April 2010


I originally posted this blog several weeks ago.  It’s been one of the most read posts, and has been landed on through various google searches.   I’m re-posting with Alyson’s professional input.

It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit. ~Noël Coward

I’m exhausted.

I called my sister yesterday and told her I was leaving the country for a few years.  Told her I would be sending my 14 year old son over, and might be around to pick him up again in 4 or 5 years.

I don’t really want to pass over my teen to someone else, but I’d sure like to pass over his bad behaviour.  I’m just so tired of addressing the same issues again and again, feeling as though I’m making absolutely no progress at all.  There’s a long list of issues this week that have been repetitive challenges:  school stuff, curfew stuff, household chore completion, incomplete homework and the worst one of all – dishonesty.

So many of the parenting issues I’m currently addressing with my teen, come back to honesty.  And what really frightens me these days is I’m beginning to recognize that he honestly doesn’t KNOW what the truth is.

Nor do his peers, it would seem.

The results of Josephson Institute’s 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth (and are our Canadian youth that different?) indicate that the youth of today–the adults of the not too distant future–are not the honest citizens we’d hope to have running our corporations, media, cities and countries in the coming years.  The survey is based on nearly 30,000 students in high schools across the U.S.   The findings are actually rather jarring.

From the Report…..

STEALING. In bad news for business, more than one in three boys (35 percent) and one-fourth of the girls (26 percent) — a total of 30 percent overall — admitted stealing from a store within the past year. In 2006 the overall theft rate was 28 percent (32 percent males, 23 percent females).

LYING. More than eight in ten students (83 percent) from public schools and religious private schools confessed they lied to a parent about something significant. Students attending non-religious independent schools were somewhat less likely to lie to parents (78 percent).

CHEATING. Cheating in school continues to be rampant and it’s getting worse. A substantial majority (64 percent) cheated on a test during the past year (38 percent did so two or more times), up from 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in 2006. There were no gender differences on the issue of cheating on exams.

As bad as these numbers are, it appears they understate the level of dishonesty exhibited by America’s youth. More than one in four (26 percent) confessed they lied on at least one or two questions on the survey. Experts agree that dishonesty on surveys usually is an attempt to conceal misconduct.

Source:  Josephson Institute Centre for Youth Ethics

http://charactercounts.org/programs/reportcard/2008/index.html

What I found particularly alarming about the findings of this study is that the teens participating in the study had a particularly high self image, even after admitting to such a significant amount of dishonesty.  When asked if they were “satisfied with their personal ethics and character , 93 percent said that they were, and 77 percent said that when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

So, if 83 percent of boys are lying to their parents about something significant, how do I encourage my teen to be one of the 17 percent who are being truthful?

Really – I’m asking you – HOW?

It feels as though the odds are against me as a parent.  And the odds are against us that we’re going to have honest adults looking after things in our old age.  So even if you’re NOT a parent, you should care deeply about this issue.

It’s a big one.

Because the Josephson Insitute is telling us that “ the hole in the moral ozone seems to be getting bigger — each new generation is more likely to lie and cheat than the preceding one.”  They released the results of another study in October of 2009 that clearly illustrates the link between teen character and adult conduct, particularly as they relate to lying and cheating.

The major conclusion of this survey is that the younger generations are becoming increasingly less honest.  Significantly so.  “Teens 17 or under are five times more likely than those over 50 to hold the cynical belief that lying and cheating are necessary to succeed (51% v 10%), nearly four times as likely to deceive their boss (31% v. 8%), and more than three times as likely to keep change mistakenly given to them (49% v. 15%).”

Of course what this study doesn’t reveal is how honest those same teens will be when they are over 50.  Teenage behaviour isn’t necessarily an indicator of adult behaviour.  One of my friends, also a client, challenged me when I was telling her about this blog:  “didn’t you ever lie to YOUR parents when you were a teen?”  Well, of course I did.  Didn’t you?  Do I lie now?  Well, not nearly in the same way, but I’d be a liar if I said I never lie.

My son and I watched the movie The Invention of Lying last night.  It’s a B-grade romantic comedy, but it was fuel for an interesting conversation – when is it appropriate to lie?  Ever?  Never?  What would the world be like if no one EVER lied about anything?

And the more immediate question for me is–how do I combat this cultural crisis in my own parenting without heading for the hills – with or without him?

