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Big Little Lies

Character, culture and American youth

Source: Jackmac34

The turmoil roiling in industries ranging from entertainment to government to broadcasting and beyond raises some significant issues with regard to how we are raising our children and the examples that potentially powerful public role models are, even unwittingly, providing to American youth.

One might reasonably argue that at the core of such discussions is the construct of character and how it drives decision-making. Thus, the process of character development is of critical importance to all who serve as touch points for young people.

But what is character, anyway?

According to Merriam-Webster, character is defined as “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation.”


Inextricably intertwined with definitions of character are references to morality and honesty, or a lack thereof.

Psychologist Jean Piaget, an early trailblazer in the study of morality, used observation of children at play to better understand their belief systems about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” He came to believe that, like so much of the human life cycle, it all comes down to a developmental process. He posited that younger children begin this process in a “heteronomous” stage of reasoning reflecting a strict application of obedience to rules and authority. As they grow, Piaget said, they move to an “autonomous” stage more heavily influenced by mutual respect, reciprocity and a solutions-based focus on what is fair to everyone involved (Nucci, 2017a).

Following on the work of Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, the University of Chicago and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, suggested that there are three levels of moral reasoning, each of which includes two “sub-stages.” Predictably, he discussed an age-based progression through these levels and stages, but he also noted that not everyone makes it to the end.

The first level identified by Kohlberg is called “Pre-Conventional Morality” (mostly ages 9 and younger), at which children don’t yet have a personal set of moral beliefs but rather, as Piaget suggested, follow the rules and norms set by adults lest there be unpleasant repercussions (Stage 1). It is followed by a recognition that other people may have different opinions (Stage 2).

Further on, Kohlberg discussed a “Conventional Morality” level (reached by most adolescents and adults) in which moral reasoning is based on interpersonal relationships and the value of social order.

Finally, level three, tagged as “Post-Conventional Morality,” is predicated on individual rights and a set of “universal principles” that may or may not be consistent with the law. Kohlberg believed that only 10-15 percent of people reach this point, due to limitations in abstract thinking (McLeod, 2013).

Like many, if not most, theories of human development, Kohlberg’s conclusions were not without their dissenters. Nevertheless, there may be enough similarities in the work of Piaget and Kohlberg to provide guidance for how to best help and educate young people about the role of morality in character development. Piaget suggested emphasis on such things as cooperative decision-making, problem-solving and common rules based on fairness. For his part, Kohlberg rejected the notion that there exists a fixed set of “virtues,” instead suggesting that the role of adults is to encourage young people to find their own views and shape their behavior accordingly, essentially serving as moderators in this developmental dance (Nucci, 2017b).

More recent work advanced by Carol Gilligan is based on theories of care, which “implies that there is moral significance in the fundamental elements of relationships and dependencies in human life. Normatively, care ethics seeks to maintain relationships by contextualizing and promoting the well-being of care-givers and care-receivers in a network of social relations. Most often defined as a practice or virtue rather than a theory as such, ‘care’ involves maintaining the world of, and meeting the needs of, ourselves and others. It builds on the motivation to care for those who are dependent and vulnerable, and it is inspired by both memories of being cared for and the idealizations of self” (Sander-Staudt, 2018).


So how do these discussions resonate in everyday life? In short, meaningful relationships between young people, and between young people and the important adults in their lives (think parents, teachers, coaches, counselors and faith-based mentors, to name a few), are based on mutual respect and trust, the latter being a fundamental building block on which such relationships rest.

Dr. Paul Ekman, an expert on lying who acknowledges that there are circumstances in which lying is justified, also talks about the relationship component in lying: “Typically, the liar does not feel guilty about telling an authorized lie. The liar disrespects the target. Guilt arises only when lying to a respected target." Further, Ekman warns, "Once trust is betrayed it may be difficult to re-establish. It is next to impossible to work with, live with, or love someone you don't trust” (Ekman, 2009).

When that trust is broken, maybe especially by dishonesty, it can be hard to rebuild.

Dishonesty, or lying, seems to be a common component of today’s culture, by adults and young people alike.

So, what is the truth about lying?

Most codes of conduct or ethics include a mention of honesty. Indeed, kids themselves readily identify honesty as a "value" they personally find important. A Penn State University study on the subject, as reported by Po Bronson in the New York Magazine article "Learning to Lie," found that “98 percent of children said that trust and honesty were essential in a personal relationship.” Yet in the same study researchers found that the identical number (of teens), 98 percent, lie to their parents (Bronson, 2008).

This trend is consistent with something I myself uncovered in an unscientific poll of 14-year-olds.

In my ninth-grade discussion groups, both boys and girls regularly raise issues of trust when talking about their relationships with their parents. "Why don't they just trust us?" is a common refrain. A couple of years ago, I started taking an informal straw poll when this question emerged. "How many of you would say it's important to you that your parents trust you about where you go, whom you're with, and what you're doing?" I would ask. Almost all arms would instantaneously shoot skyward. Then the followup: "How many of you lie about where you go, whom you're with, and what you're doing?" Almost two-thirds of the raised hands regularly remained in the up position. How to explain this disconnect? The 14-year-olds had some answers. "It's a game," said one. "They expect us to lie," stated another. "We're supposed to lie," offered a third.

