Trickster Chronicles—Why Teens Lie

cosmetic toe shortenting

From their nose to their toes, research suggests that our teen Pinocchios are pretty much bold-faced, inveterate and chronic prevaricators.  

Last week I wrote about why younger kids lie, but this week I wanted to focus on the adolescent aspects and implications of lying as explored in a New York Magazine article, “Learning to Lie” by Po Bronson (

Teens in a study by a researcher named Darling, at first said that they didn’t lie to parents but, when cleverly coaxed into trust and openness, 98 percent revealed that they did, in fact, lie to their parents.  Now when 98 percent admit to lying, it makes me wonder if the last two percent just might be lying about not lying. 

Alas, some readers might think, “my kid is a good kid, gets good grades, and he or she must be in that non-lying two percent” but the skinny on lying is that being an honors kid, or overscheduled (i.e. kept busy with the implication of high levels of parent involvement) does not change the lying—virtually all teens are doing it.

Parents consistently rate trust and honesty as the top trait they wish their children – above self-esteem, confidence, and good judgment, which do not even come close.  So, while honesty is king, apparently the king is at least 98 percent dead (and the prognosis is not good for a full recovery).  But then think about it— we all lie.  We may lie a lot or a little, and we may even think that we never lie (but then, I would argue, we might very well be lying to ourselves).

My position is not a moral stance, but a psychological one, driven more by questions, I hope, than answers.  It’s healthy to be congruent, to use Carl Rogers’ word, and have what we say and do match what we think and feel, but in reality it’s a matter of degree and shades of grey.  Some of the people I’ve known who were unceasingly honest were also suffering with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  And besides, I love stories and movies and in those realms you never want to let the truth get in the way of a great story.

Personally, I value honesty to my kids; I don’t actually expect full honesty from them.  I see lying/not lying as an aspect of so-called “moral development” but the direction we want to evolve toward is our own code, based on what we truly believe, and to that we want to eventually remain true.  On the way to that place, however, we have to lie, and get caught, and try different things and discover our path.  As parents this may well be a little scary, but if the stats suggest our kids are already lying… a lot… it’s worth taking a look at what they lie about and to wonder why?

Firstly, lying is connected with the adolescent need for autonomy, for rebelling and opposing and concealing in order to become one’s own separate self.  Thus it may not be that kids lie just to get away with something, or to avoid consequences (this is what it may be about when kids are little and first learning to lie), it might be that they lie as a way of individuating.

For example, in “Iron John” a male version of Cinderella, the boy is well protected and lives in the castle, but in order to leave he must steal the key from under his mother’s pillow in order to let himself out—in order to meet the wild wood man who will turn him into a man [an excellent book on male development, and the importance of developmental deception, is to be found in Robert Bly’s “Iron John”]. 

In the New Yorker article Po writes, “The big surprise in the research is when this need for autonomy is strongest.  It’s not mild at 12, moderate at 15, and most powerful at 18.  Darling’s scholarship shows that the objection to parental authority peaks around ages 14 to 15.  In fact, this resistance is slightly stronger at age 11 than at 18.  In popular culture, we think of high school as the risk years, but the psychological forces driving deception surge earlier than that.”

In other words, our high school freshman and sophomore kids have pants on fire.

One reason that parents tend not to challenge their kids on their lies is the fear that if they stop being accepting of all the b.s. their kids will clam up and shut them out.  Au contraire, Po says—parents who were overly permissive, even though they were loving, seemed to end up with kids who walked on the wild side—mistakenly experiencing their parents’ lack of rules as evidence that they didn’t care.  This underscores how acting out is often a sign of anxiety and the need for firmer limits (and more clear evidence that we care).  There is a difference between psychological intrusion and a hands-off style that inadvertently reads as indifference.

On the other side of thing, some parents fit the stereotype of oppressive and over-controlling, all up in their kids psychological business, but those kids don’t rebel against all those rules—they just roll over and obey… and end up depressed.  Darling also found that most overly rule-setting parents don’t actually enforce all those rules (it turns out to be too much work).  Darling says, “It’s a lot harder to enforce three rules than to set twenty rules.”

So, what are we parents to aim for?  Darling found that parents who were most consistent in enforcing rules proved also to be the parents who have the highest amount of conversation with their kids, and also were found to show the most warmth.  The kids of these parents typically lied or concealed information in more like five areas of their lives (the least lying kids) as opposed to the average of twelve areas of deception in the typical teen.

The optimal parent sets just a few rules in key areas (i.e. safety), they bother to explain why a rule is there and expect the rule to be honored, but in multiple other areas of life they allow for kid’s autonomy and freedom to make their own decisions.  This does more than encourage honesty—it facilitates authentic and solid development of a child’s self.

Another interesting note was that the kids in the study were 244 percent more likely to lie than to directly protest a rule they didn’t want to follow or didn’t agree with.  In homes where the truth was more likely to be spoken, however, there was also a higher ratio of arguing and complaining.  Apparently kvetching and griping allows kids to speak honestly; it turns out that some kinds of fighting are not a sign of disrespect, but actually are consistent with real respect.  I guess keeping it real means headaches and a little drama now and then. 

So, can I interest you in an argument?  While it sounds a bit like a Monty Python skit, 46 percent of moms thought of arguments as harmful and destructive to their relationship with their adolescents, while only 23 percent of kids felt this way.  Now another gloss on these statistics is that when a parent enters into a power struggle with a child, they have already lost at the moment they engage, while that very moment of engagement marks a potential victory for the child (and thus it makes sense that kids see potentially winning arguments as constructive).  Yet if kid need, and are ready for, more freedom, then they need to advocate for it and parents need to hear them out, weigh the arguments and concede when the parent believes that the child will not be significantly harmed by greater freedom.  While parents can stonewall, apparently all this will get them is a lie and an end-run around the limit.

In actuality, kids appeared to have a rather sophisticated take on arguing and truly felt that the conflicts actually strengthened their relationships with their moms.  They liked hearing their parent’s point of view articulated in new and different ways (maybe this even helps kids find their own voice, and refine their own individual perspectives and identities).

Perhaps we might dedicate today to re-evaluating our relationship to the truth.  Starting with admitting that while lies require liars, the truth simply is—and none of us have the market cornered on truth.  Like the famous Japanese film “Rashomon,” the truth looks different from different angles and perspectives (all of which may combine to approximate some ultimate truth).  By reconsidering our children’s truths, and striving for relative openness and honesty rather than the expectation of 100 percent anything, we might build relationships that are more truthful, nourishing and authentic—with ourselves and with all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce



3 Responses to “Trickster Chronicles—Why Teens Lie”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Not lying enough as a child has created an adult where truth is too important.

  2. Mwa Says:

    Some random thoughts:

    I don’t have teenagers yet.
    Not being too controlling is a worry but it’s hard to find the boundaries that matter.
    When my OCD used to get out of control, I could not ever tell a lie. So glad I can now tell some people white lies. It makes life easier at times.

  3. Beth Kirk Says:

    This posting comes at a good time for us. Recently the mother of one of our 14-year old daughter’s friends called to tell me that our daughter had allegedly been engaging in behavior that would concern most parents.
    After calming down, my husband and I told our daughter what our specific concerns were with this behavior. She responded that these bad consequences would not happen to her. Although we ended the discussion still in disagreement, at least the discussion was respectful.
    Although we have made a few changes to decrease the frequency of her opportunities to engage in this behavior, we realize that if she wants to do it, she’ll do it.
    It’s comforting to know that she’s probably at the peak of lying/concealment as part of her individuation.

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