There are many articles about why kids lie and teaching children to be honest. In Po Bronson's excellent piece Learning to Lie he said "Kids lie early, often, and for all sorts of reasons—to avoid punishment, to bond with friends, to gain a sense of control. But now there’s a singular theory for one way this habit develops: They are just copying their parents." Does that mean parents should never lie?
Just like I would never tell my child that it is never okay to hit, I would not tell them that it is never okay to lie. Unless you're prepared to never ever lie yourself, and to denounce lying from others, your children will eventually see you as a hypocrite.
I explain to my children that, just like all actions have consequences, when you lie you risk never being trusted again. I ask my kids to imagine what it would be like if I have to second guess everything they tell me. I ask them to imagine what it would be like for them if they couldn't trust me. I remind them that once you get caught lying you're just like the boy who cried wolf. Even when you're telling the truth you cannot expect to be trusted. I ask them if any lie is really worth that.
When they do get caught lying - as opposed to coming clean on their own - I try make them understand that the lie is worse than whatever it was they were lying about. (Fortunately this has always been the case.) In addition to whatever punishment seems appropriate for the context, I reinforce that I can no longer trust them, which is a struggle as a parent. I force myself to remind them how I now have to second guess what they tell me. I remind them that it will take a long time for them to earn my trust again.
I'm not necessarily trying to teach them that lying is wrong, but more that lying has consequences. I might not punish them for lying to their friend, but I would remind them of the consequences. They will have to suffer the consequences of their deceptions. I also make it clear that word games won't excuse them from being misleading. It is unrealistic to expect our children to never lie, especially since so many adults lie all the time. The best we can do is teach them to value their integrity and understand the consequences of risking it.
Sometimes it can be very tempting to lie to your child. Like when they ask you a difficult question about mature content, or are seeking undeserved affirmation, or when referring to characters like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy. While I think it is theoretically okay to lie to your children, every time we do so we set a precedent. We have to decide whether we're willing to risk our long term credibility with them.
When my kids ask me a tough question, or one I'm reluctant to answer, I always try to first ask them "why do you ask?" Usually they're interested in something much more specific than what I fear.
We can also use context to shield children from unwanted fears that might come from honest answers. When our children are questioning mortality after a tragedy I might explain to them that "we're all going to die someday and we never know when" or "sometimes bad things do happen, but they could happen anywhere, anytime. They're not any more likely to happen tomorrow than they were yesterday, so we have to keep on doing what we have to do."
For some questions I might even find it necessary to stall, like questions about my own past that I'm not ready to discuss. In a situation like that I might say something like "that's a good question and I need some time to think about it" to "I think you need to be a little older for us to really talk about that in detail."
An old friend once told me that your integrity is one of the few things you really own. Cherish it and teach your children to do the same.
On The Leonard Lopate Show the contributing editor for New York magazine, Lisa Miller, talks about ethical parenting, or how parents engage in behavior that is various degrees of corrupt on behalf of their kids:
There was a really good episode about Breaking Bad News To Kids on Talk Of The Nation that touched on this: