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Why You Lied to Your Parents (and What They Really Knew)

Decades of research reveals why teens lie, and about what.

Source: littleny/Shutterstock

When my colleagues and I first began studying lying 20 years ago, finding the right word for it was challenging. We wound up with a descriptive euphemism: strategic disclosure.

We used this phrase not because we were afraid of saying that the kids we studied were liars, but because lying itself is complicated:

  • You can let the person you are talking to continue to believe something false, as when a teen fails to correct her mother when she says, "I am so glad you don't drink" when the teen, in fact, does.
  • You can leave key information out that the person would want to know. For example, when a father asks who was at a party, a teen can name four friends, failing to share the information that another person his dad would not approve of was there as well—or failing to mention that the parents the father things are there were not.
  • You can provide false information. This is the most obvious lie: "Where did you go?" "I went to the movies." But in fact, the teen had gone to a party.

All Teens Lie

Almost all adolescents tell us that they lie to their parents. (I think the others were lying to us.) We have studied thousands of adolescents—including two cohorts of several thousand we have followed for five years each—in the United States, Chile, the Philippines, Italy, and Uganda. Almost all of them tell us that they lie, sometimes, about some things. When we ask what they learned about themselves during our study, they often say that they lie a lot more than they thought they did.

However, there are huge individual differences in how often they lie, and about what. Although on a range of 20-36 different issues, most teens report lying about two to five (homework and drinking being the most common areas), some adolescents report lying to parents about virtually all areas of their lives.

They lie for obvious reasons:

  • to keep parents from setting rules in areas they don't want them to control;
  • because it's an area that they think their parents have no right to know about;
  • because they are afraid they'll be punished; and
  • because they are afraid their parents will be disappointed in them.

And the lies have obvious consequences. Parents whose children lie to them trust their kids less. But unfortunately, parents aren't all that good at detecting lies. All of our evidence shows that parents and teens agree, relatively well, about how much teens lie—parents whose teens lie a lot report more lying than those whose teens are relatively truthful. However, parents are very poor at knowing what their kids are lying about. There was only 25% agreement between teens and parents on what kids were lying about. In many ways, I found this the saddest part of our research. Even when normally dishonest kids told the truth, their parents were unlikely to believe them.

Parental Monitoring and Privacy

My colleague, Bonnie Dowdy, and I started studying lying because we were interested in adolescent romantic relations. Dating and sex are something that most adolescents lie to their parents about. It turns out to be an excellent example of exactly when teens are most likely to lie—areas of ambiguous legitimacy of parental authority.

Legitimacy of parental authority is the idea that there are some areas that parents have a right—often an obligation—to set rules about. Parents' job is to protect and socialize their children. We expect parents, for example, to teach children not to play with matches and to tell them not to smoke. Those are prudential areas—safety concerns. There are other areas, though, that parents and children both agree are out of bound—area of taste or personal preference. Who a child's best friend is, for example. These areas are private, affecting only the individual involved.

But romantic relationships, parents and adolescents agree, represent a gray area, with clear personal dimensions but also parental safety concerns. Parents want to keep children safe, in terms of sexual behavior, morality or ethics, physical safety, and appearances of propriety (an old-fashioned term, but in this case referring to staying within normative expectations for age-appropriate sexual conduct). Adolescents want to keep this area private. It is one of the more recently established spheres of adolescent behavior and it is at the leading edge of behavioral and often emotional autonomy. It also involves privacy boundaries that are shared with another person. Telling parents about your sexual behavior necessarily tells them about your partner's.

We began studying lying because of a half-century of prior work on parental monitoring. Parental monitoring is simply the idea that kids do better when parents pay attention to their activities. Parents can't parent effectively if they don't know what children are doing. Those old ads—"It's 10:00. Do you know where your children are?"—were designed to promote parental monitoring and prevent substance use and other problem behaviors.

The problem with research on monitoring is that our old ideas about it are not quite accurate. It is true that parents need to know what their children are up to in order to prevent problem behavior and to punish appropriately. But it turns out that much of the correlation linking monitoring to problem behavior confounded parental monitoring with parental knowledge.

Most of what parents know comes from what teens share. In other words, parents know more about their adolescents' lives not because parents are watching or snooping. They know because their adolescents share information. And kids with nothing to hide share more. So which came first—the problem behavior or the parental knowledge?

