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What I’ve learned: When teens lie


When my kids were small and their diapers dirty, I would try and coax them onto the changing table by telling them I was going to clean them up. They would stand unmoving, acting as though my sense of smell had abandoned me and insist that there was nothing to be cleaned. They looked me straight in the eye as they uttered their untruths. They wanted it to be true, so it was.

Later, when one son had drawn on his brother’s toothbrush with a marker, the black ink still staining his fingers, and insisted he had not done so, he looked away. He knew about lying, but didn’t yet know about poker faces.

I was pretty devastated in that moment. I felt that by age 5 I had taught him to be honest, I thought I had set his moral compass to True North. I saw this as one of my early, epic parenting fails. I felt let down by him and by myself, but I was wrong. The important thing in that moment was not that he lied, as lying at that age is a normal developmental milestone. The important thing was to react correctly to his tenuous relationship with the truth.

I lied to my parents as a teen. With no digital devices to track my movements I lied about the usual stuff, where I was, who I was with and what time I actually got home. I felt like a borderline criminal, as my heart pounded and I tried to control my facial expressions. The truth is that I was simply a normal teen.

Does your teen lie? Maybe. Probably. More than likely. Research suggests that on at least one important matter last year, you were not told the truth by your teen. (In this small study, 82 percent of teens admitted to lying to their parents in the previous year.) But the bigger question, the one that troubles us in that white-hot moment of anger is: what are we going to do about it?

In the biannual survey of The Ethics of American Youth, The Josephson Institute queries over 20,000 high school students on issues of character, lying and cheating. The vast majority of the teens surveyed agreed with the statements that, “In personal relationships, trust and honesty are essential” and, “it’s important to me that people trust me.”

So far, so good, we have raised a nation of kids who aspire to the values we have set forth in our schools and homes.

Yet, teen behavior is confounding, because while almost all teens said they valued honesty, nearly as many reported lying to their parents about significant matters. And many social scientists believe that respondents under-report their own undesirable behavior.

Like adults, teens aspire to be better than they are. Yet in reality they have many reasons to lie.

Teens lie for the obvious reasons, like to get out of trouble or to do something forbidden. But they also lie because they feel that the behavior they are engaging in is harmless, the rules they are given are arbitrary or unfair, or that the adults around them cannot understand the circumstances in which they are operating. They lie to protect each other’s feelings or to protect friends or siblings.

But teens lie for another important reason. Teens lie for privacy, they lie not just because they will be punished for what they are doing but because they simply do not want us, their parents, to know. Teens lie to preserve or establish their autonomy. It is their way of saying, “My social life is my own.” “What I do with my body is my own.” “How I spend my time is my own.” I remember that delicious feeling of realizing sometime in high school that I had my own life, that I had a whole world that my parents knew nothing about and that I would lie to protect that privacy. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t realize that my kids must sometimes feel the same.

Yet the question that remains for most parents is how to minimize or eliminate any lying and what to do when you find that your teen has not been honest. Our fears are that if we look for their lies or act like the raging, injured parent we feel when we discover untruths, our teen will shut down, and we may find ourselves even further from the truth. We fear they will go underground with their behavior.

Nancy Darling, a professor at Oberlin College who has studied teens and lying, suggests that one of the ways to raise trustworthy kids is to trust them, she explains, “…feeling trusted seems to inspire kids to behave in ways that will maintain parental trust. Good kids are trusted. The more they’re trusted, the more they try to live up to that trust, and the more trustworthy they become.”

Her research further shows that being willing to battle with your teen, having a climate in your home where teens feel that they can disagree with individual rules, though not with your authority to make those rules, is a parent’s best chance for discovering the truth. “Adolescents’ belier that their parents have the right to set rules both increases the likelihood that they will agree with them, but also increases the likelihood that they will share information with their parents even when they disagree,” Darling found. Her research showed that on issues in which teens disagreed with their parents but told their parents the truth, more than 50 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls told their parents about the issue in the hopes of altering the parent’s view.

As just one mom’s opinion, I feel the answer is to try and control the outward rage and stinging pain that we feel when they violate the set of ethics we have taught them since early childhood. Not all lies are the same, and before we act, we need to take a hard look at why they lied. Were they trying to protect someone’s feelings or their own privacy? Or, were they avoiding blame and responsibility for their own misbehavior?

When their untruths are about their privacy or someone else’s, it can be a starting point for important family discussions and no real punishment may be necessary. Yet, when their lying is to evade our clearly articulated rules, to sidestep taking responsibility for their actions or involves cheating, it is important to show how serious we believe this infraction to be. I think the lesson to teach is that had they chosen honesty, we might have been able to discuss their misdeeds and although confrontation might have ensued so would have, perhaps, understanding. They should know that disagreement, sometimes even loud and heated, is acceptable in our homes.

Our teens should never doubt our disappointment in the lying. The best message to convey is that the infraction might have been overlooked or a milder punishment put into place had they not lied. The message they should hear? “Had you just missed curfew, I might have been lenient, understanding or even forgiving. But that time you are going to spend grounded at home? That’s for lying.”

Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Twitter.

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