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

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 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?

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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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