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updated: 6/19/2014 3:02 PM

Truth-telling develops like other cognitive and emotional skills

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Most teenagers will lie to their parents.

If you are the parent of a teen, you're probably thinking, "Is this supposed to be big news?"

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Most of us who have raised or are raising teens know our kids have lied on occasion. Even if we can't prove it, we certainly strongly suspect it.

And, let's be honest, part of our suspicion is based on our own behavior as adolescents and our memories of the times we told a bit less than the truth to our parents (who, I'm sure, knew, or strongly suspected, we sometimes lied to them based, in part, on their memories of lying to their own parents).

A recent study, "The Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth," lends some statistical credibility to our assumptions. The survey found that about 92 percent of adolescents reported they had lied to their parents in the last 12 months. Similarly, 72 percent confessed they had lied to teachers. About 20 percent admitted they would lie to get a job. Maybe we've got a problem here.

Or maybe we don't.

I think most of us would agree that truth-telling is generally a value we want to support in our families and in our culture as a whole. Sure, we are all aware of exceptions to the rule -- the parents who reassure their 3-year-olds that nothing bad can happen to them, or the physicians who try to instill hope in patients whose illnesses seem hopeless. But these are recognized to be exceptions. As a rule, we prefer truth-telling to lying.

The challenge is that telling the truth, as with a lot of behaviors we value, does not come naturally. It's not hard-wired into our genetic code. As with much of human behavior, it is learned. And it is learned over time.

We forget that. While we readily make allowances for our children's physical, cognitive, emotional and social shortcomings ("after all, they're just kids"), we take a harder line when it comes to their failures to be honest.

For example, we are patient with 4-year-olds' clumsy running; we understand their little bodies just aren't up to the task. We don't expect 6-year-olds to master algebra; there is a real question about their brains' ability to do so. It hasn't developed enough. And we don't expect 13-year-olds to understand the emotional and social intricacies of intimate relationships, so we wisely don't allow them to sign marriage contracts (and probably don't even allow them to date much).

Researchers who have studied "moral development" (the late Lawrence Kohlberg being foremost among them) suggest that our children develop morally just as they do physically, cognitively, emotionally and socially. For instance, young children are pretty much self-centered. Grade-schoolers and junior high kids usually define right and wrong according to whether they get caught.

Teens are in the process of moving toward a stage in which they see morality as pretty much black and white. However, their "black and white" is defined by their own opinions and those of their "tribe" (which is one reason we parents are so often wrong -- if not downright stupid -- according to our teenagers).

Now truth-telling, truth be told, is a rather advanced moral concept. Most of our teenagers are still struggling through the "it's not wrong if you don't get caught" stage and just beginning to claim their own (or at least their peer group's) rather rigid moral code.

It's probably not until the very late teens, or even in young adulthood, that most of our children will be able to even consider the true moral intricacies of truth-telling.

That doesn't mean we parents don't try to teach them. That's still our job. It just means we put their lying in developmental perspective and not see it as evidence of our children's total moral bankruptcy or our own total failure as parents.

Our adolescent children still are learning about the moral principles that will guide their actions. And we parents still need to be teaching them, but patiently teaching them. Our teenagers' lying is not cause for parental panic. It is what educators call a "teachable moment," and we parents are the teachers.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."

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