Late October focus groups with teens and parents in Chicago, Illinois, and Alexandria, Virginia, yielded a familiar, if disconcerting, reality gap between well-meaning parents and their sometimes less than honest offspring. For example, a teen might say his parents give him free rein on weekends because they trust him, yet later acknowledges that he tells Mom or Dad only what he thinks they need to know about what he's doing.
This tug of war that is trust versus truth takes place at the intersection of independence and responsibility, through which pass such important issues as underage drinking, other drug use and impaired and distracted driving, among others.
Young people on the road to adulthood are moving from an external locus of control - where significant adults in their lives chart their path -- to an internal one where they take the wheel and navigate decision-making covering all sorts of critical life events, including those connected to health and safety.
That's what makes the disconnect so disconcerting.
While shifting trends and influences cause rates of different risk behaviors to rise and fall almost rhythmically, Temple University Professor Laurence Steinberg, author of Age of Opportunity - Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence (Steinberg, 2014), notes that American adolescents are among the world leaders in violence, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, abortion, binge drinking and marijuana use.
Hence the concern over lying.
Sure, many parents acknowledge engaging in some of the same behaviors as teenagers that they now struggle so mightily to have their kids avoid. But times (and laws) have changed, as has the gravity of the risk behaviors themselves.
Behind safety and well-being lurk issues of responsibility and personal accountability - both bedrocks of allowing young people to exercise growing independence by making their own choices. Kids themselves readily identify honesty as a "value" they personally find important. A Penn State University study on the subject, as reported by Po Bronson in the New York magazine article "Learning to Lie" (Bronson, 2008), found that 98 percent of children said trust and honesty were essential in a personal relationship. Yet in the same study researchers found that the identical number (of teens), 98 percent, lie to their parents.
Similarly, research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) (SADD, 2000) found that almost all high school students surveyed (89 percent) say it's important that they have their parents' trust. Yet significantly less than half (40 percent) say they tell them the whole truth.
But, as the Penn State study notes, lying doesn't begin in the teenage years. Bronson says that by their fourth birthday, almost all kids will begin lying to avoid getting in trouble. That remains a primary motivation for lying throughout childhood and adolescence. Other reasons include lying to get along better with others, to exert independence or gain control, to get attention and to express anger.
In some cases, lying may be viewed as normative in a developmental context and thus not necessarily as dysfunctional as one might presume. In that way it is a part of what psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg defined as the six stages of moral development (Children's Health, 2014), which catalog etiology of dishonesty and self-determination longitudinally.
• Avoiding punishment
• Doing right for self-serving reasons
• Fitting in with and pleasing others
• Doing one's duty
• Following agreed-upon rules
• Acting on principles
And while lying may also be indicative of deeper psychological problems, it is likely those last two stages are what parents hope - and perhaps believe - will guide their child's choices.
Interestingly, Bronson notes the Penn State study concluded that many kids learn to lie by observing their parents lie - or at least shave the truth. Some parents also encourage their children to tell "white lies" in order to be polite and/or avoid hurting someone's feelings.
Some kids say they don't tell the truth for fear of disappointing their parents, not comprehending that it may well be the lying that is most disappointing of all.
And that is at the heart of this dilemma.
James Lehman, M.S.W., in his Empowering Parents article "Why Kids Tell Lies and What to Do About It," describes dual value systems at work simultaneously. One is the family's, which may hold that dishonesty is unacceptable. The other is the teenagers', which may suggest that lying is OK as long as it doesn't hurt anyone or is simply covering up behavior that is not deemed by them to be harmful (Lehman, 2010). Of course, teens' perceptions of harm, or potential harm, may differ from parents' - even if science and research say otherwise.
So what did Lehman suggest?
1. Don't give lies too much power. Kids will lie because of the excitement factor, whether they are "good kids" or "bad kids."
2. Be sure consequences are applied for lying and that they make the child uncomfortable in a way that will discourage future lying.
3. Separate consequences for the lie and the misbehavior.
Lehman explained, "Just be clear. Lying is wrong, it's hurtful and, in our home, we tell the truth. But don't make it a moral issue. Make it a technical issue. You broke the law. You broke the rules. These are your consequences."
Nevertheless, given the import many families place on honesty as a metric of the parent-child relationship, it's hard not to take it personally. As an exasperated dad of a 17-year-old high school senior told the focus group moderator in a deep baritone, loud enough to cut through the chatter, "It's all lies. It's a house of lies!"
Bronson, P. (2008). Learning to lie. New York magazine. February 10, 2008. nymag.com/news/features/43893/ (3 Nov. 2014).
Children's Health. (2014). Lying. Encyclopedia of Children's Health. Advameg, Inc. http://www.healthofchildren.com/L/Lying.html (3 Nov. 2014).
Lehman, J. M.S.W. (2010). Why kids tell lies and what to do about it. Empowering Parents. empoweringparents.com/Why-Do-Kids-Children-and-Teens-Lie-What-To-Do-About-It.php (3 Nov. 2014).
Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of opportunity - lessons from the new science of adolescence. New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Students Against Destructive Decisions. 2000. Teens Today study highlights poor communication as one reason for wide "reality gap". September 13, 2000. http://sadd.org/teenstoday/survey.htm (3 Nov. 2014).
University of Central Florida. (2014). Kohlberg's stages of moral development. http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~ncoverst/Kohlberg%27s%20Stages%20of%20Moral%20Development.htm (3 Nov. 2014).