Why Do Chinese Parents Lie to Their Kids More?

Is it okay for parents to lie to their kids? In my latest piece at The Atlantic, I discuss a new study that suggests that, while a majority of American parents admit to lying to their kids, almost all Chinese parents do. Chinese parents are also more approving of the practice. The specific lies in question are “instrumental lies”–or lying for the sake of ensuring compliance. For instance, a particularly graphic lie that only 4 percent of Americans tell their kids but one-fifth of Chinese parents admitted to threatening their children with was, “If you don’t behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish.” To get a breakdown of what lies parents admit telling–and which group, Americans or Chinese, are telling which lies–click here.

For my piece, I talked to the always interesting Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, who had some interesting thoughts on whether lying to your kids is a good parenting strategy: 

When Amy Chua was a little girl, her parents told her lies. They told her that if she did not get straight-A grades at school, she would wind up on the streets—or that if she got into the car of someone she did not know, she would be kidnapped.

In an interview with me, Chua elaborates. “They wouldn’t so much lie as exaggerate… wild exaggerations to point of untruths,” she says. Her parents, Chinese immigrants to the United States, “were paranoid about safety.”

Ultimately, she decided that a policy of complete honesty to her own children is better:

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.

You can read more here.