The very prospect of parenting a child can seem completely odds with honesty. By wanting so nakedly to raise a decent non-liar person who makes you look good, you are essentially pleading to be told intricately embroidered nonfictions of your own shaping. That's right. When your kid lies to you, rest assured you probably did this to yourself.
If you're the parent of a teenager, for example, take a look at the rules you give your kid: I can guarantee you those are precisely the things you are being lied to about right now, all the way down to how much Netflix streaming is allowed. If your kid isn't allowed to go to the mall (do those still exist?) then he is probably lying about where he is in order to go to the mall. Hey, you're the one who made the shitty mall so tempting by banning it.
It isn't all your fault, of course. The ability to lie is adaptive. When kids start lying when they're younger, they're essentially supposed to. It's a good developmental sign their brain is working correctly when they become aware both that you actually can't see everything they do and also that you can't read their minds. Sure, they may not be that good at lying yet by our standards—my 4 year old recently insisted she was turning flips right in front of me, she was just so fast I couldn't tell—but research suggests that the sooner you learn to lie as a child, the smarter you are, and also that the better you are at lying, the better you will do in life later on. Lying well is a necessary skill in adult life, unfortunately, and the ability to cover your tracks takes intelligence, as every dumb criminals/Florida man story attests.
Before adulthood, there is perhaps no better period where lying will serve you well than during your teenage years with your own parents, where as many as 96 percent of teens have learned that lying is absolutely critical to having any fun whatsoever. Teens and parents here are endlessly at odds, with one side needing to cobble together something called a life, Mom—and the other dead set on making sure that the aforesaid teens don't do anything anyone would ever dare consider cool.
A more recent study found that 82 percent of teens had lied to parents in the last year. Examining the results at the Washington Post, Lisa Heffernan struggles to reconcile this with a survey of teen ethics wherein most teens agreed that trust is important in a relationship. Heffernan writes:
So far, so good, we have raised a nation of kids who aspire to the values we have set forth in our schools and homes.
Yet, teen behavior is confounding, because while almost all teens said they valued honesty, nearly as many reported lying to their parents about significant matters. And many social scientists believe that respondents under-report their own undesirable behavior.
I mean, duh. Everyone values honesty, and everyone to some degree or another lies. But the type of relationship matters here. Relationships with romantic partners are voluntary, where relationships with parents are not, at least until you're 18. So until then, in my experience, there is often not a lot of voluntary and mutual back-and-forth between parents and teenagers about what rules there should be, or why they matter, or whether they can be negotiated. Instead, parents seem to just want their teenagers to comply with a certain set of standards, and then they they get real mad when their kids don't. This all but guarantees the lying will double.
Parents often seem to see their teenagers as basically toddlers with hormones, but teenagers see themselves as young adults with all of the responsibility and none of the power. In the gulf of that disparity you will find nothing but lies.
In light of all this, I think we should cut teens some slack. Every day in the life of a teen is filled with crushingly urgent minutiae in the form of signals and subtext from peers, enemies, and crushes by which they live and die—and that, by design, adults are not meant to understand. If you don't believe me, read this agonizing tale of parent Erika Milvy trying to parse the politics of her 7th grade daughter's social life via Instagram. Brutal.
Nothing matters to teens, everything matters to teens. There's a reason John Hughes movies were and are still so popular: They were a rare place that took teenagers' lives seriously, as serious people with serious ideas, always nodding sympathetically to the fact that they have very little power to shape their own existence. In many ways, being a teenager is the cruelest fate because you finally get a glimpse of your life as an adult who can make her own choices, but must still bide your time for years before anyone actually lets you loose to try them on for size.
I remember being a teenager vividly, and the dynamic between teens and parents I knew went something like this: Parents played the uninvolved heavy; teenagers constantly lied or devised ways to get around that oppression. On some level this is a necessary and unavoidable dynamic: What (good) parent is going to let their kid sneak out to go to some party full of hair metal dudes? What mom is going to say it's fine if you go riding around with some rando you met at the mall and try wine coolers?
And herein lies the rub: The real trick of parenting is to make lying less necessary. Which means you have to be incredibly involved and engaged in setting your child up, so that their lies to you won't be the primo ones but rather just the little ones that aren't too harmful anyway. Like maybe you'll end up with the teen who just covers up that she saw an R-rated movie, instead of the one who was really dropping acid at her friend's house while her friend's mom's addict boyfriend brought over live roosters. True story.
Heffernan acknowledges that lying as a teenager is normal, and has come to understand that it's for a reason that makes sense:
Teens lie for the obvious reasons, like to get out of trouble or to do something forbidden. But they also lie because they feel that the behavior they are engaging in is harmless, the rules they are given are arbitrary or unfair, or that the adults around them cannot understand the circumstances in which they are operating. They lie to protect each other's feelings or to protect friends or siblings.
But teens lie for another important reason. Teens lie for privacy, they lie not just because they will be punished for what they are doing but because they simply do not want us, their parents, to know. Teens lie to preserve or establish their autonomy. It is their way of saying, "My social life is my own." "What I do with my body is my own." "How I spend my time is my own."
Her main question then is how to minimize lying, and though she arrives at a true and simple answer, it's one that most parents are probably not going to be that great at. Mainly, it's just trusting your kids. Trusting them, and also including them in discussions about the rules, which lets them feel more comfortable about opening up or disagreeing. It's the messier, more nuanced route, and harder than smacking down a list of commandments.
I've seen it work, personally. Among the many types of teens I knew growing up—nerds, stoners, fuck-ups, jocks, you name it—I only know one who never really lied to her mom. She was also the only teenager I knew that had no rules. No actual rules. Seriously. None. Not so much as a curfew.
But, she had something else in place of that. First, she had parents who were some of the most engaged, involved, present parents I've ever witnessed, including on sitcoms; second, she had endless conversations with them about what it means to make good choices. So I often heard her discussing why she would make it home by midnight. Not because her parents said so, but because she had somewhere to be in the morning, things to do, sleep to get, school to attend. To her, it just wasn't smart to stay out so late and be tired.
I remember thinking it would be incredible to have that kind of trust from your parents, and it's still one of the only examples I've ever seen of that kind of parenting style. Today, I think about my friend a lot as I parent a 4-year-old, and we talk about why we do everything. It is exhausting. But when your preschooler can stop and say—too much TV mommy! I should draw!—you realize that the exhaustive discussions about why we limit screen time pay off.
I'm not saying this guarantees it will be a cakewalk when it comes to her teenage kicks—just that I have seen a model for how a lie-diminishing parenting style can work, and it is not a parent demanding truth without understanding the least bit what a teenager's life is like or what makes their lies feel necessary. (Which come to think of it, is probably a good approach to understanding why anyone lies at all.)
Illustration by Jim Cooke.