255 Sweet White Lie

Based on research by Warneken, F., & Orlins, E. (2015) written by Mara Rowcliffe, MS.

People tell lies to gain power, hide their mistakes, and retain their reputations. Lies break trust, essential for positive relationships. Thus, we teach children NOT to lie. Yet, “white lies” are sometimes thought “polite” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. At what age are children sensitive to others’ feelings, telling “white lies,” to avoid hurting them?

In one psychology study, adults showed elementary aged children two drawings. One was drawn well, the other wasn’t.  If the adult didn’t display any sense of pride regarding their artwork, the children were truthful and shared their honest opinions about the picture.

If the adult showed a lack of confidence in their artwork abilities, appeared sad about not being a good artist, children by seven years old used white lies to try to reassure the adult that the picture was good. They also evaluated whether children would use white lies after the behavior was modeled by an adult.  Results showed that after modeling, even young children were more likely to use a white lie to reassure the sad adult.  They chose kindness over honesty.

Reward children for telling the truth but teach honest ways to answer to encourage, not hurt others.


Warneken, F., & Orlins, E. (2015). Children tell white lies to make others feel better. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 259-270.

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