Few of them sensed a contradiction.

Testing the phenomenon in a more rigorous way as part of a “Teens Today” study, I sampled nearly a thousand young people across the country via an online questionnaire. The results were startlingly similar. For instance, among high school students almost all (89 percent) say it's important that they have their parents' trust. Yet significantly less than half (40 percent) say they tell their parents the whole truth.

But lying doesn't begin in the teenage years. Bronson notes that by their fourth birthday, almost all kids will begin lying to avoid getting in trouble. That remains a primary motivation for lying throughout childhood and adolescence. Other reasons to lie include to get along better with others, to exert independence and gain control, or to get attention.

The article “Why Kids Lie and What Parents Can Do About It,” published by the Child Mind Institute, adds additional etiology (Arky, 2018).

  • To enhance self-esteem and gain approval
  • To test out a new behavior
  • To get the focus off themselves

It goes on to note that children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder may lie out of impulsivity – in other words, speaking before they think.

In some cases, lying may be viewed in a developmental context and thus not necessarily as dysfunctional as one might presume. But lying may also be indicative of deeper psychological problems.

Despite uniformity among children, teens, and adults about the importance of honesty, it often seems in short supply.

Interestingly, the Penn State study concluded that many kids learn to lie by observing their parents lie ... or at least shave the truth. Some parents also encourage their children to tell “white lies” in order to be polite and/or avoid hurting someone's feelings.

Because of the many mixed messages kids get in other parts of their lives, it is especially important to engage them in dialogue about your community's value system and (presumably) how honesty is linked to the common good. While kids often understand that lying may ultimately mean harsher punishment, they often don't fully grasp its impact on the people they care about, including their peers and the caring adults around them. Remember that children see the value of truth telling in relational terms.

Naturally, many children lie to avoid conflict – and many adults let the lies slide for the same reason. But not addressing dishonesty only encourages more dishonesty, which can quickly become self-defeating in the grand game of human development. As one young person told me, “I'm a really good liar, and I don't like who I'm becoming.”

Bronson reports, “Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids ... They've set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they've explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life's other spheres, they supported the child's autonomy, allowing them freedom to make their own decisions.”

Sounds like authoritative parenting to me.

No matter how we frame or rationalize it, being deceived or outright lied to by young people we care about and trust can have a debilitating effect on individuals and communities.

Reflecting on his own reaction to the misbehavior of a group of 15-year-old boys in an experiential learning program last summer, Tufts University sophomore Adam Rosen, a student member of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), told me, “When you’re charged with protecting someone’s most cherished asset, their child, a huge amount of trust is given from a parent to you. In turn, a level of understanding is implied between you and the kids: words should be heeded and agreements honored.

“Our rules were made together, furthering notions of fairness and commonality. We expressly stated, many times over, what could and could not be done. What was allowed and what was not were explained. Of course, my co-workers and I were met with nodding heads and verbal affirmation. These rules would be followed, they were agreed upon, and we took solace in the fact that our terms were met so favorably.

“In this context, diverting from what was permitted was not only a breach of a social contract, but also a breach of trust. There are far more interpersonal ramifications to breaching trust than simply breaking the rules. My colleagues and I felt disrespected and were left to question whether or not the rules were fair, or why, exactly, the kids had agreed to something deceivingly. Perhaps we had not been clear enough or lacked effective oversight. Ultimately, we were left with a harrowing thought: Our best efforts to create a safe and fun environment, to do our jobs as expected by parents and administrators, were not good enough.

“Of course, trust is a two-way street. The impetus to cast off a trustful bond is placed on the kids and is not necessarily and not usually the fault of those responsible for them. But, regardless, expectations can seem misplaced once trust is broken. And it’s that very trust that is probably the most vital tenet of robust, meaningful relationships.”

Alas, even the littlest of lies can hold big consequences, reshaping relationships, disrupting communities and creating a culture’s character … for better or for worse.


Arky, B. (2018). Why kids lie and what parents can do about it. Child Mind Institute. (17 Jan. 2018).

Bronson, P. (2008). Learning to lie. New York Magazine. February 10, 2008. (17 Jan. 2018).

Ekman, P. (2009). Is lying ever justifiable? Reading Between the Lies. February 2009. (17 Jan. 2018).

McLeod, S. (2013). Kohlberg. Developmental Psychology. Simple Psychology. (17 Jan. 2018).

Nucci, L. (2017a). Jean Piaget: the shift from heteronomy to autonomy. Domain Based Moral Education Lab. University of California​, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education. (17 Jan. 2018).

Nucci, L. (2017b). Lawrence Kohlberg: stage based moral development. Domain Based Moral Education Lab. University of California​, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education. (17 Jan. 2018

Sander-Staudt, M. (2017). Care ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (17 Jan. 2018).

Wallace, S. (2010). Confessions of a disciplinarian: how managing camper behavior can save the summer. Camping Magazine. January 2010.… (17 Jan. 2018).

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