Is it OK to teach your kids how to tell a white lie?

Ellen's son has mastered the white lie

Ellen's son has mastered the white lie - Credit: Archant

Recently I did something counterintuitive to all parents – I taught my children to lie with conviction.

In my defence, it was all in the name of politeness.

You see, in the past I have always strived to teach the kids that honesty is the best policy.

But my son has been taking truth-telling to extreme lengths and I felt it was time to step in.

“You know it’s bad to take things which don’t belong to you,” I said when he had raided my daughter’s piggy bank and stashed the cash safely in...his own trouser pocket.

“Are you sorry for doing such an awful thing?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. “But I am sorry I was caught.”

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“Is your Mum at home?” asked our financial advisor when my son picked up the telephone one morning.

“She’s on the loo,” he said cheerfully. “I imagine she will be some time.”

When he turned up for his swimming lesson in the afternoon with my husband in tow, the instructor said: “Daddy must be thrilled to come and watch.”

“I think he would rather be in the pub with a beer,” piped up his little voice smugly.

“You really should think about people’s feelings a bit more,” I told him after he informed an old lady she “smelt funny”, questioned a teenager on why she was wearing such a “horrible dress” and said my daughter’s new haircut made her look like a boy.

“I’m telling the truth though,” he said.

“You said it was bad to fib.”

He’s right. I did.

“Well I think it’s about time you learnt how to tell a white lie,” I said.

A study carried out in 2008 found that the majority of children discover the art of “prosocial” lying – lying in social situations – at the age of three and by 11 they are masters at it.

Parents were revealed to be behind this learning curve, teaching them implicitly or explicitly that they should not tell the blunt truth in certain situations.

“The key is to know when to lie and when to tell the truth,” I said to my kids.

“You should always tell mummy and daddy the truth of course but in some situations it is kinder – and less embarrassing – to tell a little white lie than to be brutally honest.”

I underestimated how difficult it would be for the kids to grasp this concept.

After all, to tell a white lie successfully you need to inhibit your natural reaction – verbal and nonverbal – and replace it with expressions to demonstrate the opposite of how you are really feeling.

“Grandma is coming to visit next weekend,” I told them.

“And she always brings you a present.”

“What will it be?” my son asked beaming.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “But whatever it is you have to be polite.”

“But what if I don’t like it?” he asked.

“You pretend you do,” I said.

“You smile and say thank you and then later, when she is gone, you can tell me what you really think of it.”

He smiled conspiratorially.

“Got it,” he said.

Grandma brought a loom band set for my daughter and a Nerf gun for my son, both of which were received with genuine gratitude.

But she had also picked out a colouring book for each of them.

“Thank you,” my son said.

He then looked across at me and dramatically rolled his eyes.

“Don’t you like colouring?” Grandma asked him, catching the look and grinning at me.

“I love it,” he said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

“It’s not just about what you say,” I told him later.

“It’s about how you act as well.”

Since then he has become rather adept at white lies.

“Your courgette cake tastes delicious Granny,” he told my mother, surreptitiously handing me a hanky full of half-chewed mouthfuls.

But he has also been taking his untruths to the next level.

“How was your trip to Australia?” asked a friend who bumped into us in Woodbridge last weekend.

“What trip?” I asked bemused.

“Your son told mine you were going there for a week to see your Great Uncle Bob.”

I’ve never been to Australia. I don’t plan on going anytime soon.

I don’t even have a Great Uncle Bob!

“You don’t have to lie for the sake of it,” I told my son later.

“It’s quite fun though,” he said.

“And you said that white lies don’t hurt anybody.”

It turns out he has also told our hairdresser he has a twin brother, our butcher that I am pregnant (And no, I’m not… yet). He also infomred the mother of one of his school friends that he was born in Africa.

“But you weren’t!” I said when I found out.

“I was,” he said before pausing dramatically. “You just didn’t know me then.”

As well as working on his whopper-telling, he has mastered a deadpan delivery which even has me hesitating before I contradict him.

It’s a real skill too because recent research has found that the majority of people give away their true feelings through ticks in four facial muscles.

These tiny movements cause them to raise their eyebrows in surprised expressions and smile slightly when fibbing.

And apparently, even children are aware of these tell-tale signs which is why – although the average parent tells an incredible 3,000 white lies during childrearing – they rarely get away with it.

“Just because I said it was ok to tell white lies doesn’t mean you should lie all the time,” I told my son.

“I only tell a fib to prevent someone else from getting hurt or upset.”

He thought about this for a while.

“Do you ever lie to me then?” he asked, watching me carefully.

“Never,” I said without hestitating.

He laughed.

“You are a really rubbish liar,” he replied.

“I should give you some tips.”

It seems you can’t kid a kidder.

Or a kid for that matter.

What do you think? Write to Ellen Widdup at or 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN

Find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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