Pinocchio Parenting

The truth about the lies we tell our children.

“Liar, liar… parents on fire!” That’s what Dillon shouted to his parents right after they told him another one. Unfortunately, he’d heard them all before:

“You can be anything you want to be.”
“Looks don’t matter; it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”
And the one we’ve all told: “When I was your age, I walked to school in the snow… without shoes… uphill… both ways.” Really?

The truth is— everybody lies. Deny it, and you’re probably lying. Small lies are called “fibs.” Big ones are called “whoppers.” Necessary ones are called “white.” Hmmm.

We live in a culture where lying is commonplace; the same way that fish live in a culture that’s wet. According to the book The Day America Told the Truth, 91 percent of Americans surveyed admitted to lying routinely. On average, we lie about twice a day. Unfortunately, that’s more often than most of us brush our teeth.

Why We Lie

To lie has become as American as apple pie. We lie to protect ourselves; we lie to promote ourselves. We lie to elevate ourselves; we lie to excuse ourselves.

We’ve become a nation of “Pinocchio Parents.” Soon after we learned how to walk, we learned how to lie (“I didn’t do it.”) Later in life, we’ll tell money lies (“The check is in the mail”), math lies (“I just turned 39”), medical lies (“The doctor will call you right back”), work lies (“I can’t come in to work today, I’m sick”) and necessary lies (“Fat? No honey, you look great in that dress”).

While every lie has its consequence, the most damaging lies of all are the ones we tell our kids. Why? Because they erode our credibility and distort their reality. I’ve seen hundreds of kids as a psychologist and I’ve concluded that while unhealthy behavior prompted the trip to my office, unhealthy beliefs lie at the heart of the behavior. Beliefs determine behaviors. Unhealthy behaviors are based on unhealthy beliefs— change the beliefs and you change the behaviors. Unfortunately, we become what we believe.

Our purposes may be noble, but we lie to our kids for three main reasons. First, to help them make sense out of their circumstances (that’s okay honey; he wasn’t good for you anyway). Secondly to bring assurance to their anxieties (looks don’t matter; it’s what’s inside that counts) and finally, to inspire them to reach beyond their limits (if you can dream it, you can do it). The problem is— none of these are true. Each contains a little bit of fact and a little bit of fiction.

Living By the Lie

Lie #1. You can be anything you want to be. It’s a belief that’s fashionable, but is it factual? Seventy-five percent of parents think so. So can you teach a bird to swim or a fish to fly? Of course not. It’s a lie that’s based on a belief that desires produce dreams. They don’t. Desire may direct your choice, training may develop your mind and motivation may fuel your fire, but ultimately the difference between average and awesome is ability.

God created each of us unique. Could Beethoven carve a statue like Michelangelo? Could Mozart draw like Picasso? Could Picasso become an accountant? The numbers just wouldn’t line up. Literally.

As a parent, my job is to help my children discover and develop the unique gifts that God has invested in them. Kids cannot be anything they want to be, but they can do the most with what they’ve got and do it in a way that nobody has ever seen before.

Lie #2. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game. Then why does everybody keep score? In school, in sports and in the workplace— everyone keeps score.

The Dallas Mavericks of the NBA just spent millions of dollars on an eight-sided, 360-degree electronic scoreboard. Why? Because in the NBA, they keep score. Do the Mavericks have some of the nicest guys on the court? Yes. But did they score fewer points than the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs last year? Yes. As a result, Miami was offered congratulations; Dallas was offered condolences.

I’m not saying that character doesn’t matter. It does. As a parent, if I could only pick one, I’d choose character over competence any day, but I live in a world where both are important. Parents are missing the mark if they teach their kids that score doesn’t matter.

In the classroom those with the highest grades succeed, those with the lowest stumble. On the court, those with the most points move on, those with the least move over. My point? Winning isn’t everything, but the score is kept for a reason. As a parent, teach your kids to keep one eye on their character, one eye on their competence— and one eye on the scoreboard.

Lie # 3. Looks don’t matter; it’s what’s on the inside that counts. God may look at the inside, but the research demonstrates that He may be the only one.

America is blinded by beauty. Numerous studies have concluded that what’s on the outside conquers what’s on the inside hands down. Relative to those not so physically-blessed, attractive people are perceived as more competent, confident and sociable. At school, teachers demonstrate a “halo effect” towards the buffed, the bronzed and the beautiful. Teachers’ expectations are higher for good looking students and academic performance matched those expectations. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. In the workplace, attractive candidates are more likely to be hired, promoted and receive nine percent higher incomes than their less attractive co-workers.

My message to parents? Once again, character matters most, but telling our kids that appearance is irrelevant is a lie that will cost them academically, socially and vocationally. Appearance is important and first impressions are unforgettable. Work with your kids to make appearance count— not cost.

The truth is, I’ve been a Pinocchio Parent just like you. These lies slid off the tip of my tongue without examining the truth or the consequences. Today, I’m committed to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… so help me God.