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Sweet Little Liars

September 16, 2009
by Nathanael Johnson
art of a boy with a long nose Image source:

Teens deceive parents on “moral” grounds

Fatima didn’t want to deceive her parents but knew if she told them she’d be dancing with boys that night, she’d be in trouble. So the 17-year-old chose her words carefully, not exactly lying but not telling the whole truth, either. She explains via email, “Not every guy I meet or become friends with will think about, or even want to have, sex with me.” Sometimes, Fatima says, a little deception is justified when parents aren’t acting rationally. That’s a belief shared by most of her peers, according to a study by human development professor Elliot Turiel.

Turiel’s research team presented 128 teens (ages 12 to 17) with scenarios in which fictitious teens disagreed with others’ decisions, and asked if deception was a legitimate way of resolving the dilemmas. Almost all the teens said lying was acceptable in some cases. Turiel says it’s not that they don’t value honesty (91 percent said lying is generally unacceptable), but other considerations—loyalty to friends, views on racism and sexism, reluctance to bow to parental pressure—sometimes outweigh the truth. In other words, teens’ lies are often the result of complex moral reasoning.

It’s a finding that should give adults, especially parents, hope. “There’s a lot of talk about young people these days having no morals, that they’re all going to hell in a handbasket. It’s simply not the case,” says Turiel. Although Immanuel Kant wrote that lying of any kind is immoral, Turiel tends to side with the teens. Consider those who lied to hide Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis, he says.

Of course, Turiel gave the teens in his study, published in Child Development, more ambiguous choices than that. In one scenario a teen wants to join a club, but the parents say it’s a waste of time. The teen goes anyway, claiming to be going to a friend’s house. Most teens—a resounding 77 percent—thought lying in this case was justified. But when Turiel replaced the parents in this story with a group of busybody friends, just 42 percent found lying acceptable. Turiel says teens see lying to parents as a way to even out an inequitable relationship, righting perceived injustices stemming from that power imbalance. Because there’s not usually an imbalance of power between friends, there’s much less reason to lie. Turiel sees parallels to previous research; women in some male-dominated cultures have told researchers that lying is a morally acceptable way of achieving liberty. His conclusion: inequitable relationships create the incentive to lie.

Younger adolescents found lying less acceptable than their older peers: 62 percent of 12- to 14-yearolds said it was okay to lie to gain personal freedom, as in the club case, compared with 92 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds. “Maybe the parents are right,” says 13-year-old Madeleine, reflecting the stance of many in her age group. “Maybe the club is just about playing games. It’s good to give parents the benefit of the doubt.” But what if her parents pressured her to do something like shave off all her hair? It would be okay to deceive them, Madeleine laughs, perhaps by wearing a fake scalp. “I can discern if it’s basically reasonable or not.”

In Fatima’s case, lying helps her avoid unnecessary stress and minimize cultural clashes with her Pakistani parents. “I understand my parents and their values,” she says, “and respect them, even if I disagree with them. I just think they tend to make a big deal of things that aren’t really a big deal—especially for a teen growing up in America.”

From the July August 2007 Summer Travel Issue issue of California.

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