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Can't help being a Pinocchio parent

Telling white lies to my little ones is unlikely to be damaging, but it can become a crutch and, as a parent, I should lead by example

I have lied to my children more often than I would like.

Typically, I slip up in knee-jerk attempts to wiggle out of parenting pickles I find myself in.

The other day, I had successfully wrestled my two children - a girl, aged three, and a one-year-old boy - into their car seats and the week's groceries into the trunk. I heaved a sigh of relief, flexed my sore arms criss-crossed with plastic bag handle marks and was looking forward to an uneventful ride home, where the other pair of adult hands (my husband's) resided, when I heard this plea from the backseat.

My daughter had a request: To watch her favourite show Ben And Holly, a British cartoon about elves and fairies, on my mobile phone.

The request soon turned into a shrill whine, the sort that threatens to escalate into a full-scale meltdown.

We have this limit at home: The kids can watch no more than 30 minutes of cartoons in the evening every day.

I dreaded the moment my children would realise that Santa isn't real and that their loving parents had lied to them for years. And lies are a funny thing - once you start, it can be tough to stop.

So, I explained to her calmly and with as much gravitas and conviction as I could muster, that my mobile phone was out of juice.

"Why mummy?" she asked, of course.

"Because I forgot to charge it. Silly me," I answered with a mock sad face, internally embarrassed.

On another occasion, we were at the mall, when, to my horror, we walked past a store selling merchandise from the animated movie Frozen (2013).

Ecstatic, she rushed in.

I braced myself, planning to do what I read in a book on how to parent respectfully. I was going to say: "I won't let you buy these items, you already have too many toys", then handling the resulting tantrum like a pro by taking her aside and allowing the anger to work itself out, saying "let it out darling, it's hard not getting what you want. I understand", accompanied by the offering of hugs and an empathetic nodding of the head.

But as my daughter started loading a basket with Elsa and Anna dolls, I found myself blurting out: "Oh sweetheart, I can't buy those for you, I didn't bring any money."

My husband gave me the evil side-eye, but reluctantly cooperated by hiding my wallet behind his back. He is opposed to me lying.

I am very much against it too. But let's face it, it is sometimes difficult to stick to the truth.

Take the grocery incident. The trip to the store with my curious, strong-willed children was challenge enough. After surviving that, I knew that I did not have the patience to get into how she couldn't watch cartoons right now because "too much TV is bad for your brain and your eyes".

This is my standard answer to incessant pleas from her to watch the small screen (we do not have a television set at home). It usually elicits the response "me no need brain". I then have to go into how one does need a brain for bodily functions and so-on and so-forth.

It is so tiring.

But okay, I get it, fibbing is bad and I should stop with the excuses.

My husband and I actually made a decision, before we had No. 1, not to lie - at all. So when it does happen, it is a parenting fail moment (usually on my part).

Case in point. Last Christmas, we categorically decided against putting milk and cookies out for Santa.

I dreaded the moment my children would realise that Santa (spoiler alert!) isn't real and that their loving parents had lied to them for years.

And lies are a funny thing - once you start, it can be tough to stop.

First, it's a plate of cookies for Santa. Next, I'll be putting out snacks for Santa's herd of reindeer because "mummy, we can't leave them out" - which is logical.

The year after that, I know I'll find myself on all fours etching out fake footprints in icing sugar across the living room floor.

By the time they are in their teens, I'll be sneaking into my own house at midnight, carrying a sack.

So yes, it is best not to lie.

In an article published recently in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, two psychologists suggested that lying to children - even about something as trivial and seemingly harmless as Santa - could undermine their trust in their parents and leave them feeling "abject disappointment".

Great.

I turned to Google.

Other parents lie too, it seems, so much so that there is a term for it - Pinocchio parenting. In fact, a survey of 1,000 parents in Britain found that 75 per cent have told white lies.

I felt better. I also discovered that small, white lies are unlikely to be damaging, but they can become a crutch - allowing me to avoid putting my foot down - and detrimental in the long term.

To sum it up: Lying is generally best kept to a minimum, both to develop trust between yourself and your child and to lead by example.

In our household, the tooth fairy and Santa will continue to be pretend and you won't hear me telling my kids that eating carrots will make them see in the dark or that babies are delivered by storks.

As for those day-to-day fibs? Yes, it looks like I have some work to do.

But like many aspects of parenting, it is going to have to be a work in progress. I promise I'll try again after my grocery run next week.

Believe me, I wouldn't lie to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Can't help being a Pinocchio parent'. Print Edition | Subscribe