Lying, Sneaking, Cheating. What Keeps Kids From Being Honest?
There are many reasons why kids lie to parents. Dr. Lisa gives several explanations for why kids sometimes don’t tell the truth and shares stories from her practice of the difficult scenarios she's helped families navigate, including an example of when parents assume the worst about their teen's behavior and get kids to live down to their expectations. Dr. Lisa and Reena also discuss cheating and how what happens in the mind of a six-year-old cheater differs from cheating among high school students. Ultimately, helping kids develop a fine-tuned conscience can make all the difference when it comes to being honest. FOR CHILDREN EVERYWHERE First Book works with half a million teachers in underserved communities to get them books and much needed resources. The organization believes the best way out of poverty is education: www.firstbook.org ARTICLE: Lisa's NYT article How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole
March 23, 2021 | 29 min
Transcript | Lying, Sneaking, Cheating. What Keeps Kids From Being Honest?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 32: Lying, Sneaking, Cheating. What Keeps Kids From Being Honest?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: It’s official. I went and got a check up. I am 10 pounds heavier than I was a year ago.
LISA: Congratulations, Reena. Well done.
REENA: Okay, I’m not stressing over it because apparently I’m in the healthy BMI, but I’m telling everyone who’s listening don’t worry about it, it’s gonna get better and we’re going to be outside as the weather warms up.
LISA: Exactly. It’ll sort itself out.
REENA: I do wish the scale lied sometimes, but you know who lies sometimes more often than the scale? Our children. How do you get that under wraps? I love this letter that we got in our inbox. It says: ‘Hello, I’m a licensed clinical social worker in New York. I work with children, adolescents and families. I have two teens of my own. Your podcast helps me both professionally and personally. I look forward to my Tuesday morning walks so I can listen to the new podcast. This is part of my pleasure scheduling. A question I get over and over from my clients is why is my kid lying? I’ve never got a good grasp on this behavior and was wondering what your thoughts are on the why and what to do about it. Thank you very much.’
LISA: I love this. I also love like having a colleague write in, you know, getting to think with another clinician about what we see in the office, because we do see lying in the office and we do hear parents worrying about it.
REENA: So why do they do it?
LISA: Well, you know it’s complicated, as the kids would say. I think we’re seeing a lot of lying around something that I have observed over time, which is it’s not unusual for kids to lie not because they’re trying to fool their parents but because they’re lying to themselves. So, what I’m thinking about specifically is a kiddo I took care of years ago who had basically got himself into a terrible holw with his school work, had basically really, really gotten very far behind, and he was in his own state of denial about it. He was really trying to ignore the problem, being very evasive around the problem, didn’t want to deal with that, and I think of course the problem with this is you know the longer you avoid something like this it just grows and grows.
LISA: And so his dad started to get wise to things not being so great and his dad would ask him point blank like, did you do your homework? And the kid would be like, absolutely, and the dad would say, did you turn it in? And he would say, absolutely, which of course none of this was true, and then they’d get a report from school that this kid was terribly behind, and of course the dad was really upset and the dad was also, and I think this is where it’s interesting, the dad was kind of personally offended about it, you know, really felt like why is my kid lying to me? And as I dug into the situation what became very clear to me was, oh it’s not like the kid woke up in the morning and was like, how am I going to mess with Dad? That was not what was happening here. The kid was basically completely in over his head, was using avoidance as a strategy to manage massive anxiety about school, and the lying to his dad was just collateral damage to a much different problem, which was that he had gotten himself into a terrible spot academically and didn’t even know how to start digging, really.
REENA: But this is what I understand. Don’t they get it’s going to catch up to you at some point?
LISA: This is this is something that’s interesting about school, and I think is doubly true about pandemic school, is that kids, and I would say especially teenagers, can be pretty impressive in their smoke screens around where they stand with regard to their work, and so it can actually it does catch up with them, but one thing I’ve always been sort of impressed, I guess, by is it sometimes takes weeks for the grownups to put together the puzzle of how little work the kid has done because they’ll say, oh I turned it in digitally. That’s so funny you didn’t get it, that’s so weird, you know I mean there can be a lot of ways for kids to make this hard to to nail down, and so the way that I actually want to walk up to this is to appreciate it does create a massive long term problem, but in the short term the lying and the smokescreen are really surprisingly effective, I mean at throwing adults off your scent and then making the problem go away in the immediate, it just creates a massive problem down the line.
REENA: So, the Reena before Lisa would be like, how could you lie to me? I can’t believe you lied to me, and it’s all about me and how upset I am that you pulled the wool over my eyes. I’m sure there are parents who would raise their hands saying they react that same way.
LISA: Well, and that’s a totally understandable first reaction, and especially the parents like, I’ve been asking, I’ve been worried about it, I’ve been trying to help you, and you’ve been basically like blowing smoke this whole time. What I would say is it’s fair for the adult to be upset but it’s not going to be helpful to the situation because it really is not about the kid trying to lie to the parent, and I actually I wrote my February column for The Times was about helping kids out of a homework hole because right now when you look at the data on kids and pandemic school, kids ow tons of work, or behind and falling behind, mostly just because they’re very disengaged from school, and the first point I make in that article is don’t get mad. You may, and especially in a pandemic when we are all so worn thin and tired and trying to stay on top of anything we can, it’s easy to feel really mad, but I would say see if you can’t get past that or see if you can’t blow off that steam somewhere else, and then approach your kid from the standpoint of, all right, you’ve gotten yourself into a really bad position, you are managing that bad position by basically lying to yourself, which also then involves lying to me. I’m going to set aside the lying to me for now, but you’ve got to figure out and I’m here to help you figure out how to fix the problem you’ve created for yourself. I think that’s where we want to be.
REENA: So, when you try to help them fix the problem, what helps and situation?
LISA: Well, if it’s school work I think there is that kind of taking a cold hard look at what the kid owes, and then trying to figure out how they’re going to tackle it or manage it, and at this point I would say if that’s a problem in a family I would also try to talk to the school, communicate with teachers. I think everybody just wants to help these kids through at this point and a lot of kids are dropping balls and we can be kind about it. I think if it’s not school work, if it’s something else like a chore they were supposed to do or an obligation they didn’t meet or some other thing where the kid was using lying, using denial, using avoidance because they hadn’t held up their end of a bargain, or hadn’t done what they were supposed to do, I think the teachable moment as a parent is to acknowledge, like look, when you lie about this, when you tell people it’s done and it’s not done, I get it. Like in the short term the problem, and I would use finger quotes here, goes away, but then I would say, here’s the problem in the long term. It just becomes even bigger. So, don’t do this. I think that that’s how I would approach it as a parent.
REENA: So, you’re saying part of the reason why they lie to hide something. Are there other reasons why they might lie to you?
LISA: You know, I’m thinking clinically, like when have I seen kids be shady, and I’ll say shady, another reason, and this gets to the thinking about our parenting to go from the last podcast, right? There’s always a reason when kids are doing things we don’t want them to do, there’s always a reason. Another reason, it reminds me, it was a 12-year-old girl who I had in my practice, and her mom was really upset with her because she was a sneaky kid. She was doing all the sneaky stuff, and the sneaky stuff that the mom described, and the kid admitted she’d been doing, is the kid would say, I’m going over to so-and-so’s house and then would go over to another kid’s house and then the mom would sort of start to figure out that there’d been a switcheroo in this, and then when she would confront the girl about it, the girl would be like, no, no, no and then she would come up with this whole elaborate justification for why the mom misunderstood the situation, and it did look sneaky, it was sneaky, I mean the kid was definitely doing things that were not, you know, totally upright, and as I got to know the girl what became very clear is that she felt over controlled by her mother. She had done at 11 what most 11-year-olds do, which is they just start to close their doors to their bedrooms, you know, that it just is a very normal part of the beginning of adolescence, which is at 11, the kids want more privacy and more autonomy, and the mom, I think backed by the dad in the situation, thought it was really weird that the kid wanted her door closed, and so said you can’t have your door closed, and really wouldn’t allow what I consider to be normal levels of privacy, and so the kid couldn’t have her door closed , nd I think that was a good example, there were like lots of versions of that where the mom I think took a suspicious stance towards the child as she moved into adolescence and started to be very, I would say intrusive, you know not really giving her space to have privacy for its own sake, and really 11, 12, and certainly adolescents, they need and want, and I actually think deserve, privacy for its own sake, like they’re very rarely doing something they’re not supposed to be doing, they just want privacy, and since the kid couldn’t get it I think that she was like, okay fine, like you’re actually not going to know about everything I’m up to and I’m going to lie to you just to have the privacy, which of course like made its own mess, but it’s not like the kid started out from the position where everything was great and she just thought she’d see if she could mess with her mom.
REENA: Wow. So, you’re saying sometimes too much control over a child can lead them in the direction of lying as well?
LISA: I think so, especially if they don’t feel like they’ve got room or space or independence. They’re going to get it one way or another, and so I think that you know the takeaway on that one is very much when your child wants to just sort of become more separate from you, become more independent, don’t assume it’s because they’re doing something wrong. Don’t assume that they’re up to no good, and this is in part why, you know, I know I’ve said this before, this is why I want to get banners and fly them behind planes saying: ‘Adolescence begins at 11’ because that is the age at which kids suddenly want to keep their cards closer to their chest, want to share less with their parents, and when parents are realizing that it’s simply because that young person has moved into adolescence they can all too readily assume that there’s more to it. The other time I’ve seen this, Reena, and this is, this is very interesting, is sometimes I’ve seen parents be very intrusive and overly suspicious when the parent themselves had been a very sneaky kid.
REENA: When they knew they grew up that way, that they were just sneaky as a child.
LISA: Yeah, and who knows why or what they were up to or maybe the parent had a sibling that was really really sneaky, and so there’s a little bit or, we use this term, like there’s a little bit of like ghosts in the nursery. Like the parent’s own memories and anxieties about their adolescence start to cloud their view of their own child.
LISA: It is interesting. It’s actually very painful to watch clinically because what happens is you have a totally normally developing 11-year-old who’s like, I’m going to close my door, and then you have a totally flipped out parent who’s like, whoa closing your door? When my brother started closing his door he was selling weed, and consciously or not that starts to inform the parents view of the child, and doesn’t tend to help the situation. So, one of the things we want as a takeaway for this is that kids deserve privacy, it’s okay for kids to have privacy, they should want privacy, we should grant them privacy unless they give you a reason, they give you a reason to think something is up, it’s best to presume that it’s normal healthy development taking its course.
REENA: So, if you see yourself doing that or you know that you were sneaky as a child and you’re assuming your kid is, how do you get the reset and not get yourself to go there? How do you give them that level of trust and say, okay let’s see where this goes?
LISA: The key in this, and this is something I’ve really grappled with clinically, is it conscious for the parent or not? Because I’ve seen it in both cases, like I’ve seen parents with her like, listen things were pretty out of control when I was a kid or you know we had a pretty difficult family situation and so I was up to all sorts of stuff, I’m lying to my parents like crazy, and I worry a lot about my kid becoming a teenager because of what I went through, and I don’t want that to impact how I raise my kid. I’ve seen that, that’s the good version. The less good version, and I have seen this and, Reena, I will say in 25 years of practicing I would say this is sort of when the more painful things I’ve watched unfold, where I’ve had a parent come in and they describe to me what sounds like a devil child. They really describe this really naughty, sneaky, up to no good kid, and highly suspicious, pointing to all sorts of evidence of the kid’s, you know not forthcomingness, and then the kid comes in, and I am pretty good at evaluating teenagers at this point, and the kid comes in this like, I don’t know what I did to deserve this, you know the hairy eyeball with which the parent regards me, and really, you know, maybe the kid’s playing all over my eye, but I’ve never really in the end seen it play out that way, where the kid’s like I don’t get it? Like why doesn’t the adult trust me? And it’s great when the family is seeking help and the kid is saying like, I don’t get it and it seems to be trusting me enough to actually say that, where that can go wrong, and this is really important in parenting, is if the kid starts to think, well screw it. Like if you already think I am you know sneaking around, lying and you know doing all sorts of wrong things, like well why not? Right? I mean you already think I am and here I am trying to stay on the straight and narrow having not a lot of fun. I’m going to live down to your expectation. So, that’s my least favorite scenario. So, what I would say as a parent is if you’re listening and you’re thinking, man like either I did a whole bunch of stuff I feel weird about, or I watched my sibling to a whole bunch of stuff that makes me really worried about my kid becoming a teenager I would say start thinking about it, start trying to make some separation between the there and then and the here and now, and what I would also say is if you’re fortunate enough to be in a situation where you’ve got more than one parent raising that kid use your partner as a check because that can be a real gift that two parents can give a kid, which is that one parent might say, I’m reacting really strongly to this. Do you get the same read on it? And if you trust your partner that can be a really helpful way to keep the ghosts in the nursery out of the moment that you’re in.
REENA: I like that. I think as parents, though, we assume the absolute worst. Oh he’s hanging out with this kid, I don’t know who this kid is, they’re up to something shady. When do you have to worry that your child might be a sociopath because of lying?
