When my colleagues and I first began studying lying 20 years ago, finding the right word for it was challenging. We wound up with a descriptive euphemism: Strategic disclosure.
We used this phrase not because we were afraid of saying that the kids we studied were liars, but because lying itself is complicated:
- You can let the person you are talking to continue to believe something false, as when a teen fails to correct her mother when she says, "I am so glad you don't drink" when the teen, in fact, does.
- You can leave key information out that the person would want to know. For example, when a father asks who was at a party, a teen can name four friends, failing to share the information that another person his dad would not approve of was there as well—or failing to mention that the parents the father things are there were not.
- You can provide false information. This is the most obvious lie: "Where did you go?" "I went to the movies." But in fact, the teen had gone to a party.
All Teens Lie
Almost all adolescents tell us that they lie to their parents. (I think the others were lying to us.) We have studied thousands of adolescents—including two cohorts of several thousand we have followed for five years each—in the United States, Chile, the Philippines, Italy, and Uganda. Almost all of them tell us that they lie, sometimes, about some things. When we ask what they learned about themselves during our study, they often say that they lie a lot more than they thought they did.
However, there are huge individual differences in how often they lie, and about what. Although on a range of 20-36 different issues, most teens report lying about two to five (homework and drinking being the most common areas), some adolescents report lying to parents about virtually all areas of their lives.
They lie for obvious reasons:
- to keep parents from setting rules in areas they don't want them to control;
- because it's an area that they think their parents have no right to know about;
- because they are afraid they'll be punished; and
- because they are afraid their parents will be disappointed in them.
And the lies have obvious consequences. Parents whose children lie to them trust their kids less. But unfortunately, parents aren't all that good at detecting lies. All of our evidence shows that parents and teens agree, relatively well, about how much teens lie—parents whose teens lie a lot report more lying than those whose teens are relatively truthful. However, parents are very poor at knowing what their kids are lying about. There was only 25% agreement between teens and parents on what kids were lying about. In many ways, I found this the saddest part of our research. Even when normally dishonest kids told the truth, their parents were unlikely to believe them.
Parental Monitoring and Privacy
My colleague, Bonnie Dowdy, and I started studying lying because we were interested in adolescent romantic relations. Dating and sex are something that most adolescents lie to their parents about. It turns out to be an excellent example of exactly when teens are most likely to lie—areas of ambiguous legitimacy of parental authority.
Legitimacy of parental authority is the idea that there are some areas that parents have a right—often an obligation—to set rules about. Parents' job is to protect and socialize their children. We expect parents, for example, to teach children not to play with matches and to tell them not to smoke. Those are prudential areas—safety concerns. There are other areas, though, that parents and children both agree are out of bound—area of taste or personal preference. Who a child's best friend is, for example. These areas are private, affecting only the individual involved.
But romantic relationships, parents and adolescents agree, represent a gray area, with clear personal dimensions but also parental safety concerns. Parents want to keep children safe, in terms of sexual behavior, morality or ethics, physical safety, and appearances of propriety (an old-fashioned term, but in this case referring to staying within normative expectations for age-appropriate sexual conduct). Adolescents want to keep this area private. It is one of the more recently established spheres of adolescent behavior and it is at the leading edge of behavioral and often emotional autonomy. It also involves privacy boundaries that are shared with another person. Telling parents about your sexual behavior necessarily tells them about your partner's.
We began studying lying because of a half-century of prior work on parental monitoring. Parental monitoring is simply the idea that kids do better when parents pay attention to their activities. Parents can't parent effectively if they don't know what children are doing. Those old ads—It's 10:00. Do you know where your children are?—were designed to promote parental monitoring and prevent substance use and other problem behaviors.
The problem with research on monitoring is that our old ideas about it are not quite accurate. It is true that parents need to know what their children are up to in order to prevent problem behavior and to punish appropriately. But it turns out that much of the correlation linking monitoring to problem behavior confounded parental monitoring with parental knowledge.
Most of what parents KNOW comes from what teens SHARE. In other words, parents know more about their adolescents' lives not because parents are watching or snooping. They know because their adolescents share information. And kids with nothing to hide share more. So which came first—the problem behavior or the parental knowledge?
Why do adolescents tell parents information that could get them in trouble?
In the 18 years since the field has stopped focusing on what parents do to gain information and turned to why and when adolescents decide to lie or share information, we've learned a lot.
