At Christmas time, almost every parent reaches the point where their child wants to know if there really is a Santa Claus. Parents regularly lie to their kids with the best of intentions: Is this the right thing to do?

Child psychologist Charles Smith notes that while Santa may not be a flesh-and-blood person, the cultural truth of St. Nicholas is key to a child’s developing imagination. He says, “Santa Claus is a shared cultural image of benevolence and kindness and you don’t want to undermine that. With Santa Claus, you are trying to enrich the child’s life by sharing something that you both enjoy. Santa Claus embodies the whole idea of the Christmas season as the time of caring, togetherness and magic.”

Smith says that children who discover Santa isn’t real rarely blame their parents. In fact, the most common response is to keep the story going so they not only continue to get presents, but because they recognize the joy their parents get from the experience.

What about other kinds of well-meaning lies? Psychologists Gail Heyman, Diem Luu and Kang Lee decided to check this out. In one of their studies, many parents reported they told their young children that bad things would happen if they didn’t go to bed or eat what they were supposed to. For example, one mother said she told her child that if he didn’t finish all of his food he would get pimples all over his face. Other parents reported inventing magical creatures. One explained, “We told our daughter that if she wrapped up all her pacifiers like gifts, the ‘paci-fairy’ would come and give them to children who needed them. I thought it was healthier to get rid of the pacifiers, and it was a way for her to feel proud and special.”

Lee says, “We are surprised by how often parenting by lying takes place. Moreover, our findings showed that even the parents who most strongly promoted the importance of honesty with their children engaged in parenting by lying.”

Though Heyman thinks that there are occasions when it is appropriate to be less than truthful with a child (“telling a two-year-old you don’t like their drawing is just cruel”), she doesn’t think it’s a good habit and says, “It is common for parents to try out a range of strategies, including lying, to gain compliance. When parents are juggling the demands of getting through the day, concerns about possible long-term negative consequences to children’s beliefs about honesty are not necessarily at the forefront.”

The research team discovered that Asian parents were more likely to tell lies to their children for the purpose of influencing their behavior. One possible explanation for this is that, compared to European-American parents, they tend to place a greater emphasis on the importance of teaching children to be respectful and obedient, and they use a range of parenting strategies to meet these ends.

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