IF the question “is Father Christmas real?” makes your blood run cold, or, “you’ll never die, will you?” sets your heart racing, look no further.
Kids have a knack for putting parents on the spot with incisive, and often difficult to answer questions.
They say “the truth is hard to swallow,” but sometimes it seems that getting the truth out is even trickier.
Fabulous spoke with This Morning’s resident psychologist Emma Kenny who revealed that, more often than not, it’s worth doing.
She explains: “Research evidence that parents who lie regularly to their children have regular lying children. So it’s as simple as that.
“If you constantly use those white lies or protective lies or defensive mechanism lies, your kids follow. So you’re creating children with more of pathology for that.
“And the problem is that, as a kid, that might not be a problem, as a teenager, it’s a nightmare.
“It will make you alienated, isolated and disliked.”
Lies are also problematic because they set a precedent where deceit is allowed in relationships.
And with kids spending so much time online and the rise of reality-morphing filters, Emma says it’s more important than ever for parents to keep things grounded in reality.
She explains: “We’ve transformed our understanding of truth and that’s so bad.
“It’s why we’ve got rising body dysmorphia, it’s why we’ve got some of the poorest self-esteem levels in our youth, it means we’ve got the poorest levels of resilience and it really also means that there is a hell of a lot of people that are offended just by being alive because they’ve been taught that everything is meant to be perfect and shiny, and that, of course, they’re wonderful and brilliant, and that’s not true.
“That’s what makes us beautiful because we are all completely imperfect.”
In fact, the lies you do and don’t tell your children have a huge impact on the people they grow up to be.
Emma explains: “We want to keep it as innocent and naïve as possible, but we want to make it truthful and resilient and robust so that we create children who grow into healthy humans.”
Here, she reveals the lies that parents should never tell their kids – and why the likes of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy get off scot-free (most of the time, anyway).
As hard as it may be, Emma recommends that parents be clear and truthful about death.
“I think it’s really understandable and forgivable when a parent says that the rabbit has gone to play in the park with all the other rabbits, but it’s not a healthy way of treating death,” says Emma.
“The earlier that you help kids connect with death, brutally and honestly, the better it is for them.”
She also says it’s harmful to a parent to say they’ll be around forever if their child asks whether they’ll ever die.
She explains: “That’s really damaging because you [will die].
“Kids need to have that logic so that they are prepared for the reality because sometimes, unfortunately, for kids that happens.”
Often, a parent’s desire to protect their child and for everything to be OK can actually prevent children from working through difficult emotions like pain and grief.
Emma says: “I’ve worked with children with terrible grief issues who just are terrified of getting on planes because they genuinely think that dead people are in the sky.
“Or, they want to go to the sky to get daddy, because that’s where he is now.
“Whereas it’s far better to be like, daddy isn’t in the sky, daddy is dead – and that’s really hard but it’s also very practical.”
The Father Christmas Exception
“The absolute OKs when it comes to lying are when we’re trying to create things like magic and mystery and the miracle of childhood,” says Emma.
Although she advises there should always be a foundation of truth within it – even when it comes to Father Christmas.
She explains: “You should always be really clear that whilst Father Christmas arrives, the presents that are bought are actually by the parents.
“As in, he delivers them, he’s involved in it, it’s lovely and magic, but that the parents are responsible for the payment.”
Emma believes that being frank about the financial realities of things like Christmas can help prepare children for adult life and also prevent kids from linking the presents they receive to how loved they are by Santa.
“So even when you’re lying to a child about that, think about the impact of that on those around them,” she says.
“I think telling the kid honestly that the world isn’t fair, that parents pay and therefore children who don’t get as much are just as loved – that can be really helpful.”
The same goes for other mythical figures like the Tooth Fairy.
DIVORCE AND SEPARATION
One of the hardest issues for a parent to navigate with their children can be the breakdown of their relationship with the child’s other parent.
In these cases, Emma recommends sticking to the concrete reality and resisting any urge to cast blame.
She says: “The more you try to project blame onto the other parent, the more damage you do for the relationships of all parties.
“Because kids grow up and make their own decisions about what they believe played out.
“Whereas if you try to be a bit more concrete about the reality, which is you’re the centre, you’re still loved, your relationship won’t change, that is the constant.
“The messy areas around that, as they grow through it, that’s something both parents should be involved in discussing in ways with children.”
It’s also important to be clear and avoid inadvertently confusing the child by trying to soften the blow.
Emma explains: “I think with children, you have to do it at a time when they can tolerate it, but you should never be like, ‘Mummy and daddy still love each other but we’re not going to live together,’ because that’s massively confusing.
“It should be something quite concrete. Children need that.
“They need, ‘This isn’t going to come back, we aren’t getting back together, but we still are so glad that we were blessed to have you,’ and that the gift of having those children is worth every moment of the pain that’s been encountered.”
Emma had to have a similar conversation with her own children after discovering her husband had an affair with her best friend.
