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The Rising Tide of Teen Dishonesty

crossed-fingersSome claim that the silly gesture of crossing your fingers behind your back to cover up a lie originated with Roman persecution of Christians. To escape death, those who lied about their faith in Christ, just as Peter did, made the sign of the cross behind their back to ask God’s forgiveness.

That sounds more like a fable to me, but it’s a fact that teenagers today seem to be crossing their fingers behind their back more and more. They are cheating and stealing more, too. The latest Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, shows teens are lying more often and more easily than ever. The report indicates an increase in lying, cheating and stealing among youth since 2006, when the report was first published.

Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they lied recently for financial gain. Sixty-four percent said they cheated on a test during the past year, and 38% had cheated more than once. Eighty-three percent said they had recently lied to their parents about something significant.

Concerning theft, 33% of the boys and 25% of the girls in the survey admitted to shoplifting in the past 12 months. Twenty-four percent said they had stolen something from a relative or parent in the same time period, and 20% had stolen something from a friend. Perhaps the most telling bit of data was that 93% said they are “satisfied with their personal ethics and character.”

All teenage behavior, including dishonesty, has a motivating factor. Teens hope to get something out of everything they do. Some will cheat or lie to feel esteemed or to appear perfect at any cost. Some just need to feel that they are never wrong, so they lie to cover it up when they are. Some are untruthful because they fear the consequences from mom or dad for telling the truth. And as far as stealing, kids steal things because they feel entitled to own them, or for the thrill of getting away with it, or just to fit in with their peers.

Always tell the truth. If you can’t always tell the truth, don’t lie. –Author Unknown

Let’s not overlook the way our culture glorifies all forms of dishonesty. It’s difficult for one to think of an unimpeachably honest public figure today. Every day we hear of politicians, business leaders, sports figures, police, teachers and judges — people whom we once looked up to as role models — who have been caught in a lie or a cheat or a theft of some kind. And consider the explosion in popularity of so-called “reality” TV shows, whose plot and strategy are usually based on deception and lying in order to gain a monetary prize or fame. It’s a far cry from the most popular TV shows in my teen years, like Bonanza, The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie. They may have been corny at times, but they had recurring themes of honesty and good character.

The most popular form of entertainment for teens today is the Internet. Due to its anonymity, deception and fantasy are rife on the Internet. Parents should be concerned that such deception, what I call “digital courage,” can spill over and fuel an attitude of deception in other areas of the teen’s life. So, I tell parents to follow their instincts. Even if there is no obvious cause for concern, they should keep a wary eye on their teen’s online surfing and make it a policy to know all of their teenager’s web passwords. In fact, I recommend parents install good monitoring software to track all of their teen’s Internet activity. Knowing that mom and dad are monitoring will go a long way toward keeping the teen honest in what they see, do and say on the Internet.

High academic expectations can also put a lot of pressure on a teen to cheat. Holding kids to unnecessarily high achievement standards can sometimes pressure them into getting a good grade at any cost. This and social stresses at school are more troubling for kids today than most parents realize. In fact, the Journal of Adolescent Health recently found that the stress of school keeps 68 percent of students awake at night, with 20 percent of them at least once a week. And of course, lack of sleep reduces their ability to think clearly and handle stress, so it becomes a vicious cycle. Could this be pushing more kids to cheat? Possibly.

Dishonesty may seem like a minor issue in comparison to other problems like drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and eating disorders, but it is a vice that parents should never ignore. Dishonesty is rooted in an attitude of disrespect; disrespect for others, disrespect for authority, disrespect for other people’s things, disrespect for your family’s values, and disrespect for oneself. If you ignore dishonest actions by your teen today, you may have to deal with bigger problems later. It won’t usually go away with the mere passage of time. It will reappear at significant stress points later in your child’s life—when they go off to college, get a job, or get married. Getting away with lying, cheating or theft today can lead to a lifetime of dishonesty, and that can land them in real trouble or heartache in the future.

It reminds me of the story some parents recently told me of their immature 18-year-old who had to learn this lesson the hard way. While skateboarding, he and some friends spotted an abandoned, broken-down farm house nearby and decided to go exploring. The boys didn’t know that the old house with no front door had recently been vandalized, nor that the neighbors were on the lookout. Taking some souvenirs of junk they found in the vacant house — things worth no more than a few dollars — they were putting them in the boy’s vehicle when the Sheriff arrived. Long story short, the boy was arrested and charged with felony burglary of a building. Though given probation for his first offense, he learned how difficult it is to survive thereafter with a felony arrest record. No one would hire him for years to come, regardless of the less than sinister circumstances of the “burglary.”

I’ve always said, “Life is hard, and harder if you’re stupid.” Mistakes can cause a heap of trouble for both a teen and his parents, and many of those mistakes begin with some form of dishonesty or disrespect for normal boundaries. Since nothing is more central to a person’s character than honesty, it is important to address dishonesty any time you discover it in your teen. Seek, search, and pry into areas you don’t normally think about in order to uncover and understand the root of it. Do all you can to ensure your teen is truthful in even the smallest things. I tell kids, “If you lie, I will pry. If you hide something, I will seek the truth. If you steal, I’ll make sure you suffer the legal and social consequences before your lying results in a life-long problem.”

I always speak the truth and refuse to tell a lie. –Proverbs 8:7 (CEV)

If you’re a parent who sees dishonesty creeping into your teen’s talk, texts or website; or if you learn they have cheated or stolen something, today is the day to expose and deal with it. Here are the steps I recommend taking: 1. Briefly describe the dishonest behavior. 2. Tell them how you feel about it and how it is counter to your values. 3. Affirm that you know they can do better. 4. Make them right the wrong, including confessing to whomever was wronged from the dishonesty, cheating or theft. 5. Enforce appropriate consequences and make sure they know that you will be on the lookout for any form of dishonesty in the future.

Parents need to “keep a vigilant eye” if they want to turn the rising tide of dishonesty. Call it an “alert mom or dad,” or an “involved parent,” if you will.  Let your teen know that it is your job as a parent to keep your eyes wide open for dishonest behavior, not so you can “catch them doing wrong,” but so that you can keep them from falling into that trap.

And by the way, be sure to model honesty yourself, and make it a habit to be truthful.  If you think you’ve hidden dishonesty from them in the past, think again. Teens can read their parents like a book. They don’t miss a thing and they detest hypocrisy. So, if you know you’ve been dishonest in front of your teen, ask their forgiveness, and give yourself some consequences for the bad behavior, so your teen knows how important it is to be honest. Teens need some good role models in regard to honesty.  If not you, then who?

This Weekend on Our Half-Hour Radio Program

Parenting Teens This WeekTopic:  A Map and a Compass for Your Teen in an Age of Dishonesty

Parents are called on to provide the moral compass for our teens and, therefore, we need to know what that looks like. So tune in to Parenting Today’s Teens to realign your navigation system and point your kids in the right direction. Listen to a local radio station or anytime after Saturday morning listen online at

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Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.