Is It Okay for Parents to Lie to Their Kids? China's Parents Say Yes

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New research suggests that while a majority of American parents admit to lying to their kids, almost all Chinese parents do—and Chinese parents tend to see less harm in it, too.

banner_lyingparentschina_shopping AP.jpg
A mother and son go toy shopping in Shanghai. False promises to buy toys are among the most common lies parents tell their kids, both in China and in the United States. (AP)

When Amy Chua was a little girl, her parents told her lies. They told her that if she did not get straight-A grades at school, she would wind up on the streets—or that if she got into the car of someone she did not know, she would be kidnapped.

In an interview with me, Chua elaborates. "They wouldn't so much lie as exaggerate... wild exaggerations to point of untruths," she says. Her parents, Chinese immigrants to the United States, "were paranoid about safety."

Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, is probably best known today for being a "tiger mom." "Tiger mothering," a strict way of raising children, is why Asians have such "stereotypically successful children"—so Chua argued in her controversial 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Unlike "your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom," Chua writes, Chinese mothers leave no margin for error: Schoolwork comes first; parents, teachers, and coaches are always right; children should not be complimented in public; and A-minuses and silver medals are unacceptable. Chua wrote in her book that she did not allow her daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), to attend a sleepover, watch TV, or have play dates. Her strict parenting methods shocked Western parents.

Now, there seems to be yet another difference between Chinese and American parenting methods. According to a new study published in the International Journal of Psychology, Chinese parents also lie more to their children to get them to do what they (the parents) want—and they approve of this practice more than American parents do.

The study, by Gail Heyman of the University of California-San Diego and her colleagues, examined the lying patterns of 114 American parents and 85 Chinese parents who had at least one child three years old or older. The researchers found that in the United States, 84 percent of parents admitted to telling their children lies to promote behavioral compliance, while in China, 98 percent of parents admitted to doing so. In a 2009 study of American parents, 78 percent of parents admitted to lying to their children—and parents who claimed to be committed to teaching their kids that lying is always wrong were just as likely to lie as other parents.

In Heyman's study, the most common lie parents told was, "If you don't come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself." At least two thirds of the parents from both countries admitted telling their kids that untruth. Both groups also frequently made the false promise to buy a toy that the child asked for. More than half of the American parents and three-quarters of the Chinese parents said they would respond to such requests by promising to come back to buy the toy another time, even when they had no intention of doing so.

The researchers looked at three general types of lies: instrumental lying, or lying to promote compliance ("If you don't behave, I will call the police"); comparison lies, or lying to make kids feel better about themselves ("It's not your fault the plate broke," when actually it was the child's fault); and lying about fantasy characters ("Your fairy Godmother can see all the things that you do").

Though parents from both countries lied across all three categories, the only category in which Chinese parents lied significantly more was in instrumental lying—or lying to get the child to behave in a way that the parent wants. One Chinese parent from the study justified instrumental lying by saying, "When teaching children, it is okay to use well-intentioned lies. It can promote positive development and prevent your child from going astray."

Sixty-eight percent of Chinese parents reported having told the lie Chua's parents told her about being kidnapped, but only 18 percent of American parents did. Another lie that far more Chinese parents than American parents (61 percent versus 10 percent) reported telling their kids was, "Finish all your food or you'll grow up to be short." A particularly graphic lie that only 4 percent of Americans tell their kids but one-fifth of Chinese parents admitted to threatening their children with was, "If you don't behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish."

Of the 16 instrumental lies the researchers asked about, the only lie that more American than Chinese parents reported telling their kids was related to junk food: "There's no more candy in the house" (when there really is). Nearly six out of 10 American parents admitted to that lie, compared to about four out of 10 Chinese parents.

While both the American and Chinese parents expressed disapproval of children lying to parents, Chinese parents disapproved far more than American parents.

**

So why do Chinese parents lie more? Might there be a fundamental cultural difference in how Chinese parents and Western parents view their children and their relationship to those children?

The Chinese parenting style, as Chua made clear in her book, is focused on instilling in the child respect, obedience, and a strict adherence to what Mom and Dad think best. Heyman tells me, "In China, children are expected to show much greater compliance with the expectations of their parents, and Chinese parents may go to greater lengths to make this happen."

There's another cultural factor at work—individualism, or the lack thereof. In the west, individualism is a sacred value. In China, the sacred unit is the community; individuals are simply part of that greater whole. A 2007 study found that Chinese children were more likely to disapprove of lies that benefited an individual as opposed to the group, while Canadian children were more likely to disapprove of lies that benefited the group rather than the individual. For instance: The children were presented with a story about the fictional Susan, whose job it is to decide who would represent her class in a spelling bee at her school. Mike, Susan's friend, is a bad speller, but he wants to be part of the competition. Canadian students opted to advise Susan to help her friend by telling her teacher to pick Mike for the team, while Chinese students put the class first by responding that Susan should tell her teacher Mike is a bad speller.

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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