I recently received a distraught call:
“My daughter wants to know if the Easter Bunny is real. I don’t want to lie, but I don’t want to spoil her fun.”
Parents confront the dilemma of how much ‘truth’ to divulge with questions at every stage of development: “Do you promise you’ll never die?”; “Did you drink smoke when you were a kid?”; “Am I fat?”
You might be surprised to learn that there are no clear-cut answers. Despite the fact that being truthful with your child is important, there are times when not being fully honest is a better idea.
Honesty Is Not The Best Policy
There are two main reasons that honesty isn’t always the best policy. The first is that knowing the truth about a topic can sometimes be more emotionally harmful for a child than not knowing (ex: the real reason for divorce is due to serious infidelity). The second is that a child may not be emotionally ready to learn a truth (ex: particular holiday traditions like the one above).
There is no ‘right’ age at which a child should know the truth about any subject. In fact, when interviewing hundreds of parents for my book series, The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask, I discovered that some questions asked by five-year olds are asked by ten-year olds—each child is different, even in one family!
So, how do you know when to be honest and when to stretch the truth? I offer you a simple formula: Ask yourself the following two ‘test questions’. If your answer to both is ‘yes’, you should answer truthfully. If your answer to either one is ‘no’ or ‘I’m not sure’, I recommend stretching the truth, perhaps only temporarily until your child is older:
Will answering the question truthfully definitely be emotionally beneficial to your child?
Do you think your child really wants to know the true answer?
Understand The Impact
It may take time and sometimes consultation with a parenting psychologist or counselor to fully answer these two questions, but don’t feel compelled to respond to your child’s question until you are satisfied that you understand the impact of your response.
A Question To Illustrate
Eight-year old Emily asked her mom, Lisa: “Am I fat?” Before responding, Lisa thought about the two test questions. She was concerned that Emily (who was overweight) would be very upset if she responded by simply saying “Yes, Emily, you are fat.” She also wasn’t sure that Emily was really ready to hear the truth. Yet, Lisa saw Emily’s question as an opportunity to begin a conversation about Emily’s weight, so she responded as follows:
“Emily, I’m glad you asked that question because it means you’re thinking about your health. Compared to some other kids your age you probably are a bit heavier. I bet if we start to make some changes as a family—to eat healthier and exercise—you will start feeling better about your body.”
Each time your child asks a challenging question—ask yourself the test questions. You will soon see that responding to your child in a way that meets his or her emotional needs is far more important than just giving a straight answer!
About the Author
Dr. Susan Bartell is America’s #1 Family Psychologist. Her latest book is The Top 50 Questions That Kids Ask. You can learn more about her on her website at www.drsusanbartell.com