- Adolescents share more information with parents who are warm.
- Adolescents who believe their parents have a right to set rules, and believe that they are obligated to obey them, will share more information—even when they disagree with the rules.
Together, I think this tells us something important. Adolescents share most information with parents when they think their parents' actions are motivated by love and because the parent is doing their job of trying to protect them.
- Adolescents lie more when they are involved in more problem behavior or when they like manipulating people.
In other words, teens who enjoy manipulating people for power and have things to hide lie more.
When do they share?
Teens share more information about things that parents have set rules about. In other words, they lie about things that parents have expressed as "understandings" or "expectations." They are more likely to tell the truth about things where parents have drawn a clear line in the sand.
This surprised me, as potential punishment seems a clear motivation for lying. But generally kids respected their parents' right to set rules. If it was a matter of judgment, kids used theirs. But when the parent said they were serious, kids tried to negotiate instead of hiding information and lying. In fact, hoping to get the parent to change their mind was the biggest reason teens gave for disclosing disagreement. They wanted their parents to change the rules.
Even teens who did not believe their parents had the right to set rules, and did many things their parents wouldn't be happy about, were less likely to lie if that parent had set an explicit rule.
Is it what parents do or what kids think parents are doing?
To answer that question, we did an observational study of pre-adolescents (4th-6th grade) arguing with their mothers. Much of our research had been based on survey research, so it was hard to know, when teens said their parents were strict or not warm, whether it was the parent who was unloving or it was a difficult child who thought the parent was.
After videorecording the interactions, we coded them in terms of how sensitive the mother was to the child and how difficult the child was. We also measured physiological characteristics of the mothers and children—specifically, RSA (respiratory sinus arrhythmia and salivary alpha amylase). As we use it, RSA taps the resources that parents have to cope with stress. For example, you probably know the stereotype that people who are easily angered get red in the face. They have low RSA. Alpha amylase is an indictor that the parent is responding to a challenging situation or threat.
We used mother and child characteristics to predict children's desire for privacy. Specifically, because kids are less likely to share information they think is private, we predicted whether they felt the need for the information to be secret or if they were okay with sharing it.
The most important thing we found was that it really was the mother who was driving the interaction, not the child's perceptions. Once observed behavior and RSA was in the model, child reports of behavior no longer predicted desire for privacy.
- Maternal strictness did NOT predict desire for privacy. Kids were equally willing to share with strict as well as permissive parents.
- Mothers with high RSA—in other words, those who had more resources to be patient—had children who were both more cooperative on video, and who were willing to share more information. This was particularly interesting because our measures showed that it was much more stressful for mothers to interact with their children during an argument (measured using salivary assays of alpha amylase) than it was for children to argue with their moms.
- More sensitive mothers—those who asked questions but made obvious efforts to respect the boundaries that their children had set up as private—had children who were willing to share more information than those who did not.
In other words, when mothers were sensitive, respected child privacy, and seemed to be able to become less upset (as measured physiologically), their children were more willing to share more information. This was challenging for moms—their sympathetic nervous system was aroused. But when they rose to the challenge and stayed calm, children would share. Interestingly, children whose mothers were calm also tended to be more cooperative and pleasant, even though mother and child RSA were not correlated. We interpreted this as meaning that being habitually calm helped kids develop self-restraint and a cooperative attitude.
Interestingly, more warmth did not predict greater willingness to share information. It was complicated. When mothers were sensitive and warm, children shared the most. But when they were insensitive and warm, they tended to plow in and violate children's privacy. That was when communication shut down. We believe that it is particularly hard for children to maintain a separate sense of self with warm mothers who don't respect privacy boundaries, so they push back.
Warmth, sensitivity, respect for adolescents as individuals, combined with strictness and setting fair rules? Sounds a lot like authoritative parenting. And authoritative parenting seems the best way to help children share the information they need for parents to help them to socialize themselves.
While the stakes seem low ― after all, how much harm could really come from a little fairytale? ― Boyle and McKay make several compelling arguments against perpetuating the Santa Claus myth.
1. You’re setting your child up for inevitable disappointment when they realize the truth about Santa.
Everyone remembers that moment they realized that Santa Claus wasn’t real, Boyle and McKay write. The disappointment is so searing that it creates a “JFK effect” ― people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the sad news. For many people, they write, the holidays never again hold the same kind of magic.
