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Fri, February 1, 2013
Lying and Cheating and Stealing, Oh My! Raising Honest Youth in a Dishonest World
Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.—Jonathan Swift
All of us take risks at some point in our life. Some risks are calculated, some impulsive. Some risks relate to basic life choices: getting into a relationship, going to college, applying for a job, buying a home. We take other risks for the feeling of thrill, excitement, or danger: driving fast, sky-diving, having an affair. Rule-breaking can be part of normal development—individuating and rebelling, testing the bounds of authority. But it can get out of control.
We also learn about taking risks and breaking rules from those around us. We appear to live in a world of risks and rule-breaking. The recent financial meltdown was due to high-risks and loose—if any—rules. When the “innocent” pay for the “sins” of the guilty, is it any wonder there’s cynicism—not to mention a whole lot of people walking away from their mortgages whether by choice or necessity.
Be honest, have you ever done any of the following?:
  1. Shoplifted
  2. Stolen something, anything from work
  3. Lied to get out of a jam
  4. Cheated on a test
  5. Embellished your resume
  6. Been unfaithful, emotionally or otherwise, in a relationship
  7. Fudged some figures on your taxes
  8. Broke or severely bent some rule to your advantage
  9. Found money or valuables and made no sincere effort to find its rightful owner
  10. Plagiarized someone else’s words as your own
If you answered “yes” to any one of these questions, don’t worry, you’re probably not alone. If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, you may do well to do a little soul-searching--especially if you are trying to raise honest kids.

I’m not a parent myself but I have an 11-year old nephew I see regularly. My wife and I live in metro-Detroit and have been married over 10 years. Over the years, I’ve heard from many adults that there seems to be a frightful decrease in ethics, civility, and respect for rules and the law in our culture--especially among the younger “me/entitlement” generation.

One could argue, however, that the adults (for example, congress and many CEOs and public figures) aren’t exactly presenting the best role models of integrity for today’s youth. Recently, we saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lance Armstrong, and Charlie Sheen stoop to new lows—not winning, but losing—public respect and support.

However, there does seem to be a worrisome trend. Cheating typically begins in middle school. Back in 1940, only 20% of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number has increased to a range of 75%-98%. We’ve even heard of scandals involving teachers cheating on tests for their own benefit by marking up students’ scores.

Consider the following statistics:
  • Over 10% (30 million) of Americans shoplift and about 1/4 are under age 18.—2011, The Shulman Center estimate
  • 75% of employees steal from work and most do so repeatedly.—2010, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Time theft (loafing) costs U.S. companies $500 Billion/year in lost productivity. 2005, Denver Post
  • The average credit card debt per adult American is about $10,000.—2010, Time and Money magazines
  • 59% of American high school students say they cheated on a test in the past year; 21% say they stole from a relative; 80% say they lied to a parent; 92% say they’re satisfied with their ethics and character.—2011, Josephine Institute of Ethics
  • Nine out of ten middle schoolers admit to copying someone else's homework; two-thirds say they have cheated on exams; 75%-98% percent of college students surveyed each year admit to cheating at some time in their academic careers. --2011,
  • 15% of Americans said they would be likely to cheat on their taxes.—2010, DBB Worldwide
  • 30% of employers have fired employees for misuse of e-mails or Internet on the job.—2007, American Management Association on Policy Institute
The healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite… a brief excursion from his way of life.—Robert MacIver
As an attorney and therapist, I’ve specialized in working with addicted clients, including many who are chronic risk takers and rule breakers, for over 20 years. In fact, for a 10-year period of my own life--from age 15-25--I intermittently shoplifted and stole money or product from various jobs. I was arrested and prosecuted for shoplifting twice--at age 21 and 24--before I got into therapy and began to explore and resolve many of the underlying issues that were fueling my bad “acting out” behavior.

In part, I found out I had become “addicted to stealing”--to the rush and danger of it, to the relief I got from venting my pent-up anger and feelings of stress over having to become the “man of the house” at age 11 after my parents’ divorce. I felt like I was making life fair by getting something for nothing--it was a counter-balance to my suffering and sacrifice, my chronic overgiving. But I always felt conflicted--like I was living a double life. In essence, my stealing was a “cry for help.” But nobody seemed to be listening or attuned to me. 

While I learned to accept responsibility for my dishonesty, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out I was basically a good kid and my dishonest behavior evolved from emotional distress and some pretty poor role modeling from my father. My father was an alcoholic, had affairs, routinely didn’t pay child support, never apologized for anything, and bent just about every rule he could.

