Youthful Dishonesty: The Hidden Truth – 6 Things Every Parent Should Know

As he began putting the first bite of his McDonalds pancake in his mouth, I told my son, “It’s time you told me the truth.”  The fork slowly came out of his mouth as he looked at me with stunned surprise in silence.  “What are you talking about Dad?”

Your mom and I know what you’re doing.  It’s time you told us the truth.”  From that point on my son lost his appetite as he was faced with the unpleasant task of telling us about behavior that he hoped would stay hidden.  As his father I begin my presentations on ethics with the phrase, “Every choice has a consequence.”  On this day the truth of his unethical behavior was coming to light and the consequences – most of which he never considered – were just beginning.  The road ahead would be less than pleasant.

Every parent should know the hidden truth behind dishonesty with youth.

How common is dishonesty in youth?

As a parent, and former teen (guess unless you’re a current teen that applies to all adult readers), I almost want to say “that is a stupid question.”  But, a recent study was done on the subject by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (Ethics of American Youth), which revealed some startling statistics.  In the report – 61% of teens admit to lying to a teacher about something important, and 76% admitted to lying to their parents last year. Likewise, a British study found that 84% of teens stated that they plagiarized material directly from the Internet and pasted it right into their homework.

The numbers did not surprise me.  I can’t imagine many youth that have not found it convenient to tell a “white lie” or even a “bold faced lie” from time to time in order to get what they want.  Faced with telling the truth and facing the consequences or telling a lie to avoid what one might think is an unpleasant outcome, the nature of human beings is often lie.

But another study did provide some surprising data about youth and their perception of ethics.  While young people studied admitted to lying, cheating, or stealing, 93% indicated that they were “satisfied with their personal ethics and character.”  That result reveals much when it comes to the hidden truth about dishonesty with youth.

Dishonesty is an increasing problem, but why?

I am not a social scientist, but it seems all too clear that people (children) develop a natural instinct to lie at an early age.  Whether that is a learned behavior from his or her parents or whether it is just the nature of our existence is a deeper question than we’ll explore here, but the truth is everyone lies.  The question is not whether we lie, but rather how we perceive that action – good or bad – ethical or unethical.

An article in the Journal of Cognition by Hyowon Gweon shares the importance of whom you can trust.  According to the study, the more children are lied to the greater the chance of them cheating and lying.  Gweon states, “When someone provides us information, we not only learn about what is being taught, we also learn something about that person. If the information is accurate and complete, then you might also trust that person in the future.”

According to Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., a leading researcher on the subject of kids lying at McGill University, in Montreal, the act of manipulating the truth for personal gain “is a developmental milestone, much like learning to get dressed by yourself or to take turns.” Her research shows that bright kids can pick up the skill of lying as early as age 2 or 3 and others catch up quickly.  All children stretch the truth at times, according to Dr. Talwar.

But do young people know what they are really doing?

I love my son…but at times I wondered what happened.  I mean it seemed that youth were a bit more mature years ago.  Perhaps that was an illusion, but many parents I have talked with today seem to question the maturity of their offspring.

Which brings me to the question of brain development.  Brain development varies significantly from person to person, but most experts suggest that the brain is fully developed by the age of 25.  Therefore, while physical development may happen more quickly for our youth, the ability to use full cognitive abilities will likely happen when one reaches their mid-20s.  For some that is later, much later!

So as a Parent what do I need to do?

1 – Recognize the Temptations – Young people will lie.  That is not at issue.  But be aware of what support mechanisms there are to help facilitate that.  For example: the app Snapchat – something that seems harmless – is designed to help hide what youth don’t want their parents to know.

At creation, Snapchat was presented as the solution to stresses caused by the longevity of personal information on social media, evidenced by “emergency detagging of Facebook photos before job interviews and photoshopping blemishes out of candid shots before they hit the Internet.”  That description from Wikipedia says it all.  The concept of the app by nature helps young people rationalize that “what you don’t know (or see) won’t hurt you.”  I don’t care what your age, but reality is there is always a consequence to one’s choices and nothing stays hidden forever.

Teach youth the truth.  And help youth understand that the appeal of Snapchat (used here as an example with others not mentioned or created yet) is designed to create the illusion of safety.  If you don’t want another person to see what you’re trying to hide then likely you shouldn’t be doing it.

2 – Set an Example – If you are dishonest then realize that you’ve set the standard for their (young people’s) behavior.  Recently I was on a radio show where the interviewer got an unwelcome call on her cell phone.  When her 5-year-old daughter answered and told her mommy that she had a call, her mother replied, “Tell them I’m in the shower.”  I cringed when I heard that.  Mind you, not that I have never lied, but she was teaching her daughter to lie, when the truth was just as easy to tell.  Why not say, “I’m doing an interview, tell them I’ll call them later.”

Think about the message that you are sending the next time you choose to lie rather than tell the truth.  While “white lies” seem insignificant, in the undeveloped mind of a child or teen, the message you are sending is that lying is acceptable behavior in certain circumstances.  The problem for youth (and many adults) is discernment.  You must tell the truth to teach the truth.