For now I’ve limited his freedom.  Again.  I’ve tightened up the scrutiny so that I can keep him close and have a very, very, very long conversation about the importance of honesty.  It’s been going on pretty steadily for a few days now.  I think he might be getting the point.  Maybe.

When this last crisis of honesty arose, he kept telling me that he’d made a mistake.  He was sorry, but it was ‘just a mistake’.  We’ve been talking a lot about the difference between a mistake and a choice.  We don’t stumble into dishonesty – we choose it.  I’m encouraging him to choose wisely.

When I was young my dad used to discipline me by sending me to my room to write an essay on what I had done wrong, what I could have done differently and how I would potentially handle a similar situation in the future.  My boy isn’t much of a writer, but he is a gifted artist.  So, I’ve commissioned a piece of art – a poster.  I’ve asked him to represent Honesty, Choice, Mistake and Integrity in a visual image that we can hang on the wall on the stairs to his room.

My hope is that this will represent a turning point for him.  And for me.

Either that or I’ll be sending him postcards from the edge.

For more info on the Josephson Institute of Ethics Releases Study on High School Character and Adult Conduct:

http://josephsoninstitute.org/surveys/index.html

When I asked Alyson Jones what she thought about the issue of lying within the context of parenting, she had this to say:

My thoughts are that first of all that lying can be a mistake and a choice at the same time.  You can make a choice, you can make a mistake.  It can be the same.

It is completely natural to not always want to look at your own responsibility.  So if they feel caught, kids are going to dig themselves deeper into their lies.  If you push someone into a corner, their natural instinct is going to be to defend themselves.

As parents and even as a society we tend to look at this as a black and white issue, but maybe that’s not it.

I do not think it is a good thing to tell our kids that they are more deceitful than previous generations.  And I don’t actually think that we are raising a generation that is more dishonest.  I think they’re just more ambivalent.  It’s important to set the bar high for our kids and let them know that they are worthy of trust.

My recommendation is that parents avoid calling their children liars as that tends to imbed that label on them, and that feeling in them.

If I see you as worthy then you will become worthy.  We want our kids to become worthy on all fronts.

The most meaningful and powerful conversations will be had when our children are not in a defensive posture with us.  That’s when we can teach them about honesty, about integrity.  When they have been ‘caught’ and we have them in a defensive position they will defend and dig deeper.

One of the biggest draws is when they feel seen and heard, when you ‘get them’.  This is when you can come to collaborative decisions.

This doesn’t mean we don’t let them know we KNOW, it’s HOW we let them know.

Say to your child that you’re aware they’ve lied, let them know what you’re basing it on–concrete evidence, or the fact that you know them well enough to know that ‘something is not right’.  Let them know “I’m not about to strip down your dignity, and I know that you want to do the right thing”.

What I say to my own children is–you make it a wrong, you make it a right.

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Parenting a teen can be challenging, but when the adults in the home can’t agree on a course of action things can become exceptionally intense.

My husband is my son’s step-dad, so we sometimes have that ‘you’re not my father’ dynamic already taking place in our household.  And kids, from a very early age, figure out how to divide and conquer, or at least – play off parents against one another when there are different outlooks on how to handle parenting issues.  Although my husband and I try to find our way to compromises on parenting decisions that work for us, sometimes we just can’t get there.

We had started to get into a pattern of venting our frustrations to one another in emails.  Not always a productive process.  But we are both writers.  What if we could use our natural inclination to write about our differences of opinion on parenting in a constructive way?  In a way that could support us in expressing our different views in a healthy way, and perhaps support other parents grappling with their own differences in parenting styles.

So, welcome to our inaugural Point/Counterpoint Co-Blog.

I tend to be a relationship first, task second kind of person in all areas of my life, including parenting.   Last night, when my son wasn’t feeling well and had left a sink full of dishes, what did I do?  Did I get him up out of bed to finish his own dishes?  Did I leave them for him to do in the morning?  Nope.  My mama-nurturer took over.   I brought him an organic ginger-ale to settle his tummy, a bowl of chicken soup, and then I did the dishes.

Sigh.

Ok, that was a somewhat unique situation.  Moms do have a tendency to nurture first, address ‘things to be done’ second when the child is ill.

What about when he’s NOT ill?  My teen has a remarkable capacity to procrastinate or dodge just about any task he’s asked to do.  “Just a minute” is his usual response when asked to do anything.  And his minutes often turn into hours and involve numerous reminders, often delivered with increasing volume and intensity.