LISA: Am I raising a sociopath? Okay, in all likelihood you are not raising a sociopath. So let me just start there. But let’s say, like when should you worry you’re raising a sociopath? What I would say is if the kid’s having fun with it. I think that one of the things that really flags in my mind when it’s time to really worry that we don’t have a garden variety lying in growing up but we actually have a kiddo who’s really on a bad path is one they manipulate because it’s delightful to them to toy with people to to get over on them taking pleasure in getting over on people, and the term we use, and this is a little bit heavy duty but it’s a useful term, is like when there’s a sadistic quality. When there’s pleasure in hurting other people, pleasure in taking advantage of other people, then you probably do have a sociopath on your hands, and that’s probably a topic for another podcast.
REENA: How often do you see that? In your years of practicing, how often do you see something like that?
LISA: Once every 10 years.
REENA: Really? Okay.
LISA: I’ve seen some kiddos where I’m like, man, like either you’re going to be really successful in business or you’re gonna go to jail or both. Probably both.
REENA: So, there’s a part of me that wants to say, because I’m not in the teenage years yet, maybe a little bit of lying makes them outside the box and they’re going to be an entrepreneur? Or somebody really sharp and bright, but it doesn’t feel good as a parent. I can tell you that.
LISA: No but you do imagine that perhaps some of the most successful business people have a, what we would call maybe a little more moral flexibility at their disposal, but in the meantime you don’t want your kid lying to you, and you don’t want your kid not doing their work, and you don’t want to get sneaking around.
REENA: Yeah. Lisa, what about cheating?
LISA: Right. Speaking of things you don’t want your kids doing.
LISA: Well okay, so cheating is fascinating. There is a point in development when it is entirely normal actually, and it’s right around age 6.
REENA: To cheat? That it’s normal to cheat?
LISA: To cheat. 6-year-olds cheat like crazy. If you play a game with a kid who’s 6 they will make up the rules the whole entire time until they have won, and it’s very annoying as a grown up, and so then parents are there with their 6-year-old thinking like holy moly I’ve got a sociopath as a 6-year-old. Okay no you have a normally developing 6-year-old, but it’s really important to know why they’re cheating, not that the cheating’s okay but again there’s a reason. Okay so bear with me. So here’s the deal. Before age 6 conscience exists externally. So ages like roughly zero to 5, if you don’t get caught you are good to go. If nobody sees you do it, you’ve done nothing wrong. So, basically all kids under 5 or roughly sociopathic but not really, But then, it’s interesting at age 6 conscience starts to internalize. Kids start to get a sense of a right and a wrong that goes with them everywhere they go, and this is an improvement, this is a step in the right direction, but the challenge developmentally is that that first iteration of conscience is very brutal actually. You are either a total angel or you have committed a capital crime. You are all good or you’re terribly wrong, and what parents see is that when kids make mistakes at age 6 they tend to kind of lose it, and it can even be something like scribbling outside the lines or spilling their milk and the kid will just start to panic, like I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and the parent’s like, it’s fine. Like it’s not that big a deal. And the kid’s like, yes it is. It’s a huge deal, and often the parent’s like, where is this coming from? And where it’s coming from is that in the normal development of childhood. 6-year-olds really feel like either you’re totally innocent or completely horrendous, and so the cheating comes in because they can’t stand the idea of like being in the wrong in any way, and so losing becomes intolerable, and so 6-year-olds, as a group, they will if there’s something’s not right they will either blame or lie or cheat just to not be in the wrong, and I’ll tell you I have a funny story. It was kinda hilarious and sweet at the same time. So my younger daughter, when she was 6, the four of us, our family was walking up our book together, we were coming home from something and we were on the opposite side of the street from our house, and our younger daughter at age 6 wandered across the street towards our house without looking either way, and luckily we live on a very quiet street and so there was no traffic or nothing, but we were like, whoa, you can’t do that. And we were like, yelling at her across the street, and we were like, you can’t cross the street without looking, and she goes, I didn’t. We’re like, yeah you did, we just watched you do it. And she was like, nope I didn’t. I didn’t. And we’re like, hey kiddo, you’re over there. We’re over here. And she goes, ahh, and then she did this thing that 6-year-olds do where she starts crying and she goes, I’m the worst child in the world. She starts crying, whatever. That’s 6, so deny, deny, cheat, cheat until you can no longer deny it and then freak out. So, okay, so here’s the solution whether you have a 6-year-old or a high strung teenager. Explain to them the mistakes come in different sizes: small, medium and large, and the size of the mistake dictates how bad they should feel and how much work they need to do to fix it. So, if they spill their milk that’s a small mistake. They don’t need to feel that bad, they just need to clean it up. If they’ve been acting kind of ramped up and wild and you’ve told them to calm down and then they spilled their milk, well that’s medium. They should feel a little worse and there’s more work to fix it, they have to calm down and also clean up. If they throw their milk on their sister, all right now we’ve got a big problem. They should feel bad about that and then they need to do a whole lot of things to make it right. The other thing we want to point out is losing in games is not something that one needs to feel as somehow wrongdoing. That’s just part of playing games. And to help kids with that we can say, look, when you play games you win sometimes, you lose sometimes. Watch how I handle it when I lose. I don’t mind. I get that that’s part of playing a game, but the point here being when kids screw up, whether they are at age 6 or whether later in development, and by screwing up I mean they lie, they sneak, we catch them doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, you want to help them feel guilt at the right level, right? To say look, you made a mistake.You should feel bad here. Like you didn’t do the right thing, but we don’t want them to feel horrible, horrible, horrible, right? Like way, way too big, and then we need to help them figure out what it takes to make it right. They have to be able to wipe the slate clean. They have to be able to reset it.