3 – Monitor the Media – What would have created immediate consequences in the past, today with anonymity and ease, the Internet has created a place where there is an illusion of safety.  Likewise, whether it is youth or adults, the web provides a place where you can easily speak your mind or act out without the benefit of the filter of time.

Example: A teenage boy 40 years ago would have been thrilled to have a picture of his girlfriend’s breasts.  In fact, that would have been almost unbelievable to achieve, since the chances of that happening would have been slim to none.  Why?  Simple.  40 years ago one would have had to use a camera with film and to get the picture you would have to get the film developed.  Hum…now you get the picture (no pun intended).  No one would take such a picture, take it to the local drug store to get developed and know that someone seeing the picture as it was appearing would know what was going on.  In fact, if that happened, the pharmacist (likely a friend of the family) would tell you mother and give the picture to her.  The consequence…well let’s say sitting would be difficult for quite a while.

The Internet is not bad.  That tool has changed our life forever.  Yet, parents need to be aware of their child’s online surfing habits, have their passwords, and most importantly be technically astute enough to monitor their young persons activity – even if that includes installing monitoring software on all young people’s devices (including cell phones).  Webwatcher makes outstanding monitoring software.

4 – Ask Yourself if you’re Contributing through Performance Pressure – What do you expect from your kids?  That question is often at the heart of the matter when issues of lying and cheating arise in school.  A good friend of mine recently confided in me that his daughter was the subject of disciplinary action at school for cheating.  He was devastated and asked me what he should do.  He didn’t like was my response.  “Quit expecting so much from your daughter,” I replied.  “All you talk about is how important it is for her to get in the ‘right university’ and the importance of her getting a scholarship.  You put too much pressure on her.  No wonder she felt that cheating was better than disappointing you.”

As he heard my words, a tear welled up in his eye.  “It’s competitive out there you know,” he said, “but maybe I’m not allowing her to be a little girl.”  Lofty academic expectations and holding kids to unnecessarily high achievement standards can often spur young people to succeed at any cost.

What if your child has been caught cheating at school?  Perhaps you, the parent, need to evaluate the level of expectation that you are placing on your child and bring the expectations down a bit.   Wouldn’t you rather have a fairly earned “C” than an unethically earned “A”?  If the answer to that question is “NO” then look in the mirror cause you’re a big part of the problem!

5 – Help Establish Immediate Consequences – In a conversation just yesterday, an executive with a major insurance company said, “Years past, when you did something wrong you got pretty much immediate feed back.  If you didn’t do your homework, the teacher would keep you after school to get it done.  If that meant you’d miss football practice, then that was the cost of your choice.  Or if you were caught lying, then your teacher would call your parents and if the punishment wasn’t sufficient at school…it most certainly was at home.  Now it seems that even when their child is caught doing something wrong, the parents turn the tide on the school and somehow it is not their child’s fault.”

Choices have consequences and the sooner the consequences happen the quicker you help your young person connect the dots between unacceptable behavior and their consequences.

My son, whom I started the article talking about as I began this article, made a series of bad choices.  His immediate consequences included the loss of his car, his cell phone and removal from college (the most painful consequence).  As a father, I was not willing to support bad behavior.  Today he would tell you that, while his behavior didn’t immediately change and that he rather disliked me for a while, the consequences were severe enough to get his attention and help him re-evaluate his behavior.  Today he thanks me for the consequence I created that changed his behavior and life today.

6 – Don’t Ignore the Problem – If you are dishonest, expect your teen or young person to be dishonest.  That’s a painful reality – but true.  Likewise, if you are willing to ignore your young persons dishonest actions, you are doing nothing more than condoning his/her behavior and reinforcing its acceptance.

While lying might be somewhat natural, the idea that a child’s lying actions will go away with time is wrong.  Realty is, lying can become quite the habit and will continue well past high school into college, or the workplace.  And, every choice has a consequence, so if the action of being dishonest isn’t nipped in the bud quickly, the longer it goes unchecked the more dramatic the consequences that will ultimately follow.

If a young person is found to be dishonest, expose it.  Use whatever consequence is available to bring wrong actions into the light.  Behavior can be changed.  If you value honesty then let your child know the importance of that value for you – even if you’ve had to learn the value of honesty the hard way.

Where from here?

I would love to say that I have been the model of honesty in my life, but that would be untrue.  I lived a short portion of my life in my mid to late twenties (something to be said for when a brain matures) being dishonest.  The cost of those choices was federal prison.

What did I learn from that experience?  Every choice has a consequence…and from that simple phrase (that rings true in every life) I made the commitment that I would be honest and transparent with my children so that I could help them see the value that honesty brings.  I can’t live their life for them and they (like us all) will make their share of mistakes.  But one thing that is true is if you are willing to be honest with yourself – evaluate your contribution to the lives of the young people you touch – you can make a difference!

Chuck Gallagher is a business leader, author and speaker on the subject of ethics, choices and consequences. While his client base is typically businesses, Chuck finds great pleasure in working with schools to impact, influence and empower youth to make ethical choices. Chuck can be reached at

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