The Science of Teen Rebellion Ⅱ- Woodmam

Darling and Caldwell both came to Penn State University around the same time, and naturally took an interest in each other’s work. Darling was studying adolescent dating, which teens lie to their parents about routinely. Caldwell was researching a new field called “Leisure Studies,” which sounded at first to Darling like a trivial topic, but turned out to be the study of what kids do in their free time. One of the operating theories of Leisure Studies is that adolescents turn to drinking and sex partly because they have a lot of unsupervised free time. They’re bored and don’t know what else to do. “When you’re fourteen, everything’s more interesting when you’re drunk,” remarked Darling.

Darling and Caldwell wondered if they could get high schoolers to cooperate in a study where they’d admit to the very things they were hiding from their parents. Darling recognized that if she sat down with a high school sophomore, she would be too imposing an authority figure to get the truth. Even her graduate students were too mature to relate to teens and gain their confidence. So she recruited from her undergraduate classes a special research team, all under age 21—a scholar’s Mod Squad.

For the first semester, these eight undergrads met with Darling and were trained in research methods and interview techniques. Then Darling sent them out to the places in State College where teens hang out in public. They handed out flyers at the mall, but they were more successful at night in a little alley off Calder Way, at the back door of the video arcade. They approached teenagers and offered them a gift certificate for a free CD at the local music store in exchange for being in the study. If the teens agreed, the undergrads took down a phone number.

Darling wanted the first recruits to be the cool kids. “The idea was, if we just went to the school and asked for volunteers, we’d get the goody-two-shoes kids. Then the cool kids wouldn’t join the study. We’d be oversampling the well-behaved. But if we got the cool kids, the others would follow.” The core of recruits attended State College Area High School, which has 2,600 students. “It became quite the trendy thing at the high school, to be in the study,” Darling recalled.

The others did follow, and soon Darling had a representative sample that matched up to national averages on a bevy of statistics, from their grades to how often they drank.

Subsequently, two of the Mod Squad researchers met with each high schooler at a place they’d feel comfortable. Often this was the Four Brothers Pizzeria on Beaver Avenue. Having only a four-dollar budget for each restaurant field trip, all they could do was buy the teen fries and a Coke, before presenting him with a deck of 36 cards. Each card in this deck described a topic teens sometimes lie to their parents about. Over the next couple hours, the teen and researchers worked through the deck, discussing which issues the kid and his parents disagreed on, and which rules the kid had broken, and how he’d pulled off the deception, and why. Because of their age similarity to their targets, the researchers never had trouble getting the high-schoolers to confide in them. Despite all the students and all the cards in the deck, only once—to a single card—did a student hold back, saying, “I don’t want to talk about that.

The deck handed to the teens triggered recognition of just how pervasive their deception went. “They began the interviews saying that parents give you everything and yes, you should tell them everything,” Darling observed. By the end of the interview, the kids saw for the first time how much they were lying and how many of the family’s rules they had broken. Darling said, “It was something they realized—and that they didn’t like about themselves.”

Out of 36 potential topics, the average teen lies to her parents about 12 of them. Teens lie about what they spend their allowance on, and whether they’ve started dating, and what clothes they put on away from the house. They lie about what movie they went to and who they went with. They lie about alcohol and drug use, and they lie about whether they’re hanging out with friends their parents disapprove of. They lie about how they spend their afternoons, if the parent is still at work. They lie whether a chaperone was in attendance at a party, or whether they rode in a car driven by a drunken teen. Even some things around the house they lie about—whether their homework is done, or what music they’re listening to.

“Drinking, drug use and their sex lives are the things kids hide the most from their parents,” Darling noted. “But it wasn’t just the sexual acts they were hiding,” she added. “They really objected to the emotional intrusiveness—being asked, ‘How serious is this relationship?’ and ‘Do you love this person?’ The kids just don’t want to answer those questions.”

Only one-quarter of the time do teens concoct an outright lie to pull off their deception. According to Darling’s data, these direct lies are used to cover up the worst stuff. Half the time, teens execute their deception by withholding the relevant details that would upset their parent; the parent hears only half the story. And another quarter of the time, the teen manages the deception by never bringing the topic up at all, hoping the parent won’t know to ask.

Rare was the kid who was completely honest with parents: 96% of the teens in Darling’s study reported lying to their parents.

Being an honors student doesn’t change these numbers by much, according to other research. Nor does being a really busy, overscheduled kid. No kid, apparently, is too busy to break a few rules.

“When I began this research, I would have thought the main reason teens would say they lie was, ‘I want to stay out of trouble,’ ” Darling explained. “But actually the most common reason for deception was, ‘I’m trying to protect the relationship with my parents; I don’t want them to be disappointed in me.’ ”

Darling also mailed survey questionnaires to the parents, and it was interesting how the two sets of data reflected on each other. First, she was struck by parents’ vivid fear of pushing their teens into outright rebellion. “Many parents today believe the best way to get teens to disclose is to be more permissive and not set outright rules,” Darling said. Parents imagine a tradeoff between being informed and being strict. Better to hear the truth and be able to help than be kept in the dark.

Darling found that permissive parents don’t actually learn more about their child’s lives. “Kids who go wild and get in trouble mostly have parents who don’t set rules or standards. Their parents are loving and accepting no matter what the kids do. But the kids take the lack of rules as a sign their parents don’t actually care—that their parent doesn’t really want this job of being the parent.”

In cooperation with other scholars, Darling has done versions of her study around the world—in the Philippines, Italy, and Chile. “In Chile, the permissive parent is the norm. And kids lie to their parents there more than anyplace else.”

Pushing a teen into rebellion by having too many rules was a sort of statistical myth. “That actually doesn’t happen,” remarked Darling. She found that most rules-heavy parents don’t actually enforce them. “It’s too much work,” said Darling. “It’s a lot harder to enforce three rules than to set twenty rules.” These teens avoided rebellious direct conflict and just snuck around behind their parents’ backs.

By withholding information about their lives, adolescents carve out a social domain and identity that are theirs alone, independent from their parents or other adult authority figures. According to a recent Harris Poll, 78% of parents were sure their teens could talk to them about anything. However, the teens disagreed.

To seek out a parent for help is, from a teen’s perspective, a tacit admission that he’s not mature enough to handle it alone. Having to tell parents about it can be psychologically emasculating, whether the confession is forced out of him or he volunteers it on his own. It’s essential for some things to be “none of your business.”

The big surprise in the research is when this need for autonomy is strongest. It’s not mild at 12, moderate at 15, and most powerful at 18. Darling’s scholarship shows that the objection to parental authority peaks around age 14 to 15. In fact, this resistance is slightly stronger at age 11 than at 18. In popular culture, we think of high school as the risk years, but the psychological forces driving deception surge earlier than that.

A few parents managed to live up to the stereotype of the oppressive parent, with lots of psychological intrusion, but those teens weren’t rebelling. They were obedient. And depressed.

“Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids,” Darling observed. They’ve set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they’ve explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, they supported the child’s autonomy, allowing her freedom to make her own decisions.

The kids of these parents lied the least. Rather than hiding twelve areas from their parents, they might be hiding as few as five.
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