Why do adolescents tell parents information that could get them in trouble?

In the 18 years since the field has stopped focusing on what parents do to gain information and turned to why and when adolescents decide to lie or share information, we've learned a lot.

Who shares?

  • Adolescents share more information with parents who are warm.
  • Adolescents who believe their parents have a right to set rules, and believe that they are obligated to obey them, will share more information—even when they disagree with the rules.

Together, I think this tells us something important. Adolescents share most information with parents when they think their parents' actions are motivated by love and because the parent is doing their job of trying to protect them.

  • Adolescents lie more when they are involved in more problem behavior or when they like manipulating people.

In other words, teens who enjoy manipulating people for power and have things to hide lie more.

When do they share?

Teens share more information about things that parents have set rules about. In other words, they lie about things that parents have expressed as "understandings" or "expectations." They are more likely to tell the truth about things where parents have drawn a clear line in the sand.

This surprised me, as potential punishment seems a clear motivation for lying. But generally, kids respected their parents' right to set rules. If it was a matter of judgment, kids used theirs. But when the parent said they were serious, kids tried to negotiate instead of hiding information and lying. In fact, hoping to get the parent to change their mind was the biggest reason teens gave for disclosing disagreement. They wanted their parents to change the rules.

Even teens who did not believe their parents had the right to set rules, and did many things their parents wouldn't be happy about, were less likely to lie if that parent had set an explicit rule.

Is it what parents do or what kids think parents are doing?

To answer that question, we did an observational study of pre-adolescents (4th-6th grade) arguing with their mothers. Much of our research had been based on survey research, so it was hard to know, when teens said their parents were strict or not warm, whether it was the parent who was unloving or it was a difficult child who thought the parent was.

After video-recording the interactions, we coded them in terms of how sensitive the mother was to the child and how difficult the child was. We also measured the physiological characteristics of the mothers and children—specifically, RSA (respiratory sinus arrhythmia and salivary alpha-amylase). As we use it, RSA taps the resources that parents have to cope with stress. For example, you probably know the stereotype that people who are easily angered get red in the face. They have low RSA. Alpha-amylase is an indicator that the parent is responding to a challenging situation or threat.

We used mother and child characteristics to predict children's desire for privacy. Specifically, because kids are less likely to share information they think is private, we predicted whether they felt the need for the information to be secret or if they were okay with sharing it.

The most important thing we found was that it really was the mother who was driving the interaction, not the child's perceptions. Once observed behavior and RSA was in the model, child reports of behavior no longer predicted desire for privacy.

  • Maternal strictness did not predict desire for privacy. Kids were equally willing to share with strict as well as permissive parents.
  • Mothers with high RSA—in other words, those who had more resources to be patient—had children who were both more cooperative on video, and who were willing to share more information. This was particularly interesting because our measures showed that it was much more stressful for mothers to interact with their children during an argument (measured using salivary assays of alpha-amylase) than it was for children to argue with their moms.
  • More sensitive mothers—those who asked questions but made obvious efforts to respect the boundaries that their children had set up as private—had children who were willing to share more information than those who did not.

In other words, when mothers were sensitive, respected child privacy, and seemed to be able to become less upset (as measured physiologically), their children were more willing to share more information. This was challenging for moms—their sympathetic nervous system was aroused. But when they rose to the challenge and stayed calm, children would share. Interestingly, children whose mothers were calm also tended to be more cooperative and pleasant, even though mother and child RSA were not correlated. We interpreted this as meaning that being habitually calm helped kids develop self-restraint and a cooperative attitude.

Interestingly, more warmth did not predict greater willingness to share information. It was complicated. When mothers were sensitive and warm, children shared the most. But when they were insensitive and warm, they tended to plow in and violate children's privacy. That was when communication shut down. We believe that it is particularly hard for children to maintain a separate sense of self with warm mothers who don't respect privacy boundaries, so they push back.

Bottom line

Warmth, sensitivity, respect for adolescents as individuals, combined with strictness and setting fair rules? Sounds a lot like authoritative parenting. And authoritative parenting seems the best way to help children share the information they need for parents to help them to socialize themselves.

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