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Honesty and Parental Awareness

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 11 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the subject of honesty in boys. This section discusses the necessity of parental awareness in honesty. It follows the section on When Not to Tell the Truth.

Four levels of parental awareness

The four levels of parental awareness that we have seen earlier have bearing on the subject of honesty. At the first level—Me First—we see my father exhorting his children to lie if necessary to hide the fact of my mother's illness. He might have made the same suggestion based on a higher level of awareness—and therefore for different reasons—but I believe he acted most of all on the basis of his own needs. What he did, and why he did it, is more common than unusual.

The safeguards to honesty from courtroom procedures can also be related to levels of awareness. Courts handle conflicts between parties conducted on an adversarial basis. People who come to court are usually preoccupied with their own interests; they are in a Me First frame of mind. Courts work at the second level: Follow the Rules. These rules about honesty, contain sophisticated safeguards, but they are only rules, and rules can't distinguish between modest dishonesty of little consequence and lying with major consequence except by variations in punishment once people are found guilty. In other words, courts are basically concerned about whether you lied, not why you lied.

At the third and fourth levels of parental consciousness, a parent becomes aware of the needs of others and tries to act responsibly and respectfully in relation to those needs. If my father had considered our situation at Level Three, he would have been able to recognize his children's need to express our fears and fantasies about our mother's illness, our need to feel we were good children even though our mother was sick. His strategy meant that he didn't reassure us himself even as he cut us off from the possibility that others would reassure us.

Only at Levels Three and Four does a parent move past concern with whether a child lied and ask why he lied. Addressing the why usually gets to more important issues than whether. If the why can be clarified and resolved, the offending dishonesty will often cease. As I've indicated before, we all carry the lower levels of awareness with us when we act in accordance with the higher levels; we continue to feel the press of our own needs, and we continue to acknowledge the rules that we believe in; but we relate those factors to the needs of others and to the relationships we have with others.

Classroom situation

Robert Coles, in The Moral Intelligence of Children, tells about one classroom situation in which it was hard to find a solution because there was no common agreement about application of the rules and the why question was raised in a way more to try to exonerate the alleged offender than to understand her motive. The central character of the story was a fourth grade girl, Elaine, who excelled in the classroom and in athletics, was popular and attractive, and lived in solid upper-middle class comfort. She was especially admired by her teacher, who had written a published article about Elaine's accomplishments in math and science, subjects that boys usually dominated in the teacher's classroom.

Boy reported cheating

One day, a boy sitting beside her reported to the teacher that Elaine was using a crib sheet on a math test, and not for the first time. The boy had talked with his parents about Elaine's regular cheating, and they had suggested he discuss the matter with Elaine herself, but when he did so on two occasions she angrily denied cheating, accused him of jealousy, and called him a liar. The teacher acted surprised and irritated by the boy's accusation, despite the fact that he was delivering Elaine's crib sheet to her. She sent him back to his seat, gave him a look he regarded as reproving; he became upset over the rebuff and couldn't finish the test.

The boy's parents counseled him to let the matter drop, but Elaine began boastfully to tease him about the impossibility of his making his accusation stick. He felt the teacher was less friendly. He became more timid, apprehensive about the teacher's view of him. And he saw Elaine continue to cheat in other subjects.

Eventually the whole matter landed in the principal's lap because the boy's parents wisely felt they had to do something to protect his feelings and situation at school. His mother went to see the teacher, who rebuffed her for intruding on a situation the teacher felt she should handle in her own way without parental interference. When the teacher was unhelpful, both parents went to the principal. Though, as we shall see, the situation was really never resolved, the boy must have felt that his parents gave him and his honesty invaluable support at a time of confusion and self-doubt.

At least two other students in the class corroborated the boy's story that Elaine had been cheating. Before the principal, Elaine denied cheating, and suggested the boy must have a problem of his own. The teacher was angry that others were intruding on her classroom; she said Elaine was going through a stressful time—a beloved grandfather was ill, and her mother, a lawyer, had just lost a big case—and she would not acknowledge that Elaine had cheated in class, though she eventually said she had seen Elaine "fudge" a little in sports.

Quasi-judicial situation

Coles, who was doing research at the school, was pulled into the situation as it became quasi-judicial. Gradually he felt that a problem essentially moral in nature was being psychologized away. If Elaine had cheated and lied about it—no one except a few of her classmates and the parents of one of them and Coles were willing to say that the evidence was convincing—then it must be a "psychiatric" problem rather than a moral problem.

As happens in many such situations, this one drifted out of focus rather than moved to resolution. Elaine and her parents had some family counseling on subjects other than cheating and lying. School went on. Elaine continued to excel, but she had her doubters among her peers. She had grounds for believing that she could continue to cheat, to lie about it if accused, with impunity.

This story is of particular interest because our gender stereotypes suggest it might have been the other way around: the star male student-athlete, the timid female who catches him cheating. Coles doesn't say what became of the boy who cried "Cheat." Yet in many schools today, where most of the teachers are female, boys believe that their eagerness, their competitiveness, and their sense of fair play are put down in favor of a superior feminine standard. Also, the unnamed boy in this story has done something impeccably honest yet often stigmatized because there is an informal social contract against it. The contract is to the effect that it's one thing to be caught cheating by the teacher—she has the rule on her side—but quite another to be nailed by a fellow student who is violating the understanding that it's us (students) against them (teachers).


I share Coles's judgment that it is best for everyone to confront situations such as these promptly, to prevent them from festering until they become public with attendant shame for the accused. While it may overstate the case to say that the integrity of the entire class is at stake, many students could well have taken away the wrong lesson about cheating.

The situation in Elaine's classroom does have a moral center to it, but it also has interpersonal dimensions that can't be ignored, and they have their moral implications, too. The teacher had made a star out of Elaine, and both the teacher and Elaine were living within that exaggerated expectation. The teacher exhibited some of the same impulse to protect Elaine from damaging exposure (and to stonewall or even punish someone who punctured Elaine's public reputation) that her parents did; any public shame Elaine suffered was, they appeared to fear, going to rub off on both the teacher and Elaine's family. The longer the situation played out, the more lies several people told until breaking the circle of dishonesty promised enough shame that no one had the nerve to bring it to resolution.

Coles's story raises the question of whether one aspect of the situation was that Elaine was trying to handle more than even a very bright fourth grader could. She had been built up as a star student, she was active in school sports, she was active in peer group leadership, she took riding lessons, and had extensive chores to do at home. Perhaps cheating began as a mechanism to help her cope with a too-full plate of activities. Many schoolboys and adolescents are under the same pressures: Their academics and sports and maybe a part-time job and peer group relations add up to a set of responsibilities they can't cope with. They begin to look for shortcuts.

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