While eating breakfast one morning my 3-year-old, Sonny, demanded ketchup, a condiment he loved so much it was practically a side dish.
Normally, I’d hand over the bottle and let him squirt away, but he wasn’t eating eggs or potatoes or anything you’d typically have with ketchup. He was eating a bowl of cereal. Rather than argue with him about how gross it would be to put ketchup on Frosted Mini-Wheats — or, in all honesty, clean up the mess he’d make while trying to rush out of the door— I told him we didn’t have any.
“Yes, we do,” he said.
“No, we don’t,” I said.
“Yes, we do,” he shouted.
To prove my point, I opened the fridge quickly. I pointed to the mustard, the mayo and all the other condiments on the inside of the door while blocking the ketchup with my hip.
“I told you,” I said. “We don’t have any.”
At the time, I didn’t think what I did was wrong. Telling Sonny we didn’t have any ketchup when we did wasn’t the kind of lie that would put him in therapy years from now, or that’s what I told myself. Then again, if he did that to me, he’d be in trouble.
Child psychologists call what I did “Pinocchio parenting.” We teach our children that lying is bad, yet we tell lies ourselves in order to avoid the consequences, whether it be a kitchen table smeared in ketchup or the inevitable tears that would follow learning what really happened to the pet goldfish.
Pinocchio parents don’t intend any harm. It’s just the opposite. We lie to protect our children, to reassure them, to inspire them, to discipline them, and to help them understand the world. But at what cost? If we lie to filter reality, our children never learn the truth. The world that they depend on us to make sense of becomes distorted and unreal, a series of fibs and fictions they live their lives believing to be facts. What comes of that world when our children peel back the wool? And what comes of us as parents when we get caught?
Later that night, just before dinnertime, I was standing over the stove mixing a pot of boiling pasta when Sonny yanked open the fridge. Of course, the first thing he saw was the ketchup.
“Daddy, see,” he said, holding the bottle over his head like a trophy.
We lie to protect our children, to reassure them, to inspire them, to discipline them, and to help them understand the world. But at what cost? If we lie to filter reality, our children never learn the truth.
Now I had to face the truth: Not only did I lie to my child, I got caught, too.
Sonny is young enough that he couldn’t put into words exactly what he thought or how he felt, but I could tell from the wary look in his eyes that he knew I wasn’t honest with him.
I lied to protect my son from the foulness of ketchup on cereal and to avoid the mess he’d make if he got all squirt-happy with the bottle. My intent was to save him from his feelings, but the problem is, the world is much fouler than the taste of foods that shouldn’t mix. And the mess created by lying can be much harder to clean up.
When we lie to our children, we teach them that honesty isn’t always the best policy. When we get caught lying, we break the trust inherent between parent and child, a trust we should do our best to keep. Maybe there are times when we’d want to be less honest, to bend the truth rather than withhold it entirely, but that’s a grey area a child my son’s age isn’t old enough to understand. For a toddler, the world is mostly black and white, and it’s our job as parents to reveal all the colors in between.
While putting Sonny to bed a couple of hours later, I decided it was time for the truth.
“I’m sorry I lied to you about the ketchup earlier. Daddy shouldn’t have done that.”
I was sure Sonny wouldn’t understand what I was talking about, but I wanted to model the behavior I expected of him. Again, I was wrong.
Sonny let out a long sigh and said, “It’s OK, Daddy.” Then he kissed me on the cheek and said that he loved me.
Hopefully, telling him about the goldfish will be just as easy.