Teaching: Parenting by Lying

Salena Brody is professor of instruction in psychology and Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at The University of Texas at Dallas. She holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a specialization in prejudice reduction and intergroup relations. Brody is an enthusiastic teacher, public speaker, and faculty developer. She holds Fellow status in the University of Texas System Academy of Distinguished Teachers and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies.

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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Setoh, P., Low, P. H. X., Heyman, G. D., & Lee, K. (2024). Parenting by Lying. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 33(1), 51-57.

In the 1997 film Liar Liar, Fletcher Reede routinely lies to his young son. Then, when his son makes a birthday wish for him to stop lying, Fletcher is flung into 24 hours of total honesty. What follows is a fantastical exploration of Fletcher’s reliance on deception in his life and the cost of these lies to his family. 

Most parents likely don’t lie to the degree that Fletcher does, but research indicates that most parents do lie to their children, despite espousing honesty as an important virtue. Setoh et al. (2023) present a theoretical model for understanding a specific practice called “parenting by lying,” a relatively new area of research that involves parents lying to influence their children’s behavior, attitudes, or beliefs.  

Some parents issue false threats to increase behavioral compliance (e.g., “If you don’t finish your milk, your bones will dissolve”). Other parental lies are designed to influence children’s feelings or beliefs (e.g., lying about Santa Claus to create a magical holiday).  

Although evidence suggests that most parents lie to their children, only a small fraction (5%) of adult grown children report that their parents lied to them often. Being able to accurately report parental lies relies on children detecting the lies. Early adolescence is a time when children’s sense of being deceived matches parental reports of lying. Parenting by lying is a global phenomenon, with Asian and Turkish samples reporting the practice to a high degree (over 95% experienced parenting by lying). European American samples tended to report lower rates, though still relatively high (~75%). 

In other close relationships, deception can harm intimacy and erode trust. Is this the case with parent–child relationships? Scholars suggest that the answer is yes. Parenting by lying can erode parent–child attachment bonds, create mistrust, and model lying as an acceptable behavior to children according to social learning theory (Bandura, 1977). Indeed, individuals who recall their parents lying to them during childhood are likely in adulthood to lie to their parents, research suggests..  

The Parenting by Lying Integrative Model suggested by the authors offers new directions for research and provides a framework for asking questions about motives. As seen in Liar Liar, the truth can hurt and be jarring to receive. Comforting lies that influence positive self-talk and growth behaviors may improve well-being with less potential risk to the parent–child dynamic. Future research may show such lies to be causally different than parental lying that focuses on maintaining authority and behavioral compliance. Scientists should also examine how parenting by lying affects children of varying temperaments, personalities, and histories. 

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Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Prentice-Hall. 

Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 487–496. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.113.3.487 

Heyman, G. D., Luu, D. H., & Lee, K. (2009). Parenting by lying. Journal of Moral Education, 38(3), 353–369. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057240903101630 

Jackson, R. (2021). Exploring the associations of parenting by lying with psychosocial adjustment, dishonesty, and culture. [Doctoral thesis, University of Toronto.] TSpace Repository. https://hdl.handle.net/1807/125884 

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