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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/15/2009

THE GROUP: How Much Should You Tell Your Kids--And Should You Ever Lie FOR Them?

By Valerie Strauss

Today The Answer Sheet’s Group of Moms talks about how honest parents should be with their children about their own pasts. Do you tell them you were awful in school, sneaked out of the house, took drugs and drank? .... Are there circumstances under which parents should lie FOR their child? (For example, the famous “She/he is not feeling well" when they don’t want to go to a party or to someone’s house.")

Group Members:
Meg Arcadia is a teacher currently home schooling a 10-year-old boy, and a mom with a 3-year-old son.
Jamie Shor founded and operates the PR Collaborative in the District. She lives in Montgomery County, where her son is in elementary school and her daughter is in middle school.
Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada is a legislative librarian with one child in a D.C. public school public and a 3-year-old starting in a program at a charter school.
Peg Willingham works for a non-profit health research organization and she lives in Virginia, where her daughter attends a public high school.
Linda McGhee is a psychologist, school counselor and professor, who lives in the District and works in Bethesda. Her son is in fifth grade in a Maryland private school.
Valerie Strauss is The Answer Sheet.

Hey Ladies... In terms of lying for my child, I really try to give non-specific but true excuses (e.g., saying that plans changed, scheduling conflict, unable to attend, and need to reschedule) instead of out-and-out lies. This is always tricky because you also do not want to hurt the feelings of those issuing invitations.

With regards to honesty to your child about your past, I do not try to appear to be perfect and do share some ‘youthful’ indiscretions from the past. I just think this makes you more credible with your child.

But I also feel that some things are private and do not have to be discussed with your child. However, in reality, I am often loathe to shut down when my son asks a direct question about the past. So, my strategy is mixed. I also worry that if I share some dumb things from my teenage years that I am somehow introducing it as a credible alternative for my child.

I would be happy to hear the group’s view on the following: How important is your past to your talks with your child about hot-button issues, such as drug and alcohol use. My thought is that barring an unusual circumstance (such as a family history of addiction, which may have to be disclosed), it may be more important to set out your expectations for your child’s behavior clearly and to set the example by behaving responsibly. When I inevitably fall short of perfection, I also try to deal with the consequences responsibly, in hopes of modeling tips to behaving with integrity in difficult circumstances.

Hello Everyone... This is a particularly tough question. The older my children get the more they value their own privacy, especially my daughter, who, at 13, clearly wants to define her own space and let me in when she feels it's appropriate.

This is a constant challenge as we have different ideas of where the boundaries should be set. Her desire to set boundaries though has given me the opportunity to think in more details about my own. There are details I don’t feel the need to share.

On the other hand I held on to the deep dark secret that in 7th grade I got a D in math on my report card. I saved that information for the exact moment when she was struggling the most last in year in math and I think it did give her some comfort to know that I did understand her feelings and insecurities a bit more than she might have previously understood.

I can’t imagine any deep dark secrets I would not tell my children at an appropriate age, but I also don’t think everything needs to be disclosed unless they are at an appropriate age. I do think it is important to discuss with your child you have made choices that you now would counsel against. First because I think kids know when you lie, but also because they need to understand how to make decisions and obscuring your own internal conflict undercuts an opportunity to teach them both your values and the conflicts that will affect them.

Would I lie for my child? I have certainly said I cannot make an event for a non-committal reason, but I would hope that I do not encourage my children to actively lie because something is inconvenient. I think you have to teach a child to be considerate and ask why they are avoiding something. If it is because that is the yucky kid that no one likes well maybe that is the birthday party we need to make an extra effort to go to, but otherwise I don’t think you have to commit to everything and you can and should just say, thank you for inviting me but I am unable to attend. I recently read a book that talked about teaching kids the power of a positive no and that it is more powerful to be honest, rather than make false excuses.

Fortunately, I have led an exemplary, blameless life, and therefore have nothing to hide.

Ha! As you can see, I sometimes fall short of telling the truth.

More seriously, I have generally opted to be truthful with my now-teenage daughter over the years, only rarely saying "that’s private." (Translation: I don’t want to talk about it - but it is usually also private!)

I have been fairly open about things I wish I had done differently and that I hope she can learn from. The Washington Post magazine had a good piece about this issue not too long ago and I found it very thought-provoking; it sounds like most parents have boundaries on how much to disclose, but generally want to be as truthful as is usefully possible.

Kids have excellent built-in hypocrisy meters. They also have long memories and will resent finding out later that you lied about something. I have friends who found out years after the fact that, for example, their parents had been married before, and they were taken aback to learn that such an important fact had been concealed for so long. They wondered what else they had been misled about.

I am bad when it comes to the social lies. This came up recently, when one family member thought it was better to be truthful and say that my daughter just did not want to do something (while guests at someone’s home, hence no easy escape route), whereas I argued that she simply could not say that flat out, but instead should invent a more palatable excuse to avoid that particular activity.

Hello Ladies. My son is three. How honest should I be with him about my past? This is a hard question to answer today. I feel that both good parenting and teaching depends on the teachable moment. I am hoping I will know the right amount of information to share and the right time to share it. Our information should be used to guide our children to be the best people they can be. I would never want my mistakes to give him an excuse to be irresponsible. Some things should always remain private.

One thing I know for sure, safety will always be my priority. I would never want my child driving with someone or themselves after drinking. I would be proud of them if they called home for a ride.

As our kids become teenagers, when the topics of drinking, partying, etc. become an issue, I am assuming they are not going to listen to lectures from us. That said, it is our responsibility to set safe, high standards for them. It is also important they know we realize all of their feelings are very real and important.

I imagine it will be easier to speak about my educational experiences. I can now look back and realize why certain classes and subjects were difficult for me. I can share my insights and help my child identify his learning strengths and weaknesses. At this moment, I feel like the best thing I can do for my three year old is instill in him positive feelings towards school. I want him to feel excited to learn. No flash cards in our house.

As for the issue of honesty. I feel very strongly that I should not lie for my child or in front of him. If there is a party or a play date that he does not want to attend, I can just as easily say that he will not be able to go. There is no reason for providing a false explanation. How can our kids take us seriously when we tell them to be honest if we model lying?

In no way do I think all of my experiences should be an open book to my children, and, I don’t expect them to tell me everything either. I didn’t tell my folks. Like all of you, I give out information when I think they can handle it, and when I think it will happen them get through something, or understand me better. I may share with them some things that I wish I hadn’t done--and there are many--when they are adults.... But for now, I agree with Meg that knowing your parent has done something might help persuade child that just, perhaps, it isn’t so awful to try something, when, in fact, it really is.

What do the rest of you think? Do you lie for your kids?

By Valerie Strauss  | October 15, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  The Group, honesty  
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