This introduces a new bi-weekly column by clinical psychologist and author Anthony E. Wolf that will offer unvarnished advice and smart strategies to parents of teenagers.
It was 7 p.m. on a Friday night.
"Bye, Mom. I'll be home tomorrow after my soccer game."
"Have fun at Trudy's, dear."
"I will. Love you."
A week later, Lila's mother happened to run into Trudy's mother in the supermarket.
"Thank you for having Lila over last Friday night. I hope she wasn't much trouble."
"No, she wasn't any trouble - because they slept over at Gabriela's house. Didn't she tell you? There was a party. It turns out that Gabriela's parents weren't there. Apparently it kind of got out of hand. You didn't hear about it?"
That night: "You lied to me."
"I didn't lie to you."
"How could you lie to me like that?"
"I wasn't lying. You never believe anything I say. You never do."
Teenagers lie. They lie a lot.
They lie because they don't want to get into trouble. ("I could have sworn I had five twenties in my wallet. Garrison, did you take $20 out of my wallet?" "No, Dad.")
They lie because they want to do what we forbid them to do. ("Jared, were you just smoking marijuana? Your eyes look a little red." "No. Of course not. How could you think that?")
They lie because they don't want to do what they are supposed to do. ("Lisa, shouldn't you be doing your homework?" "I don't have any.")
They lie on general principle just to keep us out of their lives. ("Reggie, what were you just doing?" "Nothing.")
They will tell you how important it is that their parents trust them.
Lying, to them, is beside the point.
"Yeah, what am I supposed to do - tell the truth? Well actually, Mom, I'm not going to be at Trudy's. We're all going over to Gabriela's who you don't know and her parents are away and I'm probably going to get drunk and, if Jeannine is there, maybe smoke some marijuana, and I may end up having sex with this junior, Dan somebody, who's really hot."
"See? That's what I mean."
Teenagers lie. That's what they do.
But here's the good news: The vast majority of them grow up to be pretty honest, good, adult citizens - just like us.
Lying to parents during one's teenage years is not a reliable indicator of a child who is going to grow into a dishonest adult.
But what I repeatedly see is that parents often get too caught up in the issue of their teenager's lying.
Then, they lose sight of the main issue at hand - which is whatever it is that their teenager is lying about, whether that's being at an unsupervised party or taking $20 out of a father's wallet. (Maybe dad should no longer leave his wallet lying around.)
It's far better to stick with the real problem: in this case, that Lila was at an unsupervised party that got out of hand - and who knows what naughtiness she got into.
"Lila, I ran into Trudy's mother and I heard what really went on Friday night."
"Nothing went on. I didn't know Gabriela's parents weren't going to be there, and I just forgot to tell you that we were going over there. And I didn't do anything anyway."
"I'm just going to have to think about letting you go overnight to friends' houses in the future."
There's really not much more that Lila's mother needs or wants to say. She will have to decide the next time her daughter wants to go on a sleepover whether she will let her, and if so, what safeguards she can put in place. That is the issue. The sad fact is she cannot rely on her daughter's truthfulness.
Repeatedly, surveys of teens and their parents show that parents significantly underestimate the degree of their children's involvement in sex, drugs and drinking.
It would be a whole lot easier to be able to trust one's teenage children. But the reality is that they lie. So parents of teenage children are stuck with having to make judgments about what they will or will not allow with incomplete information. It is part of the difficulty of being the parent of a teenager.
"Tell me truthfully, are you going to drink tonight?"
Maybe she will and maybe she won't.
So how do you teach children not to lie? More by example than anything else. Children don't learn honesty through enraged parents or big punishments. All that teaches them is to try to be better liars.
Anthony E. Wolf is a clinical
psychologist in Longmeadow, Mass. He is the author of six parenting books including the bestselling Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager. Dr. Wolf is married, the father of two ex-teenagers and hence has had extensive firsthand experience
at thinking he knew considerably more about parenting teenagers
than he did.