REENA: But what if you feel like they can’t reset. I’m thinking high school, the pressure of grades. What if there’s a cheating situation there? What do you do?
LISA: That’s the other place you do see cheating, right? So there’s no normative cheating at age 6, and then when when cheating really crops up again in, you know frequency, it’s high schoolers, and often it’s high schoolers who are feeling tremendous pressure, and we see this, and there’s a group named Challenge Success which does beautiful work out of Stanford and they look at kids under tremendous pressure and they see it like the more pressure we put on kids the more they cheat. So, if a kid cheats and gets caught in high school it could be pretty ugly, right? I mean it could really, depending on how the school handles it, you know they might have to you know have a disciplinary process that may or may not get reported to colleges, I mean so there’s some real teeth to that, but even in high school good kids do dumb things, and so there’s both the dealing with the consequences and I’m always on the side of consequences being about repair, you know the opportunity for kids to make things right, and I guess that’s, I would say, extends to all of this. You know if you catch your kid lying or cheating or sneaking work with the assumption you have a fundamentally good kid who did a dumb thing, and it’s important not to hammer them with guilt, to have their guilt be proportional as we do with 6-year-olds, small, medium and large, you should feel this bad, this is what you can do to make it right, because part of what keeps kids on the straight and narrow is to have a conscience that operates well, and by that I mean a conscience that does ping in proportion to the problem at hand. That’s actually what keeps kids from doing the wrong thing.
REENA: Wow. That is good. That is really good. And keeping it fine tuned, their conscience.
LISA: A fine tuned conscience is a wonderful thing.
REENA: Hard to develop.
LISA: It is, but truly just that small, medium and large, you should feel this bad, this is all that’s required to fix it, that’s how we help kids develop a fine tuned conscience that can be a useful guide for them as they navigate their way.
REENA: Thank you. Because I think we often look at it from the lowest common denominator of your child and I like that you said give them the benefit of the doubt here.
LISA: Yeah. Kids make mistakes.
REENA: You’re right. You’re right. So, should we do a For Kids Everywhere today? I think it’s a good day for that.
LISA: Yeah. I’ve got a great one. So, this one is called First Book, and it’s firstbook(dot)(org), and it is a group that works with a half million teachers who operate or who educate in underserved communities, and first book helps those educators to provide the students in their care with books and other educational resources. So firstbook(dot)(org), and we’ll put all of the details in the show notes, as always.
REENA: Sounds great. I love that. And what about parenting to go?
LISA: In keeping with today’s theme let’s talk about the difference between guilt and shame. So, when your kid really does something they shouldn’t have done it’s easy to go to shame, and by shame what we mean in psychology is it’s not that the kid did something wrong, it’s that the kid is bad. So, shame is about who you are, guilt is about what you did. Shame is almost never a good thing to bring into a relationship. So no matter how angry you are at your child, try to steer clear of shame. It’s not about your kids being a bad person, it’s about your kids doing the dumb thing. So they should feel guilt about the dumb thing they did, but not shame about who they are as a person.
REENA: Guilt versus shame. I never thought of it that way. Thank you so much. See you next week.
LISA: See you next week.