Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Teenagers and Their Tentative Truths

I'll start with a story.

There's a high school student working at their ice cream job. This ice cream employee is not only known for the best peanut butter and chocolate milkshakes in town, but they're a pretty good student and rule follower as well.

This teenager has an hour break between shifts. They know ahead of time about a house party that they want to stop by. Somehow, their mother finds out about the party and says, in no uncertain terms, they are not to attend this party. The teenager agrees that they won't "attend" the party.

However, even though the teenager decides that they're not going to attend the party, they instead choose to just stop by. To the teenager, this is okay... they're not attending the party; they're just stopping by for ten, maybe twenty minutes.

In between their shifts, this teenager gets a ride from a co-worker/friend to the party. They're at the party less than twenty minutes. They don't drink anything they shouldn't. They just say hi to a few friends and then return back to their job for their next shift. It was a brief visit and barely worth a mention.

The next day, the high school student's mother asks the student if they attend the party. He says "no". The parent follows up with a slightly more linear question: "Are you sure you didn't step foot into that house? That you didn't go to the party?" The teenager pauses and thinks to themselves: What exactly am I being asked right now? How can I not lie but still not tell the full truth? No matter the response the teenager gave, unless it was the full truth, the parent already had their answer. It turns out this mom had connected with a family friend who lived across the stress from the party and offered to keep an eye out for the car this responsible student drove.

Eventually, the teenager had to admit that they stopped by the party. The parent grounded the student for not following the parental expectation and also for lying.

The teenager, himself a rather decent honors student and solid son, tried to find a loophole in their parent's mandate and got caught in the web. It's what kids do. It's also something I remember to this day.

Much like the teenager from the above story, let me be blunt and share: your kid will lie to you.

They will lie a little bit about big things.

They will lie a lot about little things.

They will lie for seemingly no reason.

They will lie with intention and purpose.

Your perfect little angel will lie to you.

This is absolutely normal.

In your student's mind, they're not lying. They're just not telling you the full truth. Often, in my conversations with parents, I share that there is a huge bubble of information that we call the "full truth". I'll make a huge circle with my hands to show how large this "truth bubble" truly is. If a child was to tell you everything in the truth bubble, they'd start at the beginning, not leave anything out, have a perfect memory about what transpired, and took full ownership of their decisions. This rarely happens.

Instead, a student will tell you little pockets of truths within this larger bubble. Here is an example:

What you are asking "did you complete your homework?"
What they say: "yes, i did my homework"
What the truth is: "I only did my math homework and not my ELA homework"

To them, they're not lying. They did do their homework. Their math homework is done. You asked if they completed their homework and they have completed their math homework. You didn't ask about the ELA homework though, even though you think you did.

If you asked specifically about their ELA homework, they'd probably counter with another not-a-lie-but-not-the-truth response like "oh, we actually did most of it in class" (not false) or "I only have a few more sentences to write; it's pretty much done" (not false either). Unless you ask directly about the completion of their ELA assignment, you're not going to get the answer to the question you're asking.

The challenge as a parent, as an administrator, is asking the exact simplified question you want an answer to, even if you have to repeat the question over and over again. Instead of asking a broad "is your homework done?" type question, you need to break the request into smaller, much more defined inquiries.

Don't ask "is your homework done?"
Instead, "please show me your math homework"

Don't say "did you talk with your math teacher like we said you would?"
Instead, "tell me about the conversation you had with your math teacher. tell me every word. I'm about to email them, so I want to make sure i have the full story."

Don't say "everything go well today at school?"
Instead, "let's share our favorite part from today and one thing that didn't go as well as we hoped"

As a school administrator, I know that a student's first reaction when they're in our office is to lie. It's just what always happens. Sometimes, I start the conversation with "I know you're not going to tell me the truth when I ask these questions..." followed by "let's restart this conversation again now that we've agreed that we weren't truthful in the beginning."

Personally, I wish that everyone just started with the truth. I wish our students were truthful with their parents about not completing their work. I wish our parents would trust our staff a bit more on certain occasions. I wish every conversation I had with a student started with an agreement of truth.

I understand why our students aren't truthful. They're a little bit scared. They're worried about the truth. Some students are trying to figure out what I know so they can only share that small segment of information. Other students will just continue to lie, even when confronted with an avalanche of facts. A loophole is the friend of every teenager I know.

About 98% of the time, we administrators and parents get to the truth eventually. Odd thing is... any conversation we have with the student often doesn't even involve a consequence. Our students just don't share the full truth because they don't know how to tell the full truth, even if they're told ahead of time that there isn't a consequence attached.

This is actually ok. They're kids. I don't expect the truth right off the bat and neither should our parents. Instead, let's work on asking the questions that can give us the answers we want from our teenagers. Let's understand that our kids won't always tell the truth... and that they need us to provide the structure and possible consequences when they don't live up to our reasonable expectations.

Much like the story shared above, even a responsible honors student can rationalize ways where they feel like they're not lying to their parents. Every student makes a few mistakes. The secret for their growth is to reestablish our adult expectations and make sure a lesson is learned for the next time.

Because there's going to be another party... there's going to be another next time.

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