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‘Mum, I can’t lie, I had a couple of sips at the party”: When does ‘honesty’ become ‘manipulation’?

During the week I met a Mum and Dad who asked my advice on how they should deal with their 15-year-old son who had been honest about drinking alcohol at a party. Their question went something like this …

We have made our rules about underage drinking pretty clear and our son knows that we do not want him to drink alcohol at this time in his life. He has been going to parties more frequently this year and we have always trusted him to do the ‘right thing’ – he is a great kid! A couple of weeks ago after we picked him up from one of these parties he turned around and told us that he wanted to be honest with us and said that he had had a couple of sips of one of his friend’s beers during the night. Whether or not he had more than that we don’t know – he certainly didn’t appear to be intoxicated on the night. We then found ourselves in a really difficult situation – he had broken one of our basic rules about parties, i.e., he was not to drink alcohol. On the other hand, we were proud of him for making the decision to be honest about what he had done. We’re both concerned that if we punish him for telling us that he’d broken the rules (because that’s what we’d be doing, as we’d never have known that he’d had the few sips), do we run the risk of stopping him from being honest again in the future, i.e., would he start drinking behind our backs? It seems like we’re asking a lot but we want him to continue to be honest but also not break our rules. What should we do?

As I said to the parents at the time, I’ve had this question (or at least a version of it) asked many times before … Now, only you know your teen and where he or she is at in terms of development and only you know the type of relationship you have with them, but from where I’m sitting, this type of ‘honesty’ is classic manipulation. You’ve really got to ask yourself why would a young person ever make a decision to divulge this type of information? As the parents said, they would never have known that their son had drunk alcohol that night, so why would he have told them what had gone down? Without a doubt there would be some young people who are intrinsically honest and would find it extremely difficult to break a family rule and ‘live with the lie’, but when it comes to 15-year-old young men and women I can’t imagine that’s what this is likely to be about …

Think about it, this young man wants to drink alcohol at parties (because as his Mum told me, he believes ‘everyone else does’) – he’s asked his parents and they have made it clear they are not going to support that. To ‘test the waters’ he drinks a little bit and then owns up to what he has done. He makes it clear that he doesn’t want to lie to them, and as a result, he almost guarantees avoiding getting into trouble for breaking one of his family’s fundamental rules around parties. If he successfully gets away with this, he has learned that as long as he admits to breaking the rules (i.e., he is ‘honest’ about what he does), there is a good chance that he will be able to do it again and again – each time pushing the boundaries just a little further … Now it is true that his thought processes may not be as calculating as this, but I can almost guarantee that at some point when he asks for his parents to give him alcohol to take to a party and they refuse (the point where many parents will draw the line and say that’s not happening), then he will fire back with something like “Well, if you don’t give it to me, I’ll get it from somewhere else and go and drink in a park!” (moving from apparent honesty to a threat) …

I know many people won’t agree with me here and believe I’m being overly cynical (and even quite jaded!) but I’ve met too many parents over the years who’ve fallen for this line and then come to regret their decision down the line.

Only you can make a decision about how to deal with a situation like this but I would advise that you tread very carefully when it comes to rewarding honesty over that of applying consequences for breaking rules, particularly in relation to drinking and parties. I don’t know what it is about alcohol but it is really quite a ‘blindspot’ for many parents. I’m not too sure whether it is because it is their drug of choice or what but for some reason alcohol is not always dealt with in the same way other teen issues are … I know these are fairly extreme examples but consider this … If your daughter came back from a shopping centre and declared that she couldn’t lie to you and that she had actually been shoplifting and had stolen a couple of small items from a store, I’m sure you wouldn’t be proud of her for being honest with you! If your son all of a sudden decided he needed to tell you the truth about his cyberbullying behaviour, once again you would deal with what went down, not be thrilled that he had shared details of his ‘crime’! If they are telling you what they did it is usually because they fear that they may get found out, what other reason would there be for a confession? Of course, there may be some young people who simply get an attack of the ‘guilts’ and want to own up to bad behaviour or some kind of indiscretion but that isn’t the norm or, I believe, likely in the case above. If you think I’m being a little too harsh here, you don’t just have to take my word for it …