Speaking as former children, both authors remember the abject disappointment when they found out that this Christmas magic was in fact human based. The spell was broken; the escape from reality that children and adults can share for a few months had gone. Christmas was never the same again.
2. You are laying the groundwork for your child’s distrust.
The authors cite research that finds young kids have “a more general tendency to assume that adults only talk about real things.” But after the years-long con is over, a child’s natural trust in their guardian could be somewhat tainted by the Santa experience ― exacerbated, no doubt, by the parents’ repeated denials and justifications for Santa when a child comes with questions or “evidence” about his existence.
Children must all find out eventually that their parents have blatantly and consistently carried on a lie for a number of years. Children may find out from a third party, or through their parents getting bored of the make-believe and making a mistake; both might affect the trust that exists between child and parent. If adults have been lying about Santa, even though it has usually been well intentioned, what else is a lie? If Santa isn’t real, are fairies real? Is magic? Is God?
3. The Santa myth serves you more than your children.
In addition to collecting the treats and sweets children leave out for Santa the night before Christmas, adults also get to cash in on a nostalgic sense of holiday magic that comes with perpetuating the “Christmas lie,” the authors write. Playing Santa for their children, they suggest, lets parents briefly escape to “a better place and time” where the use of imagination was encouraged and nurtured.
It seems that by returning to a fantasy world, there is a comfort in being able to briefly re-enter childhood, which was a magical experience for many. A time when imagination was accepted and encouraged but which becomes lost in the space and time of adulthood. The self-conscious recreation of myth seems to be as popular as it ever was. Might it be the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation of something better, something to believe in, something to hope for in the future or to return to a long lost childhood a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…?
“All children will eventually find out they’ve been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they’ve been told,” Boyle concluded in a statement. “Whether it’s right to make children believe in Father Christmas is an interesting question, and it’s also interesting to ask whether lying in this way will affect children in ways that have not been considered.”
The effect of a parent’s lies on children
Emerging studies do suggest that parents’ lies may have a detrimental effect on a child’s behavior. A small MIT study on six- and seven-year-olds found that when an authority figure omits the truth, it may cause children to suspend their trust or be suspicious of anything else that authority figure says in the future. An experiment from the University of California, San Diego found that when children ages five to seven are lied to, they are also more likely to cheat and then lie in return.
So why do parents lie at all? It basically boils down to two reasons: to make children do something, and to make children happy, according to Gail Heyman, a UCSD psychology researcher. And at first blush, it might seem that the Santa myth accomplishes both things at once. It motivates children to behave well, with the promise of a Christmas day jackpot at the end.
But not everyone is as convinced as Boyle and McKay that the Santa lie may hurt children ― or that it even qualifies as a lie at all.
“Many people think the Santa myth is not a lie and is more like fantasy play,” Heyman said.
She says scientists are only just starting to understand the effect a parent’s lies ― big, small and holiday-themed ― have on children, and are nowhere near understanding what psychological effects a years-long Santa con may have on developing minds.
“At this point, there is no evidence that lying about Santa in particular is harmful to children, and may young adults tell us of fond memories of Santa,” she said.
How should conscientious parents approach Santa?
While there is currently no study to show that the Santa Claus myth does harm children, Heyman is partial to the approach astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson took with his daughter when she lost a tooth and asked him about the Tooth Fairy.
Tyson swapped his daughter’s tooth with a present while she slept, but the next morning asked her a lot of skeptical questions and encouraged her to talk to her friends about the experience. Together, his daughter and her friends decided that the next person to lose a tooth would hide it under their pillow without announcing its loss to anyone. After conducting this little experiment, they realized the Tooth Fairy was actually just their parents.
“I personally prefer the DeGrasse Tyson approach because I value critical thinking so much, and I think young children face enough challenges in figuring out what is real or not without their parents potentially adding to the confusion,” Heyman concluded. “I also think there are better ways to promote imaginative thinking.”
Gail Gross, a psychologist and child development expert, suggests a compromise: Share Santa with your children, but as the fable and tradition that it is, and not a magical being to believe in.
“Telling children the truth about the Santa myth can give them confidence in your honesty and support. Trust is based on experience, and if children trust you, they learn to trust themselves, and ultimately others,” Gross said.
How do you approach the Santa Claus myth with your children? Let us know in the comments what you tell them, and why.