“Please don’t tell my parents,” the young girl tearfully pleaded with the director of the summer youth program she was attending. She had just been caught shoplifting several hundred dollars worth of merchandise from the college campus bookstore.
A young man came to his youth program director privately to say that his roommate had marijuana in their dorm room. When the director approached the roommate, the young man lied, saying he knew nothing about the illegal drug. But when campus police produced evidence, he changed his story: “It was there when I checked into the room. I was going to tell you—honestly, I promise.”
In his study of cheating among high school students across the United States, George W. Chilcoat, a professor at Brigham Young University, reported that 95 percent of the students surveyed said that they cheated. About 50 percent did not see their actions as morally wrong, and even those who said cheating was wrong still saw it as something one “has to do to get through school.” (“Circumventing Academic Tasks through Cheating Operations in High School,” unpublished paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois, Apr. 1991, pp. 3–4.)
It would be easy to brush these statistics aside as unrepresentative of Latter-day Saint young people, except that one of the high schools in that national study was predominantly LDS, and the same problems surfaced there, too.
Shoplifting, lying, cheating—people usually resort to such dishonest behavior for four main reasons: (1) to allow immediate satisfaction without having to wait or work for something; (2) to conceal guilt and avoid unpleasant consequences; (3) to impress others and win acceptance or approval; (4) to avoid ridicule or embarrassment before peers.
The Lord’s standard, though, is clear: “Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness.” (Ex. 20:15–16.)
Young people often do not understand that commandments like these were given not just out of concern for the property and rights of others, but out of concern for them. The First Presidency has said, “Lying damages your spirit. Stealing or shoplifting does the same thing, as does cheating in school.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 10; italics added.)
Those who engage in dishonest behavior lose the respect and trust of people around them and, worse, begin to doubt themselves and to distrust others.
Some years ago, a movie told the story of two brothers who arrived at the site of an airplane crash in the Alps. One occupied himself with preparing a makeshift sled to transport the lone survivor down the mountain. The other brother spent his time stealing money and valuables belonging to crash victims. Then, when he noticed that his brother had crossed the chasm between the crash site and the path to the nearest town, the thief demanded to know how he could safely cross the chasm. His brother knew that the ice bridge spanning the deep ravine was unstable, so he warned the thief not to cross that way. But the thief, judging his brother to be dishonest also, chose to cross by the unsafe bridge—and died when it collapsed into the gorge. (The Mountain, Paramount Pictures, 1956, based on the novel by Henri Troyat.)
Dishonest people who judge the sincere words and actions of others as fake, a “show,” or a manipulation may endanger themselves by ignoring inspired counsel from parents or leaders. Perhaps that’s one reason the First Presidency urges young people, “Be honest with yourself and others, including the Lord. Honesty with yourself brings peace and self-respect. When you are honest with others, you build a foundation for friendship and trust.” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 9.)
What can parents and leaders do to help young people create a pattern of honesty in their lives? Here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
1. “Do as I have done.” In the Book of Mormon, when Alma spoke to his son, Helaman, he said, “I would that ye should do as I have done.” (Alma 36:2.) Are we in a similarly strong position as we strive to influence the lives of young people?
Do young people hear us lie occasionally to cover our errors when we say “I tried to call you” instead of “I meant to call you”? Do they see us copying videotapes or music that carry copyright restrictions? Whatever example we set, we can expect it to stay in our children’s minds.
One mother of teenagers recalls a visit to the dentist when she was a teen growing up in a small farming community. After the dentist had finished his work, she told him, “If you will put that on my father’s bill, he will pay you later.”
“I know,” the dentist replied. “He always does. Your father is a very, very honest man.” She already knew that her father was a fine man, but it made a deep impression on her to realize that others depended on his honesty. “I’ve always tried to live so that people could say that about me, too,” she reflects.
2. Care. Often, teenagers do not need instruction on honesty as much as they need motivation. They know the Sunday School answers, but they need to feel the personal desire to incorporate honesty into their lives. One of the best motivations we can offer in this regard is a strong emotional bond with our teenagers.
Some teenagers look at adults as obstacles to get around. But parents and leaders who openly express love, concern, and trust are usually seen as people that teens would never want to hurt or disappoint. One friend told me that when others would invite him to participate in questionable activities while he was growing up, he would always say no. “It wasn’t because of the punishment I might receive if I was caught, but because I knew how much my dad loved me, and how disappointed he would be if I ever broke his confidence.”
3. Give them a say. Unrealistic expectations, habitual nagging, or long lists of “musts,” “don’ts” and “can’ts” often leave young people feeling helplessly fenced in. For some, dishonesty becomes their way of fighting back—taking control where no control is allowed.
Of course, we all have agency, and regardless of the situation, responsibility for a dishonest choice rests on the shoulders of the individual making it. Unfortunately, some normal, decent teenagers may resort to dishonest behavior simply to “survive,” or to handle an overbearing environment in which they feel they have no control.
As parents, we can recognize that young people are in the process of developing their ability to make choices about their lives. Like all of us, they need to feel that they have a say in what happens to them. While we may need to establish reasonable guidelines, we should allow them to make their own choices about some things as soon as they are able.