Since speaking to these parents I have shared their story with a number of students (both male and female) at the schools I have visited during the rest of the week and asked their opinion on why they thought this young man would have admitted to the ‘couple of sips’ and could there be any ulterior motives behind his confession? Without exception the first question I was asked by these students was “Could the parents have told that he had been drinking?” and when I told them that I didn’t think they could they were all extremely suspicious … Here are a couple of responses that I thought were particularly interesting:

  • “He wanted to see how far he could push his parents and see if being honest was going to stop him getting into trouble. Lots of my friends from strict families told their parents they wanted to be honest and not go behind their back in an effort to be able to get them to give them alcohol to take to parties. Sometimes it worked …” (Year 11 female)
  • “You’re only honest like that if you think you may get caught … I think he must have something else to hide or he’s using telling the truth to get something else!” (Year 11 male)
  • “I never lie to my parents but I don’t tell them everything! It would be very unusual for a guy to admit to drinking if he wasn’t going to get caught. I think he worked out that this would be a good way of breaking the rules and not getting into real trouble …”  (Year 10, male)
  • “You want your parents to trust you and you don’t want to lie to them but sometimes you have to. I try to be as honest as I can with my Dad – I know that if I am honest about what I do (or as honest as I can be up to a point), I’m more likely to get what I want.” (Year 11 female)

Honesty is incredibly important and, of course, you want your teen to tell you the truth. However, if a rule is broken, there needs to be a consequence – hopefully one that you have worked out beforehand, i.e., if you do this, then that will happen … Now, if all of a sudden you ignore the fact that your child broke one of your rules simply because they have been honest about their indiscretion, you are setting yourself up for an awful lot of problems in the future.

What did I recommend these parents should do? Firstly, they need to make it very clear to their son that they are proud of his decision to be honest with them about what he had done. Tell him that they always want him to be honest and feel that he can go to them at any time and tell them the truth about anything and everything. It doesn’t matter what he does, they will always love him. That said, he broke a rule and, as a result, there has to be consequence. If a consequence had already been decided on (e.g., if he was caught drinking at a party then he wouldn’t be allowed to go to the next one he was invited to), then that should be applied. If you believe the honesty warrants the consequence be modified slightly, that’s fine but don’t drop it altogether. If one had not been already agreed upon, ask the teen what he believes should happen. In my experience, young people often come up with great consequences – usually both fair and age-appropriate. Remember, this is not a ‘death by hanging’ offence – he doesn’t need to be grounded for a month! Consequences need to be ‘short and sharp’ – drag them out and your child is going to completely forget what they did and only end up resenting you.

Do I believe this course of action by the parents will lead to a subsequent tsunami of lies and deceit? Of course not! If they’ve made it clear that they don’t support underage drinking and there will be consequences if he gets caught breaking the family rules, research suggests that he’s less likely to drink and if he does, he will drink less. But he’s 15 and if he wants to drink alcohol he is going to find a way to do just that. I could be wrong (remember, I don’t know the young man and his relationship with his parents) but I believe he was most probably seeing how far he could get away with pushing the boundaries – if that is the case, it’s important to ensure that he is made aware that simply being ‘honest’ is not going to mean that important family rules and values can be undermined.

Published: June 2018

1 thought on “‘Mum, I can’t lie, I had a couple of sips at the party”: When does ‘honesty’ become ‘manipulation’?”

  1. Thank you, Paul! My kids are entering teenage years and all that goes with it. From my own experience as a teenager, I wish my parents had imposed more rules around alcohol, and so I am constantly looking to your advice as to how to go about it. Your blogs are a fantastic resource – thank you so much for unapologetically telling it like it is������

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