The recent media frenzy about the behavior of Representative Anthony Weiner highlights the dangers of two activities - sexting and lying - and provides a clear teachable moment to use with our teens. We would hope to have good role models for the actions we want to encourage but given the dramatic effects of the inappropriate messages and photos Weiner sent and the devastating results of his untruthful words, we can talk to our kids about the serious consequences of making bad decisions.
Weiner is under fire by his own party for his behavior, particularly for lying to the press, his staff, constituents, colleagues, friends and family about his participation in the sexting incidents. As parents, we know that young children lie - generally about once every two hours - sometimes to get something they want or to gain attention but usually to avoid getting in trouble and being punished. Often the lines between make-believe and reality become blurred.
But when do youngsters' little 'white lies' become teenagers' big destructive whoppers? And how do those teens behave as adults out in the world? The case of Congressman Weiner provides an unambiguous example of the slippery slope of lying. As Sir Walter Scott wrote two hundred years ago, "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Once you have begun to create a falsification, it's hard to extricate yourself.
According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics, more than one in five teens reveal instances of lying, cheating or stealing in the past year, with 80% saying they have lied to their parents about something significant. Teens are five times more likely than those over 50 to believe it is necessary to lie and cheat in order to succeed. As they move out into the world at large, these same young adults are two to three times more likely to misrepresent themselves in a job interview, lie to a significant other, keep money mistakenly given to them.
Why do children resort to these kinds of misdeeds? There are many possible reasons. Ethical standards may be seen as flexible guidelines, not rules. Poor role models abound in society, entertainment, political and sports worlds. Kids face high expectations and the pressure to succeed coming from parents and schools. There has been a normalization of certain illegal activities on the Internet - plagiarism of papers and reports, downloading pirated music and videos. And some baby boomer parents have transferred their signature emphasis on "me and my needs" to their offspring.
So what's a parent to do?
Be the role model you want you kids to emulate. And find other good examples of adults behaving well. They can help you reinforce the examples of integrity, authenticity, good citizenship that you want to encourage. Our boys looked up to John Wooden as they were growing up - you can find others in your own community.
As in other aspects of parenting, keeping lines of communication open is a good start. When your children are young, encourage and praise their honesty and let them know clearly what is unacceptable. As they mature, continue the dialog about the real consequences of their behaviors, including lying. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a white paper with tips for improving communication with your teen.
Help your teens focus on learning for it's own sake without obsessing about tests and grades. Let them know that they don't have to be perfect to be competitive. When self-esteem is low, cheating and lying increase, so check out some tips from the American Psychological Association to facilitate building their self-confidence, resilience and self-respect.
As a member of Congress, Anthony Weiner's good judgment is also being questioned in terms of his use of social media as an outlet for his sexual proclivities. We'll talk more about that and how it affects your teens on Wednesday.
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