Far too often, I will just do the dishes, pick up the damp towel off the floor, toss the shoes into the closet, put the juice or the milk back into the fridge rather than repeatedly ask my son to complete these tasks.  It’s ‘easier’, I tell myself.

My position is that I am saving my parenting energy for the bigger issues (drugs, alcohol, curfews) and try to keep the lines of communication open and flowing.

There are some household things that I’m holding strong on.  Allowance doesn’t get handed over until the weekly household chores (vacuuming, dusting and sweeping basement floor) are done.  Other things, like the cleanliness of his bedroom, I’ve pretty much given up on.

I try to ask myself, whenever a potential parenting battle is brewing:  “what’s the lesson in this?”  Am I going to ‘win’ or am I teaching my teen something that will be useful to him in his life.   Or am I teaching him something that will help make our household function more effectively?  I admit, I prefer a harmonious home, and sometimes I’ll avoid a potential parent/teen battle in order to keep the peace.  But then that can create conflict between my husband and I.   Andrew and I are working towards identifying the issues that are important to each of us, aligning on them where possible.

We don’t always pick the same battles.

Picking Battles: an (Australian) Husband’s View

Many parents––like Laura––find it incredibly frustrating getting teens (and younger) to comply with perfectly reasonable requests.  (Some of Laura’s recent posts provided compelling examples.) But some years ago I noticed something interesting… The same parents rarely had any problems getting the same malcontents to put on their seatbelts.

Why is that?  The answer surely is that having kids wear seatbelts for most parents is totally non-negotiable.  The small persons may protest at the beginning––seatbelts are quite constricting. But once they realize that the rule is non-negotiable they accept it without further fuss. Indeed they will freak if a parent drives off before they are belted up.

My point?  Some teen/parent contention is inevitable, normal and healthy.  But a lot of it is frustrating, wearing and almost certainly unnecessary. In the latter cases a seatbelt approach may make sense.

Laura’s engaging son is very smart. He would make a formidable lawyer.  He discovered long ago a smart strategy to follow when faced with something he would rather not do.  This involves variants of a number of well-practiced tactics: procrastination, loud objection, diversion, whining, wheedling and/or making a huge fuss. It often works. He may get away with doing nothing, or doing just part of what was requested, or doing all of it in a half-assed way.

As Laura’s post notes, this sort of behaviour can incredibly annoying and so her repeated requests of Maxx (the soon escalate into demands) tend to get delivered, “with increasing volume and intensity”. The exchanges are not just heated and frustrating, but very wearing.

She does indeed ‘pick her battles’. She has given up on the snake-pit that is Maxx’s room. (It really has a snake!)  This is surely wise though the consequences likely break many provincial health regulations. This is Maxx’s private space, we don’t have to go there.

She is, however, implacable on things that really matter––drugs, alcohol and curfews.

So where do we disagree? Laura’s point is that on a lot of things she is ‘saving her parenting energy for the bigger issues’––a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ approach.

I think that this is only partly true… She still spends a huge amount of parenting energy cajoling, arguing and getting more and more frustrated with relatively non-consequential stuff that too often don’t get done, or get done properly.

There seem to be two alternatives––give up and do it yourself. Or try something different. Just say what needs to be done––whether getting up in time for school, tasks that have been delegated, or whatever––and indicate clearly what consequences will follow if it isn’t done. If this doesn’t work––ONE polite reminder is perfectly appropriate––don’t remonstrate, don’t get drawn into an argument.  (The latter injunction is especially important if, like Maxx, the teen in question is a very good debater and never misses a change to shift the grounds of the argument to his advantage!) Simply announce the consequence.

What drives teen behaviour in many of these situations is simple––and, for the teen, completely rational. If there is a pay-off––i.e., if they think can get away with not doing all of the stuff some of the time, or some of the stuff most of the time––it becomes rational for them to keep on procrastinating, arguing, “throwing wobblies” until the parent gives in, or compromises.

A large percentage of today’s teens are perfect examples of what economists call ‘rational utility maximizers.’ (In Australia the technical term is ‘slack toads’.)

Economists would point out that what needs to be done in these cases is to change the pay-off matrices.

This means: don’t engage, don’t argue. Simply determine a consequence that, when implemented, is considerably less attractive than doing what has been asked.  Ensure of course that this rule is made clear beforehand.

