Sunday, February 6, 2011

Honestly, It's Tricky Talking to Teens about Lying

I co-teach Confirmation class in my town-- 9th and 10th graders. And last year, for one class, we did a lesson on lying-- something I see this a lot of as a high school teacher. Here's a typical example:

Me: “Hey, put your phone away.”
Student: “I didn't have my phone...”
Me: "But I just saw you, with your phone on your desk, pressing buttons..."

For many teens, it seems, lying is the default defense mechanism, and in some ways, I understand why: lying is so pervasive, we've almost become desensitized to it. Like Dr. House says, "Everybody lies."

And he's not wrong: parents lie to their children (Tooth Fairy, anyone?); children lie to their parents; advertisers lie to consumers; politicians lit to voters. Students lie to their teachers, and sometimes, teachers lie to their students. (Just so you know, kids: when a teacher says, “Of course, I wrote your recommendation... I just have to print it out,” that means he's going to go and write it that night.)

So, my co-teacher and I wanted to talk to our class about lying, but we didn’t want to stand up in front of them and say that lying is always wrong, because that’s too easy, and we live in a complex world. Nor did we want to say it’s sometimes OK to lie, because that makes it sound like everything is relative. Plus, we didn't want anyone to go home and say, “Hey, guess what, Mom. My CCD teacher says it’s OK to lie!” So it was tricky.

To get started, I presented to them five scenarios, and then we discussed whether the characters involved in each situation were really lying, and if so, was it acceptable to do so, and if they themselves would act similiarly in that situation. The scenarios are the following:

Connor was really under a lot of pressure—from his parents, teachers, and coaches—to improve his grades. But between basketball practices and his new girlfriend, he just didn’t have time to work on his To Kill a Mockingbird paper. So, the night before it was due, he found a paper on the Internet, put his name on it, and handed it in. He’d never done that before, but he promised himself next time, he wouldn’t let it come to this.

Theo was doing his math homework when he heard a pounding on his door. Startled, he ran over to the door to find his friend Marty, who said, “Some guys are chasing me, threatening to beat me up. Can I hide in here?” Theo quickly hid Marty in his closet. Only a few minutes later, when four huge lacrosse players showed up at Theo’s front door looking for Marty, Theo calmly explained that he’s been doing homework all day and denied that he saw him. The thugs bought the story and walked away.

Sarah’s parents were going away for the night, and she was having a big party. Amanda really wanted to go, but she knew her mom wouldn’t let her. So she told her mom she was just going over to Sarah’s to watch movies and play Taboo.
“So it’s just going to be you and a few friends?” Mom asked. “Yes,” Amanda replied. Mom: “And her parents are going to be there?” Amanda: “Yes.”
Mom: “And no drinking or anything like that?” Amanda: “No.”
“OK,” Amanda’s mom said. “I trust you.”

For months, Meredith was trying to get “in” with this certain group of girls, so when they invited her to go to the movies, she jumped at the chance. Only problem: she had already promised her friend Isabel that she would hang out with her. She thought about asking the girls if Isabel could go to the movies too, but she knew that they didn’t really care for Isabel, because of a stupid misunderstanding that happened way back in sixth grade. When Friday came, Meredith told Isabel she was tired and was going to stay home—then, of course, immediately went to the movies with the other girls. She felt bad about lying to Isabel, but what else could she do?

“I went to the Mall today and bought this new sweater!” Kathryn gushed, giving a fashion show to her friend Meghan. “I absolutely adore it! What do you think?” Unfortunately, Meghan didn’t care for Kathryn’s new purchase at all. She thought the whole thing—the color, the style, even the buttons—was wrong. Plus, she didn’t think Kathryn looked very good in it. But she didn’t want to make her friend feel bad, so when Kathryn asked her point-blank what she thought of it, she smiled and, mustering up as much fake enthusiasm as she possibly could, said, “Oh, it’s the cutest! I want one just like it!”

The scenarios generated some very… interesting discussion. For some, we had consensus. In the case of the "Marty is going to get beat up" story (an World War II ethical dilemma I modified to make it relevant to adolescents), pretty much everyone agreed the boy had to lie to save his friend from physical harm. So we talked about conscience and determining the greater good.

The one about the girl who bought the ugly sweater was trickier, but manageable. Most students agreed they would lie in that case, although some of the boys argued for brutal honesty; if someone's feelings get hurt, too bad. So we talked about the idea of tact, about how the girl could perhaps skirt the issue by pointing out something nice about the sweater ("The buttons are very unique" or "I'm so glad you like it").

Of course, some of the students suggested that's pretty much the same as lying, and I'm not sure I completely disagree. (An author named Cassandra Clare wrote, "Tact is lying for adults.") But we countered by saying that perhaps, in this case, you'd rather be dishonest than rude, and maybe it's more charitable to spare the other person's feelings than tell the truth. So far, so good.

Then we got to the two scenarios involving social activities-- lying to mom about a party, or lying to an old friend about a newer, "cooler" friend. Those discussions, to be honest, were a little on the discouraging side, with many of the students saying they'd probably do the same thing. In both cases, they recognized that the person told a lie, but they argued it was necessary. (And besides, everyone lies to their parents, so no harm, no foul.)

Finally, as an English teacher, I was most disheartened by the discussion about the kid copying off the To Kill a Mockingbird paper. Almost every single kid in the class tried to tell me plagiarism isn't lying. "But you're lying to your teacher!" I insisted. "By putting your name on it, you're saying this is your work, when it isn't!" They didn't buy it.

After we went throught the scenarios, we had them do an examination of conscience. We asked them to think of a lie they told in their lives and ask themselves a series of questions. (Does this lie serve my own self-interests? Will this lie, in the long run, make the situation worse or better?
If I get caught telling this lie, will other people get hurt? If I get caught telling this lie, will people be disappointed in me? Is it important for you to be considered a trustworthy person?)

Did any of this work? Not sure. But hey, at least we brought up a prickly issue and talked about it truthfully. And even though my co-teacher and I were a little discouraged by some of their answers, at least they were honest about it. Hey, it's a start, right?


C. Smith said...

Hi Mark,
I know this is an older post, but I really like these scenarios as discussion starters. May I use them in total or part for a young teen's after school program that I facilitate?

Johnna Ferguson said...

I'm trying to figure out how to talk to my teen about a recent case of her lying to me. It's really helpful that I'm not alone in the surprising and discouraging situation where the teen somehow thinks a lie is not a lie. I like your cases-for-discussion. Thanks.