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.
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.
"Western parents tend to view their kids as full individuals with decision-making powers—almost more as equals," Chua tells me. "When I was growing up, my parents didn't see me as equal," she says. "They knew my interests better, so I would have my preferences overridden and [I was] not consulted." By contrast, the parents of her American husband, fellow Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, "gave him more respect, respecting his choices and personality."
Many American parents consider anything that violates the autonomy of the child, like lying, a violation of the child's individualism and, therefore, morally wrong. This explains why American parents are less approving of the practice of instrumental lying than Chinese parents are. Interestingly, even when American parents do lie, they justify their lies by saying that the lies wouldpromote the individualism of the child. Some American parents Heyman spoke to said lying "makes children more imaginative and less literal-minded...it teaches children to be appropriately skeptical... [and] it teaches them the reality of the social world."
The tiger mother does not approve of instrumental lying. Chua tells me that she and Rubenfeld "definitely don't lie to our children. They're so smart that we would lose credibility." Chua's older daughter, Sophia, is a sophomore at Harvard majoring in philosophy and Sanskrit. Lulu, 17, is a junior in high school with a passion for violin and writing. "I'm not morally opposed to it," Chua says about such lying. "I just don't think it would work." The lies Chua's own parents told her backfired: "Every time my parents said I would be kidnapped if I did this or that, I just got more reckless."
Chua advocates complete honesty. "Tiger mothers are actually more truthful—we don't sugar coat," Chua tells me. Recently, for example, Lulu was working on an essay for class about a short story. Chua read the essay and told Lulu that the point she was making was cliché—it was not as interesting as Lulu thought it was.
Or consider an example from when Lulu and Sophia were much younger: Chua, Rubenfeld, and the girls were at a restaurant together for Chua's birthday dinner. Chua was dipping her bread in some olive oil when Sophia and Lulu presented their makeshift birthday cards to the tiger mom. The cards were pieces of paper folded in two with half-hearted "Happy Birthdays" written in them. Lulu gave hers first. Chua took one look at the card and said, "I don't want this." It was not good enough. She then said, "I reject this," and threw the card back at Lulu, who was about four years old at the time. Sophia, whose card was not good enough either, was probably seven. Chua said to her, "That's nice, Sophia, but not good enough either."
Later that night, the girls redeemed themselves. They presented Chua with far more thoughtful cards that she still has—a tiger-mom victory, and a victory for Chua's complete-honesty policy.
When it came to lies that parents told their kids to make their kids feel better about themselves, American parents are less truthful than their Eastern peers in one notable domain: in telling their kids how accomplished they are at a musical instrument. Sixty percent of American parents, compared to half of Chinese parents, would tell their kids "That was beautiful piano playing," when it was in fact truly awful.
This was one of the only lies that fewer Chinese parents reported telling their kids—and if you've read Chua's book, you won't be surprised. When she was seven years old, Lulu had been struggling for days to play a complicated piece on the piano called "The Little White Donkey," with little to no progress. While an American mom may have softly encouraged Lulu or even have told Lulu that she was doing well, Chua took a different course: "When she still kept playing it wrong," Chua writes, "I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn't do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic." Chua was just as harsh to Sophia, who played the piano too. A criticism that Chua shared with her oldest daughter back in the day: "Oh my God, you're just getting worse and worse."
The strategy may be blunt, but it is effective. Lulu mastered "The Little White Donkey" and played it at a recital several weeks after things nearly came to blows with the tiger mom. Sophia, for her part, performed at Carnegie Hall in 2007.
Apart from the practical concern—that instrumental lying will not work so brutal honesty is better—there is also the moral concern. Is it ever ok to lie to your children?
"Young children are sensitive to how reliable people are when they decide whether to trust them," as Heyman, herself a mother of three, tells me. Such lying "may undermine children's trust in their parents." On top of that, it may encourage children to lie more themselves.
In fact, it probably does encourage them to lie more—but that might not be such a bad thing. "The reality is, we all teach our kids to lie from time to time," Dan Ariely tells me. "Nobody tells their kids that the answer to "How do I look in that dress?" should be the perfect truth." Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, is the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonest: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. "Some dishonesty in the social realm is important," he tells me.
Chua has learned that the hard way. Once, when Sophia acted disrespectfully toward her, Chua called her "garbage" (as Chua's father had called her "garbage" when Chua had behaved disrespectfully to her own mother). When Chua shared this parenting trick with her friends at a dinner party, she was immediately ostracized. One woman at the party started crying and left early.
While lying may have its place in the social sphere, Chua stands by her policy of complete honesty toward her children. It may mean a social sacrifice for the tiger mom, but the payout to her tiger cubs is worth it—a lesson that parents who are tempted to lie might want to remember.