Let me give one example.  Maxx’s room is in the basement.  It is a great teen pad complete with orange snake, TV, stereo, video games. Up to five teens can sleep there.

In the transition from his old room upstairs to the new space downstairs, a lot of Maxx’s stuff was parked (strewn is perhaps a more accurate term) in the rest of the basement area – mostly in a large area where the table tennis usually fits.

Eventually his room was set up so it could contain all his stuff… but the table tennis space was remained littered with cast-off dirty clothes, pop containers and a mass of other teen stuff.  It was pretty disgusting and the three baskets of dirty laundry didn’t smell too good either.

About three weeks ago Maxx (with some help) finished an IKEA unit that went into his room to provide more clothes storage. With this last move was no longer any reason why the basement had to continue to look like a junkyard. Requests to clean up the space had, however,  mostly been ignored.

So I spent a couple of hours cleaning up the basement area—added a big plastic Canadian Tire box for sports gear––and forewarned Maxx that henceforce if he dumped stuff on the basement floor – he would lose his computer for a day. Teens see even a day deprived of Facebook as a ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment.

Predictably the warning was ignored and stuff was again left on the floor – on one occasion his school backpack and a jacket.  The computer disappeared.  Teen outrage followed. “The backpack was only 6” from my bedroom door! It’s not fair! Mom would never do this to me!”

But with a couple of gentle reminders, the basement has been pristine for some three weeks.  Maxx, the quintessential rational actor, has figured that the microscopic amount of extra effort involved in taking stuff into his room rather than dumping it on the basement floor, simply wasn’t worth the loss of utility that came from being deprived his beloved computer. Even I was surprised.

I don’t think that this particular exercise has damaged my relationship with Maxx––though he was very angry initially. I do think that it has pointed to a technique that could reduce some of the frequent wearing battles that Laura has with Maxx over “the small stuff”.  He’s smart, he’s rational, he responds to incentives.

There would be greater pushback if Laura took a tough and consistent line on this since Maxx has so accustomed to having long, often belligerent, arguments with her on issues on which they disagree. Being good at debating I suspect he enjoys them.  So there would likely be a lot of drama before he accepted the new regime.  But if it worked her life might be a lot less stressful.

One last point.  Laura noted that the other evening when Maxx wasn’t feeling well, she cleaned up the pretty awful mess that he had left in the kitchen.  I would have made him clean it up in the morning.

She writes in her post that her “mama-nurturer” self took over.  True, but not the whole story.  She also said quietly Maxx would be doing something for her by way of compensation.  A much smarter and more appropriate response than mine.

But then––like her mercurial son––she is very smart too.

I’m not sure which one of us was feeling more nervous.  There wasn’t a lot of conversation in the car on the drive to his new school on Monday morning.  I could feel the tension crackling in the car as the sounds of the radio filled the gap in our nonexistent conversation.

We’ve shared quite a few first days of school over the years, he and I.  That first day at day care when he was one year old and I returned to work.  He cried, I cried, but somehow we got through it – that first day.  He made a new friend there, loved his daycare ‘mom’, and eventually came to really enjoy going there, waving happily at me as I turned to leave him and walk out the door.

Then there was the Montessori pre-school.  He cried, I cried but somehow we got through it – that first day.  He made a lot of new friends there, thoroughly enjoyed his teachers, he excelled in many subjects, played the lead in one of the plays they performed for the parents.

Then came kindergarten.  He was so brave, so excited, that first day.  He grudgingly posed for a picture before I gave him a hug that he tried to shake off.  He was a ‘big boy now’. He turned to wave at me as I wiped a tear from my eye.  He loved that school, made so many good friends there – boys that are still a significant part of his social life.  It was at that school that we began to understand that he learns differently than many of his friends.  Through testing, his  ‘designation’ was determined, and learning ‘accomodations’ began.   Although standard testing had identified his ‘giftedness’, as well as his learning disability (I prefer the term learning differences) several of his teachers questioned that part of his GLD designation as he struggled to focus in their class, disrupting their teaching, handing in work that was incomplete, or blank test pages.

There were several times when he cried, I cried, as we struggled through the challenges of trying to get homework completed, teachers to understand him, playmates to forgive his emotional outbursts when the tension of being an ADHD student, and his emotional excitability spilled over into after-school play-dates.

