Every parent wants to raise his or her children well. When I have explained the possibility of accidentally teaching children to lie, I have seen parent’s face light up with recognition. I have seen people place their palms on their cheeks and say, “Oh, my…”

So, how can you accidentally teach your child to lie? Here’s a scenario. It may be a little dated for the age of caller ID, but it makes the principle clear.

Mom is in the middle of doing something that mom wants to do when the phone rings. Eight-year-old son picks up the phone and answers it politely. “Hi, Mrs. Jones.” Mom’s head jerks around and she waves to get son’s attention. Then she silently mouths the words, “Tell her I am not home,” while waving her hands in front of her to indicate to her son that he should pretend she is not home. This is because, of course, mom does not want to talk to Mrs. Jones for some reason.

Is this a harmless lie? For mom and Mrs. Jones, it likely will have zero repercussions in the long run. But is it harmless for her son? Not remotely. Let’s dig into this a little deeper.

Mom thinks this is a harmless white lie. She doesn’t want to talk to Mrs. Jones right now. If son does this, it would not bother mom too much. After all, she does it.

But son has learned a different lesson. Son has learned a broader lesson because son is watching mom for principles for life. Son has learned from mom that small lies are acceptable when the truth is inconvenient or difficult. Son will later on apply this lesson to his communication with mom. Son will ask mom if he can go to the movies with his friends. Mom will say OK and ask what movie son is going to see. Son wants to see an R-rated movie that mom doesn’t want him to see. The truth is difficult and why should mom get to decide what movie son gets to see? After all, son is 15 years old and should be able to decide for himself what movies he sees! So son tells mom he is seeing a PG-rated movie that is playing at about the same time in the same movie theater. Son reasons that it’s not a big deal because he is not killing anyone or stealing anything. It’s a harmless lie because the truth would be inconvenient or difficult… for him.

By telling small lies for her convenience, mom has taught son that this is an ok way to handle life. The problem is that mom only considered her values and priorities about what’s ok to lie about but son picked up the principle of lying for convenience. Now that son is older, mom’s “petty rules” are quite inconvenient to son’s sense of fun so son lies to mom. Son’s priorities are different so son applies mom’s principle of lying for convenience to his own priorities and values. Mom finds out son lied, punishes him and then in her private time wonders how she raised a son that would lie to his mother’s face. But the truth is that she unwittingly taught him to lie to her.

This principle also extends to other leadership relationships. A supervisor who asks his employee to fudge data on a report to a manager has unwittingly taught that employee to lie to him. A mayor who asks her assistant to lie for her has taught her assistant to lie to her.
So what’s the solution? The solution is to not lie. “Tell her I’m busy right now and I will call her later” accomplishes the same thing as “Tell her I’m not home,” and it has the benefit of being truthful. “I’m busy” is true even if you are busy relaxing on the couch and don’t feel like talking. Why we feel compelled to tell “little white lies,” and how they damage relationships is a topic for another blog post.

Alternatively, mom could ask son to lie for her and then explain why it’s OK in this case but not OK to lie to mom. Good luck with that.

Have you ever accidentally taught someone something you didn’t mean to teach them? How and when did you realize what was going on?