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


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:


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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