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Learning to Lie


When Nancy Darling’s researchers interviewed the teenagers from Pennsylvania, they also asked the teens when and why they told the truth to their parents about things they knew their parents disapproved of. Occasionally they told the truth because they knew a lie wouldn’t fly—they’d be caught. Sometimes they told the truth because they just felt obligated, saying, “They’re my parents, I’m supposed to tell them.” But one important motivation that emerged was that many teens told their parents the truth when they were planning on doing something that was against the rules—in hopes their parents might give in and say it was okay. Usually, this meant an argument ensued, but it was worth it if a parent might budge.

The average Pennsylvania teen was 244 percent more likely to lie than to protest a rule. In the families where there was less deception, however, there was a much higher ratio of arguing and complaining. The argument enabled the child to speak honestly. Certain types of fighting, despite the acrimony, were ultimately signs of respect—not of disrespect.

But most parents don’t make this distinction in how they perceive arguments with their children. Dr. Tabitha Holmes of SUNY–New Paltz conducted extensive interviews asking mothers and adolescents, separately, to describe their arguments and how they felt about them. And there was a big difference.

Forty-six percent of the mothers rated their arguments as being destructive to their relationships with their teens. Being challenged was stressful, chaotic, and (in their perception) disrespectful. The more frequently they fought, and the more intense the fights were, the more the mother rated the fighting as harmful. But only 23 percent of the adolescents felt that their arguments were destructive. Far more believed that fighting strengthened their relationship with their mothers. “Their perception of the fighting was really sophisticated, far more than we anticipated for teenagers,” notes Holmes. “They saw fighting as a way to see their parents in a new way, as a result of hearing their mother’s point of view be articulated.”

What most surprised Holmes was learning that for the teens, fighting often, or having big fights, did not cause them to rate the fighting as harmful and destructive. Statistically, it made no difference at all. Certainly, there is a point in families where there is too much conflict, Holmes notes. “But we didn’t have anybody in our study with an extreme amount of conflict.” Instead, the variable that seemed to really matter was how the arguments were resolved.

It will be many years before my own children become teenagers, but having lying on my radar screen has changed the way things work around the Bronson household. No matter how small, lies no longer go unnoticed. The moments slow down, and I have a better sense of how to handle them.

Just the other day, my 6-year-old son, Luke, came home from school having learned a new phrase and a new attitude—quipping “I don’t care” snidely, and shrugging his shoulders to everything. He repeated “I don’t care” so many times I finally got frustrated and demanded to know if someone at school had taught him this dismissive phrase.

He froze. And I could suddenly intuit the debate running through his head—should he lie to his dad, or rat out his friend? Recognizing the conflict, I told him that if he learned the phrase at school, he did not have to tell me who taught him the phrase. Telling me the truth was not going to get his friends in trouble.

“Okay,” he said, relieved. “I learned it at school.” Then he told me he did care, and he gave me a hug. I haven’t heard it again.

Does how we deal with a child’s lies really matter down the road in life? The irony of lying is that it’s both normal and abnormal behavior at the same time. It’s to be expected, and yet it can’t be disregarded.

Dr. Bella DePaulo of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has devoted much of her career to adult lying. In one study, she had both college students and community members enter a private room equipped with an audiotape recorder. Promising them complete confidentiality, DePaulo’s team instructed the subjects to recall the worst lie they ever told—with all the scintillating details.

“I was fully expecting serious lies,” DePaulo remarks. “Stories of affairs kept from spouses, stories of squandering money, or being a salesperson and screwing money out of car buyers.” And she did hear those kinds of whoppers, including theft and even one murder. But to her surprise, a lot of the stories told were about when the subject was a mere child—and they were not, at first glance, lies of any great consequence. “One told of eating the icing off a cake, then telling her parents the cake came that way. Another told of stealing some coins from a sibling.” As these stories first started trickling in, DePaulo scoffed, thinking, “C’mon, that’s the worst lie you’ve ever told?” But the stories of childhood kept coming, and DePaulo had to create a category in her analysis just for them. “I had to reframe my understanding to consider what it must have been like as a child to have told this lie,” she recalls. “For young kids, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child, and that they did the right thing.”

Many subjects commented on how that momentous lie early in life established a pattern that affected them thereafter. “We had some who said, ‘I told this lie, I got caught, and I felt so badly, I vowed to never do it again.’ Others said, ‘Wow, I never realized I’d be so good at deceiving my father, I can do this all the time.’ The lies they tell early on are meaningful. The way parents react can really affect lying.”

Talwar says parents often entrap their kids, putting them in positions to lie and testing their honesty unnecessarily. Last week, I put my 3½-year-old daughter in that exact situation. I noticed she had scribbled on the dining table with a washable marker. Disapprovingly, I asked, “Did you draw on the table, Thia?” In the past, she would have just answered honestly, but my tone gave away that she’d done something wrong. Immediately, I wished I could retract the question. I should have just reminded her not to write on the table, slipped newspaper under her coloring book, and washed the ink away. Instead, I had done just as Talwar had warned against.

“No, I didn’t,” my daughter said, lying to me for the first time.

For that stain, I had only myself to blame.

Additional reporting by Ashley Merryman.


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