy or the toys on display at the checkout; he needs to learn about that boundaries and limits are important and even healthy. He needs to learn how to handle disappointment when things he wants won’t happen. He needs to learn that he can trust his mom and dad to do what is good, even when it doesn’t match his desires.

Set aside your discomfort

The Bible instructs us to speak in such a way as to “build one another up according to their needs” (Eph. 4:29). But in order to discern the needs of my children, I need to be able to set aside my discomfort with disappointing my children or my fear of causing a scene long enough to see what’s most important.

Lead with grace

This does not mean that we share truth apart from grace. There may be times where we do not tell kids everything we know, but let them know that they will learn more as they grow older.

But as Christian parents, we remember that God speaks truthfully about our sin. God does not ignore our failings or push them down the road to be dealt with at some later, more convenient time. Rather, God couples the truth of our shortcomings with the grace which molds and changes us. Through the gracious gift of his truth, God grows us and shapes us to be more like Christ.

Speaking truthfully to our children can offer them a similar gift of grace. Truth confronts selfishness in our children. Truth helps to mold desire in healthy ways. Truth identifies limits. Truth names the relationships that are broken by misbehavior: sin doesn’t primarily hurt the strangers around us. It hurts the parents.

Examen your motives

So next time you are tempted to stretch the truth with your kids, ask yourself:

  • Am I avoiding the truth because I am afraid of confrontation with my child?
  • Do I lie to my children because explaining the truth would be hard work?
  • Does what I say meet the needs of my children and direct them toward Christ?

The Bible calls parents to an ethic of truthfulness with their children. Truthfulness points our children to their need for grace: from us and from God. By speaking truthfully instead of using the more convenient lie, we help give them space to grow and learn. How can you give your child the gift of truthfulness this week?

About the author — Rev. Joel Vande Werken

Joel Vande Werken is the pastor of Fairlawn Christian Reformed Church in Whitinsville, Massachusetts. Originally from the Chicago area, he served for ten years in Sussex, NJ before moving to his current church.  He and his wife, Brandie, have four young children.

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