Home Youth Leaders Articles for Youth Leaders Why Teens Struggle to Tell the Truth

Why Teens Struggle to Tell the Truth

It’s a sad reality, but everybody knows that teenagers lie. Some of them do it more often than others, but all of them know it’s wrong. Fortunately, when confronted with their deceit, most teens own their punishment and seek reconciliation.

I just wish the same thing could be said of their parents.

I Learned it from Watching You
Penn State did a study just a few years back and found that 98% of teens lie to their parents…even though 98% of the same group believed lying was morally wrong. That news was disturbing to say the least, and gave us lots of reasons to address truth in families and youth ministries.

And not much has changed since then.

Sure, 98% of kids might lie to their parents about brushing their teeth, but what about more serious issues? A more recent study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, The Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, claims that more than 80% of high school students admitted to lying to their parents “about something significant” in the past year. Further, the Institute discovered that 48% of young men, and 35% of young ladies, said they sometimes lie to save money.

For most of us who spend time with teenagers, we read these numbers and think of actual faces. We know kids who have trouble telling the truth, regardless of the frequency or the seriousness of the issue at hand. But none of us have to look very far to see who’s setting this bad example for them. Time after time, research points back to parents who lie.

For example, as reported by KIMA Action News in late 2011, some parents have lied to get their kids into all-day kindergarten classes that are offered free-of-charge to qualifying families. The problem gained attention because several of these kids from Washington, who qualified for the classes, were restricted from attending them due to overcrowding. A similar problem exists in Florida all the way across the U.S., as well. My wife and I personally know families that (intentionally) falsified paperwork to get their kids into our neighborhood school.

And in a recent study of over 1,000 parents performed by Harris Interactive, 55% of parents with 12-year-olds admitted that their underage kid used Facebook (even though the minimum age is 13). Even more incriminating was the fact that 7 out of 10 of these parents actually helped their underage kids set up the online account (which is a direct violation of Facebook’s terms of service).

A lie is a lie, even if it’s online.

In fact, lying by parents has become so prevalent, that some wonder just how often it’s really happening.

Favoring the Fib
It might not be a good thing, but the truth is, I’m rarely shocked; it takes a lot for my jaw to drop. Maybe it comes from years and years spent ministering to teenagers who wanted to shock me. I don’t know.

But I wasn’t ready for this.

Last week, I caught this video segment on NBC’s Today Show. In Ann Curry’s interview with Rachel Feddersen, Editorial Director for Parenting.com, Curry highlighted the findings from Parenting’s recent research about moms and lying:

  • 85% of moms have lied to get out of social obligations.
  • 29% of mothers admitted to lying to their spouses.
  • 25% of them also admitted to lying to their friends.

It wasn’t the numbers that surprised me; it was Feddersen’s (horribly flawed) justification of lying that left me dazed. (More on that in a moment.) But she wasn’t the only one favoring the fib; Jennifer Hartstein, a practicing psychologist, was interviewed at the same time, and also tried to rationalize parental deception. Her closing line in the interview was nothing short of dangerous: “And I think sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. So, we can always rebuild the relationship.”

I promised to show you their flawed logic, but before I do, let me say this: When it comes to the issue of truth, I’m a purist. Some might even say I’m a fundamentalist. Either label is fine with me, because my friends know when I say something, that’s the way it actually is.

In Why Women Lie to Their Kids, Parenting’s article based on the video above, Janene Mascarella outlines a few reasons why so many parents lie.

  1. The “magic of childhood” requires lying. Mascarella uses Christmas and Easter, among others, to illustrate the need for lying. Without lying, “There would be no Santa Claus…or Easter Bunny.” I’m actually OK raising a kid without Santa and the rabbit, for several reasons. First, we’ve raised our son without Santa or the Easter Bunny and he’s turned out just fine (and he has yet to “ruin” any other kids’ holidays, either). Second, aren’t the stories of Jesus’ actual birth and resurrection just a little bit better than the made up stories, anyway? Moving on.
  2. Lying prevents kids’ unruliness. Ahh…now we’re really getting to the heart of the issue. Lying is for “our” benefit. (That kinda contradicts argument number one, doesn’t it?) She claims that, on occasion, it’s just easier to skip the truth to avoid a tantrum. I know another way to avoid tantrums: discipline! Here is a direct quote from her article: “Sometimes self-preservation trumps integrity.” I couldn’t disagree more. According to the Bible, and everyday ethics, there is absolutely nothing that trumps integrity.
  3. Lying is required because kids can’t handle “the cold, hard truth.” I actually agree with half of her statement, here. She’s right about kids being unable to handle all the truth right away, but that reality still isn’t a hall pass to commence lying. Just the other evening, Josiah, my 6 year old, heard the word “rape” on a television newscast and asked me what it meant. I could have lied and said, “It’s a fruit!” But I chose to remind him that there are some really bad people in the world, and we would talk about it when he got a little older. He was completely satisfied with the truthful answer I gave him.

The message embedded in their counsel is simple: Lying isn’t new, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

But is that the message we should embrace?

Licking the Lie
Yes, lying can be defeated, but it takes diligence on our part, both in word and action.

The road to honesty – and trust – begins by acknowledging that this is a problem both genders suffer from, not just moms (although much of the research above focused on them). All of us face the temptation of lying from time to time, whether it’s to help someone else, or save our own bacon. Here are three practices that will help consistently move you away from deception.

  1. Deeply appreciate the truth. That’s not hard for those of us who’ve been lied to recently. Deception hurts…so why would we ever want to offer that to someone we love, especially our kids? And that’s just the “flesh and blood” side of this issue; there’s a spiritual one, as well. God is a God of truth, in fact, that’s what Jesus called Himself in John 14:6. He always tells the truth, and even sent His Spirit to guide us into truth (John 16:13)! If we know the sting of a lie, and understand that our God (literally) is Truth, then it shouldn’t be difficult for us to learn to appreciate truth.
  2. Always speak the truth. Again, not only is this practice a bedrock principle of solid, loving, trusting relationships, it’s also at the core of God’s expectations for us. Time and again in Scripture, we’re commanded to be people of truth. But beyond speaking the truth, we should teach about its importance. Since youth workers (now) know that so many parents struggle with this, make the truth a foundation of your teaching ministry. Address truth, and its benefits, as often as you can. (Youth workers- here is a “classic” video clip discussion that will help you talk about truth. And here’s a “fun” resource that will also impact students from God’s Word.)
  3. Model compassion. This is the key that allows you to tell the truth all the time. Compassion is not the opposite of truth; it’s the completeness of truth. The New Testament tells us that both “grace” and “truth” came through Jesus (John 1:17). Telling the truth means we avoid lying. Modeling Christ-like compassion means that we do all we can to value the other person in the moment they need truth. Compassion is the “tact” that accompanies truth.

Hopefully by now, you see the truth about lies. If you still believe “white lies” are helpful, then what you’re forced to do is decide at what point along that slippery slope a lie is no longer “white.” I don’t want to have to make those kinds of distinctions. Let’s just let a lie – regardless of “color” or size – be a lie. Our teenagers will appreciate our honesty.