Then there was the incident in grade seven when his teacher, the principal and the SEA (Student Education Assistant) sat down with my husband and I, suggesting that my son be given an ‘incomplete’ in math, and registered in the math essentials program upon entering high school.  We were told he just wasn’t capable of completing the grade seven math curriculum and that this was the most appropriate option for him.  My husband (my son’s step-father), who is a university professor, argued against this suggested course of action.   He was concerned that we would limit his future options by ‘giving up on him’ in this manner.  He suggested that we work more closely with him at home, and review the course material and the teacher agreed to re-test him on the concepts.  With diligent, one on one (my husband did most of it with him) at home review (not easily done – he cried, I cried – husband didn’t cry), he learned the curriculum, re-wrote tests, and achieved A’s on most of them.  It was hard work, but he was capable of it, just not capable of learning the material in the traditional classroom setting.  But he passed, and off he went to high school.

First day of high school:  I drove him down the street to the school, he hopped out of the car and off he went.  I don’t recall if he looked over his shoulder to thank me for the lift.  He probably did.  No tears, just high hopes for a successful passage through the high school years.

A year and a half into high school he was excelling socially, but sinking academically.  He had spoken to friends who had attended an alternative school in our community, and on the first day of school after the recent spring break, he told me he just couldn’t do this anymore, and asked if he could try the alternative school.

I was taken aback by the request, but made the necessary phone calls to check out this option.  Two weeks later, after many phone calls, a meeting with the district advisor and the principal of the alternative school – he was given the ‘green light’ to commence classes there.

My husband expressed concern about making this decision.  He questioned whether this school was going to address what he saw partially to be a work ethic challenge, and wondered whether we should just take more time to guide him into a more diligent homework routine:  to have him work harder, do more homework, put in more effort.  That discussion became quite heated as I found myself defending and explaining the challenges of being an ADHD learner.

My son’s father expressed concern about making this decision. He had heard about this alternative school’s student population and was concerned that we might be putting our son into a situation where he would be tempted to ‘go down the wrong path’.  It’s true, many of the students at this school have ‘ended up there’, rather than choosing this as an academic option.  They have been suspended or expelled from other schools for behavioural issues, often related to learning disabilities, sleep disorders that impact their ability to get to school on time, or other home-life issues.

My mother expressed concern about making this decision, handing me a newspaper clipping about how students in alternative schools often ‘fall through the cracks’.

My son’s friends expressed their concern about making this decision.  I believe my son told them that I was ‘forcing’ this change, not wanting to admit that he himself had decided to try another learning option.

My son himself expressed concerns.  He too had heard the ‘stories’ of some the ‘troubled’ students at this school, and was worried he might be bullied.

My sister, who also parents children with learning differences, was incredibly supportive.  So were my Facebook friends.  I’ve never had so many responses to a status update – seventeen supportive messages (thank you all).

There was a lot of pushback on this decision, but ultimately we (my son, step-dad, father and I), reviewed all the ins and outs of this option and decided to give it a try.  We all agreed that it’s worth it to try the smaller classes with 6:1 student/teacher ratio.   We agreed that having all the school supplies in each classroom would certainly address his organizational issues, and that the shorter classes would help his attention challenges.  The breakfast/lunch program was also appealing – no more hollering “eat your breakfast!”, as breakfast is served at the school, mid-morning, when most teens wake up enough to eat.  No more hollering “make a lunch/remember your lunch”, as a hot lunch is served to each student in their homeroom.

And so it came, another first day of school at a new school.   We pulled up in front of the school.  No hugs (someone might see), no tears.  He got out of the car (no backpack – school supplies and a day of nutritious meals are all in the school) and without looking back, walked into a new learning and social experience.

I tried not to linger.  I tried not to worry.

Basically, I’m hopeful.  Hopeful that socially he’ll choose to hang out with the students who are there to learn, not the ones who are slipping off down the trails to smoke cigarettes at lunchtime and breaks.  Hopeful that he’ll take full advantage of the learning environment and take pride in excelling academically.  Hopeful, that he’ll become a successful ambassador for this ‘alternative’ school.

Hopeful that one day, being a ‘learning differenced’ student won’t be considered ‘alternative’ and won’t in anyway be marginalized.

Hopeful that one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll be shedding some happy tears as he heads off to another first day of school – post-secondary.

the sky is the limit