Chinese parents almost universally lie to their kids, and they’re more likely to lie to force their kids into compliance with parental wishes, as compared to American parents. A study published in the fall shows that while both groups of parents lie, Chinese parents are less likely to feel that they’ve harmed their children by doing it. Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic that it comes from putting group values ahead of individual values.
In the International Journal of Psychology, UC-San Diego professor Gail Heyman and her team reported on surveys of attitudes to lying by 114 American and 85 Chinese parents. The study looked at parents’ use of different kinds of lies told to children:
The researchers looked at three general types of lies: instrumental lying, or lying to promote compliance (“If you don’t behave, I will call the police”); comparison lies, or lying to make kids feel better about themselves (“It’s not your fault the plate broke,” when actually it was the child’s fault); and lying about fantasy characters (“Your fairy Godmother can see all the things that you do”).
84% of American parents said that they sometimes lied to promote compliance, but 98% of Chinese parents reported that they did. In other lying categories, there were differences, but they were not as clear as in this type of deceit. The Chinese parents also expressed no concern about these lies, since they felt that the outcome was more important than the deceit.
One Chinese parent from the study justified instrumental lying by saying, “When teaching children, it is okay to use well-intentioned lies. It can promote positive development and prevent your child from going astray.”
Chinese parental lies also tended to be more threatening and graphic than American ones. A large majority of Chinese parents feel okay threatening their children with being kidnapped if they don’t stay nearby, while few (18%) American parents felt that was acceptable. 20% of Chinese parents were also willing to tell children that bad behavior would be punished by throwing them into the ocean to let the fish eat them.
On the other hand, perhaps reflecting the glut of junk food in US households, more American parents admitted that they falsely told their children that the sweets were all gone; only about 40% of Chinese parents had done this. Both groups of parents said that they had gotten their kids out of stores by saying that they’d come back later to buy a toy.
Smith explains that other studies have provided explanations of the values that drive instrumental lying.
In the west, individualism is a sacred value. In China, the sacred unit is the community; individuals are simply part of that greater whole. A 2007 study found that Chinese children were more likely to disapprove of lies that benefited an individual as opposed to the group, while Canadian children were more likely to disapprove of lies that benefited the group rather than the individual.
American parents are less focused on the child’s compliant behavior and think much more about the child’s individual choices and will. They are also much more tolerant of children lying to them, although they disapprove of it and report telling their children not to lie. Chinese parents see lying as a much more one-sided value: okay for parents, not at all okay for children. American parents see the values as less black and white in both cases, depending on people and circumstances.