Sunday, October 18, 2009

Little White Lies and Our Kids

I agree with telling the truth...most of the time. But I often struggle with the concept of a "white lie." When is it okay, Mrs. Ditter, for kids not to tell the truth if saving someone's feelings would count for more? --Carrie

Thanks for the great question, Carrie. Let's do a little poll: Anyone out there never told a Little White Lie? Show of hands, please. Right. No hands up.

So in practice, this seems deceptively simple and even obvious: You tell a lie if the truth would hurt someone's feelings.

But if you look more deeply, it's not that simple. Lying, even LWLs, can lead to hurt feelings and broken trust. And while you (or your kids) may save the other person's feelings in the short run, the end result can be ugly.

I'm remembering one day many years ago when an LWL backfired on me. My best friend and then- roommate asked me for a reality check on her outfit before she left for work. "Yeah, yeah, you look fine," I said, even though she...well, she had much better choices in her closet. 

That night, she stomped through the door and hollered, "What the **** were you thinking, letting me go out like this? I look like an idiot! I've looked like an idiot all day! Look at me!" 

"You do not," I said. And then I caved. "Umm. Well. Maybe you..."

"Maybe I should burn this piece!" she shouted, stomping into her bedroom.

You know the end of this story. A few weeks later, I put on an outstandingly heinous and out-of-fashion blouse (because everything else I owned was dirty), checked in with my roommate ("Yeah, yeah, you look fine. I like the ruffles!"), and went to work. The instant I walked in the office, I knew she had set me up. Reactions from my coworkers ranged from raised eyebrows to startled glances, with eyes quickly averted.

Did I end up at Nordstrom on my lunch break? Yes, I did. Since this was before cell phones, I was not able to call my best friend from the dressing room and hiss, "Okay, okay, you were right. I should have told you to burn that dress. I'm sorry." Instead, I yelled at her after work. She admitted it was payback. 25 years later, we're still best friends, and we're brutally honest when we shop together. 

I don't believe that brutal honesty is called for in most circumstances, however. And discerning those circumstances is a challenge for most adults, much less kids. Most of us have experienced the hurt that comes with someone aiming their honesty at us in a selfish manner. And I'll bet most of us have said true, if hurtful, things to other people (guilty on that charge, right here). 

But none of this addresses your question, Carrie, about kids telling LWLs. One recent study done at McGill University in Montreal by Professor Victoria Talwar designates LWLs as a positive developmental milestone, indicating the development of empathy and the ability to connect with other kids (see her website at for more information).

So, lying is good? Lying is pro-social behavior? According to the kids available for survey at Mrs. Ditter's house, the answer is absolutely, unanimously, enthusiastically YES. "Because sometimes the truth would just hurt somebody's feelings," says one. "But if you think they'll find out you lied, then no, don't do it, because it would just hurt their feelings even more," says the other. Ruffled blouse, anyone?

In the end, Carrie, I have to toss this one back to you. Follow your heart. Talk with your children about what they're saying, and why. If they can tell the truth instead of a lie, that seems to me to be the better choice. But we all parent differently. And as parents, we have to model for our kids the way we want them to be in the world. If they see you telling kindly, well-intentioned LWLs, that's likely what they'll do. And that's not bad, as long as you can help them understand when it's appropriate to do so, and when the truth--gentle but honest--is called for, instead.


  1. Lying when it won't hurt someone might be kind of like jaywalking when there is no cross traffic. When the kids are little, you obey every "Do Not Walk" sign and tell them why you are idling on the corner with nothing to do but cross, except you don't.

    Later, you explain to them the difference between being safe, and being legal. Oh dear, I think the analogy broke down before it got its motor running.

  2. Most of my best analogies break down before they really get going...