Parents, pay attention! Your kids are watching you... and they’re learning about honesty and dishonesty from you (as well as others). We need to ask ourselves the following questions:
  1. How honest am I and how often do I follow or play by the rules?
  2. Has my child witnessed my dishonesty and, if so, what have I said/done about this?
  3. Do I hold double-standards for myself or other people or am I consistent?
  4. Am I physically/emotionally attuned/available to my children or do I need to improve this?
  5. Do I put too much pressure on my kid(s) to get good grades, achieve, never make mistakes?
  6. When my kid(s) get in trouble or make a mistake or get a bad grade, how do I react? 
  7. Do I convey unconditional love for my child(ren) or do I convey love only when they behave?
Here are some common reasons why kids (and adults) may break rules or take risks:

1. Not proactively taught value of following rules/being careful/being honest
2. Had too many rules/too many cautions against taking risks (rebelled)
3. Witnessed rule breaking/risk taking by others (poor role-modeling)
4. Had own boundaries violated/was abused or betrayed
5. Was let down by authority/saw hypocrisy of authority
6. Peer pressure--broke rules to fit in and/or taught rules were made to be broken
7. Attention deficit/hyperactivity—easily distracted/restless
8. Narcissistic tendencies--rules don’t apply to me
9. Had to raise self; therefore, little respect for authority
10. Experience excitement, power, satisfaction from risks/rule-breaking
It’s not the dumb kids who cheat, it’s the kids with a 4.6 GPA who are under the pressure of keeping their grades up in order to get into the best colleges.--South Bay, CA teacher/parent
I was counseling a client recently--a woman in her 30’s, mother of two young boys--who had been struggling with shoplifting addiction for about ten years. She shared how she felt horrified to discover her 8-year old son had stolen some rope from a local store owned by a neighbor-friend. He apparently lied when they first confronted him but he finally told the truth. I asked her how she and her husband handled it. She said she yelled at her son--mostly out of fear that he’d develop a habit of stealing like she did--and that her husband gave him the whooping of his life. Then, she said, they prayed to God and asked their son to pray to God for forgiveness and marched their son over to the neighbor-friend’s to confess and pay him $5 for the rope. 
The cover-up is worse than the crime.—Anonymous
I asked my client why she thought her son stole the rope Her response was, “He said he stole it because I never buy him anything and always say no when he asks--which isn’t true.” I asked her why he might feel this way. She said that her son was probably missing his Dad who’d been working overtime the last several months and, also, because she had been saying “no” more recently given she wasn’t just shoplifting things for her kids. She also stated that her son had a substantial amount of money in the bank from inheritance and allowances he had saved and that he didn’t like to touch it.

We explored how he may be developing an obsession around saving and not spending his own money. She also denied that he knew anything about her history of shoplifting but was open to my suggestion that it’s possible he knew even on an intuitive level that she was engaging in dishonest or secretive behavior and was acting out as a cry for attention and reassurance. Then I asked her how she felt about yelling at her son and about her husband’s beating him. “Not good,” she stated plainly.
I’m not a child-psychologist or expert on raising kids but I believe when stealing or other dishonest behavior occurs–two strategies don’t tend to work well: “under kill” and “over kill.” I submit that a child’s disruptive behavior is an invitation for a conversation with him or her. Sweeping it under the rug or letting it slide sends the unspoken message that it’s not a big deal.

On the other hand, if some discipline, punishment, or consequences are in order, it is important to teach why his or her behavior is inappropriate and not to shame the child into feeling like he or she is an awful human being, afraid to ever face making a mistake or displeasing the parent again. Parents, we must also take a hard look at ourselves to admit if we have directly or indirectly taught our children about dishonesty through our own negative examples. 

We may also do well to explore and discuss with our children why honesty is important--beyond what the law or the Bible says. Break it down for them. For instance, you may share stories from your own life along the theme that honesty promotes: trust, self-esteem, being given responsibilities, good relationships, serenity/peace of mind, others being honest with you, spiritual connectedness, and admiration and respect.
Honesty is its own reward.--Anonymous
While none of us can watch over our children 24/7 (though many try!) and guard or protect them from the negative influences of the world, we can do what we can do to work on ourselves and our own integrity and, hopefully, model and discuss it with our kids and, perhaps, others around us. It may seem that the world is a largely dishonest place but we must remember not to give up hope.

While it is much more common in our society to highlight the negative than the positive, we can each individually create positivity in our lives and in the lives of those around us. By making choices that reflect the best of whom we are within, we can model for our children the very way to create a better world. As they say: “thoughts lead to actions, actions lead to habits, and habits build character.”


Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery (2003), Biting The Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic (2005), Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending (2008), and Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls: Compulsive Stealing, Spending & Hoarding (2011)--all by Terrence Shulman

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