Tom was sitting at the kitchen table, attempting to do homework when his mother said,
“The school called today, and I guess you were involved in a fight on the bus?”
Tom, “I wasn’t in a fight on the bus.”
Mom, “Really, they seem to think there was a fight, and that maybe you started it?”
Mom, “Interesting. They said they have a video and we could come and watch it if we wanted.”
Tom, “Oh… That bus!”
Children lie for different reasons at different ages. But by adolescence the most common reasons are:
• To avoid getting caught doing something wrong like drinking, using drugs, driving mom’s car, not being at Jessie’s house when that’s where she said she would be, or fighting on the bus.
• To avoid something unpleasant like washing the dishes, cleaning up the dog poop, or going to cranky old Aunt Sharon’s.
• To confirm their budding autonomy: “Sure, I know how to use a chain saw” or “What tattoo?”
• To protect their privacy: “Really mom, my room is clean, you don’t need to check it” or “Yes, my homework is finished.”
• To protect one of their friends. “Uh, no. Mr. Callahan, I haven’t seen Justin, your car or the key to your liquor cabinet.”
• To avoid embarrassment: “I have no idea how that vomit ended up in the driveway” or, “Sure I have a date to the prom.”
As people who care about young adults, we wish we could tell when they are lying, but sometimes we just can’t. There are several things we can do, however, to encourage the adolescents in our lives to be honest.
• Punish lying more. I may get some flack for this, and I’m ready. If you want to know the truth, telling it needs to be rewarded. Which means you may find yourself saying, “The punishment for lying will be far more severe than the punishment for drinking, (not doing your homework, etc) so tell me the truth, have you been drinking?”(Is the homework complete?”) There are multiple benefits in this strategy. You teach truth telling, and you also get to monitor behaviors. At some point in the future you may have enough information to say, “You know, in the past three weeks, you have missed all your assignments. I think we have a problem that needs further attention.” This is a statement you won’t be as confident making if you think you are being lied to.
• Model truth telling. This is the most obvious, and easily ignored. If we lie on our taxes, lie to our boss, or worst of all, ask our children to lie for us (“Tell Aunt Susan I’m not home” “Let’s buy one ticket but see two movies”) guess what? We are showing them it’s okay to lie.
• Keep your word. If you said it was going to be pizza on Thursday, it better be pizza, and if for some reason you can’t keep your word, it should be so infrequent that the explanation will be tolerated (remember, It’s important that you explain why there isn’t any pizza).
If we fast-forward 15 years, we will find Tom The Bus Fighter in a job with a lot of freedom. Actually, his supervisor is in a completely different city. Last Friday he had the opportunity to go to a nearby beach for a few days and his boss might never find out. He thought about it, and decided to tell his supervisor anyway. So even as I write this, he is on a warm beach with a clear conscience. This is a far cry from the young man who lied not only about a bus fight, but many other things as well. So, have faith that you can make a difference. The young people in your life need you at this age more than ever. Don’t give up, and tell them what George Eliot said;