Have you noticed that you never have to teach a toddler how to lie? A baby could have chocolate smeared all over her face and crumbs all over her clothes, but when you ask, “Did you eat that cookie?” your precious two-year-old will put on a bold-face and tell you, “No, I didn’t!” But it’s not just babies. All of us can recall times when we’ve lied, fibbed, stretched the truth, or omitted incriminating facts. From the moment we learned how to talk, all of us innately know to be dishonest. Some psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that lying is just a phase that most children will abandon as they mature. But the truth is (pun intended) that lying is not a phase we grow out of, but a habit that we grow into.
In fact, a recent survey revealed that 96% of teens lie regularly. The Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth shows that 61% of teens admit to lying to a teacher about something important, and a whopping 76% admitted to lying to their parents last year. Another study, this one conducted in Britain, indicates that an overwhelming 84% of teens said they’ve regularly copied information from the Internet and pasted it right into their homework.
It’s safe to say that if you’re the parent of a pre-teen or a teen, dishonesty is likely an issue in your family. Maybe it’s a growing issue. Perhaps your son and daughter are lying so much, you’re having a problem trusting them at all. But whether your child is telling little white lies, or is habitual lying, there are ways to help your child speak the truth.
Before we start pointing fingers, it’s helpful to understand why our teen may be resorting to dishonest behavior. Most lying is a short-term solution for protecting relationships. Fearful of being unloved or disliked by parents, teachers or peers, teens will resort to lying. What if my parents knew I wasn’t a good student? What if they knew I smoked weed? How could they love me if they knew what I did?” Most lying doesn’t occur because a child is bad and deliberately wants to deceive you. Instead, teens lie because they care about what you think about them. They are scared about losing your love, care or attention. Now, this is not an excuse for dishonesty. But it helps us to approach our kids with grace when we catch them lying.
Create an Environment of Truth
If your teen has told you that they were scared to tell the truth, it’s time to reshape your home to be a place where truth is encouraged. Make honesty a family value—one that everyone is held to (including mom and dad). When your teen is brave enough to come clean, applaud and commend them for telling the truth. Begin each of those hard conversations with “I am so glad you told me the truth.” Reinforce the notion that lying may be a short-term solution, but it damages long-term relationships. Explain to your kids how deceit breaks trust—the trust that strong relationships are built on. It’s better to tell the truth and deal with the consequences, than to lie and risk the relationship altogether. Above and beyond all those messages, reiterate to your children what you’ll often hear from me—“There’s nothing you could do to make me love you more, and there’s nothing you could do to make me love you less.” A reassurance of your unconditional love will create an environment that allows your teen to tell the truth without fear of losing mom and dad’s affection or love.
Don’t Avoid or Ignore the Problem
While dishonesty may seem like a minor issue in comparison to other problems like drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and eating disorders, it is still a vice that parents should not ignore. If you gloss over your teen’s dishonest actions today, you may have to deal with bigger problems later. A tendency towards deceit won’t 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. And a pattern of deceit must be seriously addressed with love. Getting away with lying can lead your teen to experience real heartache in the future.
If you’ve seen dishonesty creeping into the way your teen talks or acts, or if you learn they have cheated or stolen something, today is the day to expose it. First, briefly describe the dishonest behavior, showing that you know what happened. Second, tell your teen how you feel about their behavior and explain why this action is neither wise nor moral. Then, most importantly, affirm that you know they can do better. Let your teen know that you believe they can change their behavior. Give them the confidence to do what’s right. After your discussion, have your teen right the wrong by confessing to whomever was harmed by the dishonesty or cheating, reimbursing for any theft or damages. Finally, enforce appropriate consequences and make sure your teen knows that you will be on the lookout for any form of dishonesty in the future. Holding your teen accountable is key to their growth and change.
Give Them Time to Tell the Truth
Lying is often an initial, knee-jerk response. So if your teen is struggling with lying, give them time to tell the truth. It works like this—when you confront your child with the discovery of an issue, follow up by saying, “You don’t have to answer right now. Why don’t you think about it, and get back to me tomorrow.” This takes away your child’s need to dodge the question by lying, and gives a teen time to tell the truth. Plus, you are not pointing the finger and demanding that your teen shamefully ‘fess up on the spot. Rather, you’re allowing your teen to make his or her own decision to tell the truth. This actually empowers your child to make the right choice and gives him or her time to be honest.
Practice Honesty Yourself
Also, be sure to model honesty yourself—make it a habit to be truthful. At a young age, kids think in very black and white terms. They don’t understand the reasons why you wouldn’t tell them the truth, even if you are trying to protect them from something. All they can see is, “Mom or dad lied to me.” So even when it’s difficult or hard, make it a point to be honest with your family at all times. As they get older, teens are extremely intuitive and they can spot hypocrisy a mile away. 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.
One of my biggest regrets happened earlier in my ministry. Some parents had called me to say that their son, who was to accompany me to a teen rehabilitation center, had run away. So I got in my car, and drove down to a nearby KISS concert, where I found the young man. Trying not to make a scene, I lied, and told him that his parents had been in an accident, and that he needed to come with me. Once in the car, I confessed, and said his parents were okay, and that we’re going to the rehabilitation center instead. It was a lie that this young man had a difficult time forgiving me for. He returned many times to the center, and each time reminded me of my dishonesty. Even many years after the fact, when I got to see him again, he said, “Remember when you lied to me?” Mom and dad, teens who struggle with lying need you to be an honesty role model. Live out Proverbs 8:7 and your teen will follow suit: I always speak the truth and refuse to tell a lie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.