The little white lie

Tales: Deception is part of child-rearing in many families, as the movie 'Life Is Beautiful' illustrates, but one expert warns against falsehoods.

April 04, 1999|By Edward M. Eveld | Edward M. Eveld,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Is it OK to tell kids that their dead dog is up in heaven, prancing around in its puppy body? That their belly-up goldfish are just sleeping? That the medicine they have to take is making bad germs fly right out their ears?

Deception is a well-practiced, time- tested device for rearing children. Yet it's also suspect and often frowned upon, even though many of the tales seem harmless enough.

A magnificent deception -- from father to son -- is at the root of one of the season's most acclaimed movies, "Life Is Beautiful," which was honored as Best Foreign Film at this year's Academy Awards.

In the movie, an Italian father creates an elaborate tale to explain away the Jewish family's imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The movie is a celebration of a father's love and his instinct to protect a youngster trapped in a brutal place.

While American parents aren't likely to encounter such horrendous situations with their own children, the question of deceiving children comes up daily.

Most parents do it to some extent over issues large and small. Sometimes it's for protection and comfort, especially in cases of illness and death. Sometimes it's to enhance their children's imaginations and fantasies or to coerce obedience. And sometimes it's for simple convenience.

Parents know they want to impart the value of truthfulness to their youngsters, though, and many worry that their own distortions and omissions muddy that mission. Some experts say the easy deception is overused, a practice that may seem innocuous but eventually damages trust. Others are less worried, especially with young children, as long as parents have a higher motive.

Diane M. Komp, pediatrics professor at Yale University School of Medicine, does not take kindly to parental prevarication.

"It's not OK to lie to children," said Komp, author of "Anatomy of a Lie: The Truth About Lies and Why Good People Tell Them" (Zondervan, 1998). "What we're doing is protecting ourselves from dealing with a painful and difficult situation."

Children are more able to handle information than many parents give them credit for, she said.

Komp tells the story of a mother who informed her son about his lymphoma but was careful never to use the word "cancer" for fear it would devastate him. But the real devastation for the boy came, Komp said, when he later learned that his mother had been less than truthful about his health.

Komp acknowledged that difficult information -- about a parent's illness or alcoholism, say -- must be presented in a way appropriate to the child's age. A 3-year-old, for instance, could be told that an alcoholic father is going to the hospital. But a 12-year-old should be told about the drinking problem.

"I honestly answer questions, but I work hard to find comforting words to frame the truth," she said.

Komp suspects that the young son in "Life Is Beautiful" knows more about the reality of the concentration camp than the father realizes. At least in part he may be playing along with his father's inventions, for both their sakes.

David Nyberg, an education and philosophy professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo, said parents, and people in general, can get too worked up about truth telling.

The fact is, he said, in real life people aren't expected to, and shouldn't, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Other important values come in conflict with the value of honesty, which at times should take a back seat to "information handling."

"When kids are going to sleep, they are not looking for truth at that time," said Nyberg, author of "The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life" (University of Chicago Press, 1993). "They are looking for comfort."

Instead of bottom-line truth telling, parents should be concerned about their intent and the consequences of the messages they impart, he said.

Young children respond to messages in stories, and while the stories need to be interesting they don't have to be factual.

Nyberg is irritated by parents uncomfortable with the Santa Claus story. It's a tale that teaches goodness, and children don't feel betrayed later when they can discern myth from fact.

Lisa Campbell Ernst, a children's book author, tries hard to give her young daughters honest answers yet communicate in ways they understand. She guards against flip responses that are less than truthful.

A couple of years ago her daughter Elizabeth, who's 6 now, took it hard when their 14-year-old dog, Sally, died. Between tears, Elizabeth said she had given Sally food and wondered what she had done wrong. Ernst assured her that the death wasn't her fault, that Sally's body had worn out. Now, she told Elizabeth, Sally was in heaven with her puppy body.

It was a comforting story and worked for a while. Then Elizabeth said, "Couldn't we just get in our car and drive to heaven and bring Sally home?"

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