Mom needs help with getting kids to understand ‘white lies’

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Q: A neighbor invited my daughter for a play date, and she didn’t want to play with that friend. I told the mom I thought my daughter needed some down time, which isn’t untrue, but also isn’t the actual reason. Both of my kids, 8 and 10, questioned the approach afterward, and my daughter commented, “Well honesty is the best policy, but sometimes it’s not.” Wow, that wasn’t the message I wanted to convey. Was I wrong to approach it this way? I can’t imagine saying my daughter just didn’t want to play with her kid. How do I get kids to understand “white lies” in a way that retains the value of being honest?

White Lies

A: Honesty without cruelty is a balance even adults struggle to achieve, as your story demonstrates. So present it to your kids that way, instead of trying to come up with the definitive, parent-knows-best kind of message.

Taking your example from where you left off, you could say: “That wasn’t the message I wanted to convey. It’s important to be honest without being excessively so, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly where that line is.”

And then: “I was caught off-guard just now and told a ‘white lie’ — that’s when you lie about something trivial to protect a person’s feelings.”

And then: “What do you guys think, could I have given a better answer? If a friend didn’t want to come to our house, what would you want that friend to say?”

This isn’t merely an elegant punt. It’s a way for you to engage your kids in moral reasoning, to invest them in the way they choose to interact with others, to help them cultivate empathy, to learn from them yourself.

They might surprise you and say they’d rather friends just said they didn’t want to come over today. (And really, is that so bad?) They might question your reflex to give a reason, since, “No, thanks,” is a perfectly valid response.

Which brings us to the bigger problem “white lies” present than their dishonesty: They grow out of a boundary problem. Our time and choices and bodies are our own, so unless we’re bailing on an invitation we’ve already accepted, we don’t need reasons to say no, and no one acquires entitlement to know our reasons just by inviting us somewhere.

So get your kids thinking, talking and phrasing their way toward a position of strength, where they resist padding “no” with justifications, real or manufactured, and do so with the kindest intent.

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Washington Post Writers Group