She says: “My response was that daddy was not going to be living in our house anymore because daddy absolutely loves the bones of both my boys, but that mummy and daddy didn’t love each other anymore in that way.
“And that’s what happens in adult relationships sometimes – you love your children more than anything but that you fall out of love with the grown-up that you’re with.
“But that I liked him and he would always be in our life as a co-parent.”
If one of the parents is moving in with a new partner, Emma says you have to be honest with them again so that the child doesn’t feel rejected.
She explains: “You have to make it clear to the child that that is happening, but that it’s not that the child is not being chosen, it’s that the adults are choosing to be with different people.”
Surely, there’s no harm in a few little white lies, right? Wrong.
Emma warns that children are really savvy and their instincts will tell them when someone isn’t being truthful with them.
She remembers that when she wanted an electric guitar as a child, her mother told her they were sold out in the whole of the UK.
“Even as a child at nine, it did not make sense,” says Emma.
“It’s better to say to a child, ‘I can’t afford it, you’ll have to wait for it, you’ll need to develop patience,’ than it is to just make things up.”
If you’re a parent who’s told your kids the ice cream van fib (the one about the noise playing once they’ve run out of ice cream), then it’s also time to ‘fess up.
Emma says: “I mean, it takes a child 10 minutes to realise that’s not true if they go outside and see kids buying ice cream after the music’s played.
“So always be aware that every single one of the actions has a consequence.”
While they may seem innocent, as research shows that children who are lied to more, lie more themselves, you may come to regret all those fibs once they hit their teenage years.
and you can no longer trust them when they tell you what they’re doing and who they’re seeing.
There is, however, a distinction to be made when it comes to white lies that save people pain in certain circumstances where nothing can be done.
Emma explains: “If somebody is in an outfit that you don’t really like, and they like it, why would you feel the need to go, ‘I really don’t like your outfit’?
“The earlier that you help kids connect with death, brutally and honestly, the better it is for them.”
“That is actually what we would call a white lie, as in, it’s not going to do that much damage.
“But also, if the person’s happy with what they’re wearing, it would also be a choice not to choose to cause pain.
“So you learn the myriad of lies.”
If your child is found to be involved in bullying, as either a victim or a perpetrator, it’s very easy for a parent’s protective instinct to kick in.
But Emma believes that stepping back and trying to take a more objective view of the situation could be far better for your child in the long run.
She says: “We all want a black-and-white scenario where a child that we’ve brought up is in the right and a child who harms ours is wrong."
“When you actually explore it, very often there are grey areas and it’s about taking responsibility and accountability."
“So there’s no point defending your child against all the odds when you know that some of their behaviour hasn’t been right."
“If you lie for them because it protects them, you actually teach them a really powerfully negative lesson.”
Similarly, brushing over the reason why your child is being bullied in an attempt to set the world right again is understandable, but unhelpful.
Emma explains: “It’s a bit like if a child is in a situation where they’re being bullied for their weight.
“There is never going to be an acceptable reason to bully anyone for their weight, it’s reprehensible."
“But it’s also not OK to say to the child, ‘You don’t have a problem with your weight’."
“Because 1) the child doesn’t believe you, and 2) it isn’t going to tackle the issue."
“The most important thing is to be acknowledged of the fact that the world is really cruel and you don’t deserve any of that, and how can we make you feel better about your body and what can I do to walk with you on that journey so that you feel great about the human being that you are.
“Because that is healthy and helpful and it doesn’t deny the pain, but it gives progress to it. That’s something that’s really important.”
‘LIFE WILL BE PERFECT’ AND OTHER PROTECTIVE LIES
In an effort to shield children from harm, parents can risk leaving their offspring poorly equipped for the real world.
Emma says: “When we teach children that, for example, they’re never wrong, their lives are going to be perfect, that the other kid is the problem, that our lives are distinctly better than others because we’re better people – a lot of people bring their kids up like that – those kinds of things I think are damaging.”
An example she uses to illustrate her point is if a child was to lose in competition and, instead of accepting that their child wasn’t the best on the day, the parent claims the judge was biased or that the teacher prefers the other kid.
Emma explains: “They might not run as fast, they might not do as well academically, that might all be true.
“Or it might be that there are biases – but they are all real and part of growing up.
“So instead of protecting them, it’s helping kids to navigate and understand that and really connect with it and understand that life is not fair.”
Dealing with failure – and bouncing back from it – is a key developmental experience that helps children to deal with the inevitable knockbacks of life later on.
“Part of my compassionate parenting is that you will fall and you will fail and you will pay for that by learning and growing and that will mean that you’ll know, when things happen that are really bad, and they will because they do, that you have the tools to manage it.
“Whereas if all you’re ever trying to do is soothe your child’s pain, you’re not allowing them to have that growth,” says Emma.
“All you can do is your best to be the best, most authentic, most transparent, honest human, even when that’s harder than lying.
“And it is harder than lying, but it’s also a much better lesson.
“I think the more we educate our children to come to terms with that, the easier the world will be because their expectations are based on that truth.”
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