4. Praise honesty in them. When young people admit to a minor wrongdoing or take responsibility for their own embarrassing behavior, make a point to tell them how good it is that they are being honest.
As my brothers and I were growing up, my mother sometimes asked questions like, “Who ate the chocolate chips I’ve been saving?” When I was brave enough to admit that I had downed the whole package myself, I knew there was a minilecture in store. But I also knew that Mom would say, “I appreciate your honesty.” That was the phrase I could always count on hearing. Then she would continue: “I’m glad to know that you admit it when you do something wrong, because now when you say you didn’t do something, I’ll trust you.”
5. Praise honesty in others. When you observe someone being honest, point it out to your teenagers.
A widow living on a very small income found a mechanic she trusted to make needed repairs on her car. Sometimes she could have had the work done more cheaply by taking the car to another shop. But she always told her son that she knew Mr. Mitchell would not recommend work that didn’t need to be done, nor charge her more than necessary. Her son learned two things: where to take his own car when it needed repairs, and how to conduct his own business so that others would have confidence in his work.
6. Maintain accountability. A young woman admitted to her teacher that she had plagiarized a paper. The teacher thanked her for her honesty but explained that her grade would still have to be lowered and that the work would have to be redone. The girl was upset. She had been “let off the hook” so often for telling the truth that she had come to look upon honesty as just another strategy to avoid natural consequences.
It’s true that my mother used to tell me she appreciated my honesty for admitting that I had eaten the chocolate chips she was saving. But I should explain that I was then expected to go to the store, buy a new package of chocolate chips, and help her make the cookies she needed for her meeting.
If we do not require that broken windows be replaced and stolen merchandise paid for, we, too, are stealing—robbing young people of a vital and important part of their repentance.
When several young men arrived late at a stake dance, the chaperon smelled alcohol on their breath. These young Latter-day Saints knew the standards of the Word of Wisdom. They knew the rules of conduct at Church dances. Since they were considered leaders in their local high schools, other young people at the dance watched carefully to see what would happen.
Their bishop kindly asked them to leave and escorted them out of the building. Because they were in no condition to drive, an adult leader volunteered to take them home.
The young men protested, saying they were sorry, they hadn’t drunk all that much, and they would never do it again. But when their words had no effect on the bishop’s decision to send them home to their parents, they became angry. The bishop calmly reminded them that they were the ones who had chosen this consequence; if they should be angry at anyone, it was themselves. His actions showed how much he really cared—enough to risk his good relationship with them by standing firmly against what they had done.
7. Correct in private. When problems occur, it’s best to deal with guilty young people in private rather than before peers, brothers and sisters, or other adults. Seek a quiet time—right before bed, for example. In planning what to say, think of yourself as a consultant rather than a manager. Think of the conversation as an exploration rather than an accusation. Start by saying “What happened?” or “What’s wrong?” instead of “I know you’ve been lying to me and I want to know why.”
Your teenager may say, “There’s nothing wrong.” Such a response is usually just a test to see if you really care enough to ask again. Don’t give up. Keep the conversation going or wait in silence. If you are still met with a blank stare or a “not me,” follow the direction of the Spirit in deciding whether you should present facts you are aware of, or simply leave your son or daughter to think alone until you pick the conversation up again later.
Once the dishonesty is admitted—when your teenager realizes that his actions were unjustified and wrong—help him come up with a positive plan of action for the future and commit to it. Express your love and your confidence in his righteous desires and ability to make correct choices.
8. Dishonesty is a symptom. If dishonest behavior continues to surface, be careful not to overreact. Statements such as “I thought we’d been through all this before,” “You’re nothing but a thief,” or “I’m ashamed to be your father” will only make the situation worse.
Rarely is dishonesty the root problem. Lying, cheating, stealing, and vandalism are usually symptoms of other difficulties—possibly low self-esteem, poor communication skills, inability to cope with stress and pressure, or lack of spirituality.
The way to end dishonest behavior is to solve those underlying problems. Parents may need to seek out information on helping young people improve the way they feel about themselves, or on helping them communicate or deal with stress more effectively. It may also be necessary to adjust the spiritual climate in the home, or to foster spiritual experiences to help young people strengthen their testimonies.
Others can provide help for our young people too. Bishops and priesthood leaders can offer helpful counsel. These leaders may suggest professional counseling in some cases.
9. Never give up. Sometimes parents and Church leaders try diligently to do all of the things suggested above, and still their young people elect to be dishonest. “What did we do wrong?” the adults ask sadly.
We must never forget that we cannot control another’s agency. It is the young person himself who has chosen to do wrong. Perhaps he will rationalize about it, justifying his actions or pretending he “didn’t know.” But he must learn that he is accountable for his own actions. Mercifully, the gospel always provides a way for young people to see things clearly, choose the right, and overcome misbehavior. (See 2 Ne. 2:4–7;Moro. 7:16.)
When we help young people develop a pattern of honesty in their lives, they will be able to know for themselves the “peace of conscience” that King Benjamin’s people experienced. (Mosiah 4:3.) And they will be able to share the feelings of those repentant Nephites: “We have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)