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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


Lies We Tell Our Kids

My friend Greg Doss is an educator. He recently told me about Annie, a high school student who was ranked among the top five in her class. She always wanted to know who was ranked above her and how they could possibly be taking more A.P. classes than she was. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Annie never received a grade below an “A.” If she ever did, she’d approach her teacher and get permission to re-submit the assignment. It always worked. Annie won awards and attended the Governor’s Honor Program in her state. Her GPA continued to climb. She told Greg that if she ever got a “B” on any project, she’d be devastated.


After graduation, Annie soon learned that post-secondary education is a completely different story. Upon receiving one of her first assignments back, she discovered she had failed it. Annie was shocked. Surely there must be some misunderstanding. She waited until after class to approach the instructor and negotiate. Politely, she asked if she could re-do the assignment. The professor’s reply was pointed: “This is college, not high school. There are no second chances. This is the real world.”

As she spoke to my friend, Greg, Annie was devastated. Her shock turned to grief, and then to anger. But her anger wasn’t directed at her college professor. She told Greg she was upset with the high school culture that “allowed us to keep doing an assignment until we got the grade we wanted.”

For the first time in her life, she had to adapt to the system, rather than the system adapting to her. Annie’s first year was a struggle and she did receive her first “B.”

Like many other adolescents, Annie feels lied to.

Why We Do It?

I recognize what you might be thinking. “Me? I would never lie to my children or my students or my young employees. I am an honest person.”

You think so?

Lying to our kids is rampant in our nation. It happens for a variety of reasons:

• Because we’re insecure. Telling the truth, even gently, requires a deep level of emotional security. The kid we tell the truth to may reject us or may not like us enough to confide in us. Our need to be liked cannot be allowed to eclipse our pursuit of our children’s best interests.

• Because speaking the truth takes time and work. There may be only one truth, but many possible ways to “spin” an issue. Sometimes we lie because it gets us out of a jam. We can’t handle the hassle. At times the lie just seems to make things easier.

• Because the truth can be painful. The truth can hurt and be much more painful than a charming lie, at least in the short run. To most of us, pain feels like an enemy. In the name of peace and harmony, we become “spin doctors.” We so want our kids to be happy, we sacrifice the truth in order to medicate the moment.

• Because facing the truth makes us responsible. Lies sometimes let us off the hook. They allow us to pass the blame to someone else, or avoid facing something we’d rather not acknowledge. Often we’d rather trade in long-term consequences for short-term benefits.

• Because we’ve lost sight of the truth ourselves. We Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers who are raising the next generation have our own set of misconceptions that can affect our ability to be truthful. Sometimes we tell lies because we believe them too.

The Problem with Distortion

I recognize I should probably use a euphemism for the word, “lie.” It sounds so wrong. So harsh. We could replace the word, “lie” by simply calling what we do—distorting the truth. We want to gently introduce reality to our kids, so we withhold some of the truth. Whatever we call it, we still cause long-term problems doing it. When we lie to our kids or distort things for them, disillusionment will follow the dreams that we helped them create—dreams that don’t match their gifts. Consider how it leads to wrong conclusions:

  • When we say they’re smart . . . they assume school should require little effort.
  • When we suggest they’re “amazing” . . . they wonder why everyone doesn’t adore them and want to be around them.
  • When we tell them they’re gifted . . . they get confused that people won’t pay big money for their talent.
  • When we say they’re awesome at their sport . . . they don’t understand why talent scouts don’t recruit them.

We’ve actually developed a system that automatically sends mixed signals to kids as they mature. Parents drive a car with bumper stickers that say: “My Kid Is Awesome. My Child Is Super Kid of the Month. My Kid Is an Honor Student. I even saw a bumper sticker that said: “My Kid Is Better than Your Kid.” We subtly send them the message: “You’re incredible. Just be nice. Stay within the boundaries and you’ll be rewarded.” Then we place them in institutions that are industrialized, where if they simply follow the rules, keep their nose clean, make a decent grade and follow the advice of the career guidance counselor—their dreams should work out fine.

Uh, no. Not so much anymore.

Literary editor Rebecca Chapman was quoted in the New York Times: “My whole life, I had been doing everything everyone told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

What she’s saying is—she’d been handed the assumption that if you just do what the system tells you to do, it will all work out OK. That’s not necessary true; it’s certainly not guaranteed. Not in this economy. And our kids—the ones we love so much—deserve to know the truth.


P.S. Today’s post is an excerpt from my new book 12 Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid.
If you’d like to know more about it, Click Here!



  1. Steve Heisler on August 28, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Although there is some accuracy to some of the models of poor parenting and teaching Elmore touches on, I couldn’t disagree with this guy’s approach more. He seems to miss what is really important about empathy, that it is often misinterpreted. When blamed for a generation of parents refusing to enforce limits with their children, Dr. Benjamin Spock bewailed that his empathic parenting advice was simply misunderstood. “I have never advocated permissive anything,” he said,

    The result of the misapplication of empathic teaching and the self-esteem building ideas? Elmore is right about that: American children excel at feeling excellent but, unfortunately, not at being excellent.

    However, empathic teaching (and empathic parenting) is not at fault. Larding a child with praise to the point where a child feels rewarded for having done nothing at all is not a tenet of the “self-esteem” movement. Rather empathic teaching is about helping children discover, even in small increments, that which is special and unique about them.

    True, not every child is a great mathematician, or a great athlete, but neither does every child have a kind and compassionate nature. In school, perhaps even in life, one’s uniqueness, well developed, is essentially no better or no worse that any other uniqueness well developed. It’s my opinion, of course, but from where I sit, any parent (or teacher) not willing to help their child discover what is special about them would be a pretty piss poor parent or teacher indeed.

    See this post regarding my take on Elmore’s mistaken solutions. (

    • Tim Elmore on September 4, 2014 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks for your input. I think we misunderstand each other. While I appreciate your comments, I am not saying what Spock said was wrong. I am saying that probably millions of parents misinterpret his teaching and have made empathy out to be: Let’s blindly praise our kids. It is the parents’ fault that we have not been effective at preparing our kids for the real world. I see it in tens of thousands I meet each year. Perhaps its your experience against mine.

      I have realized you most likely have not read my books. The blog you disagree with represents only a portion of what I believe the problem is with today’s parents. I am not only a fan of empathy as a quality, but we also aim to cultivate it in both parents and children. We have an entire piece of our curriculum that builds it into young people.

      I believe the most empathetic act parents can perform for their children is to prepare them for life ahead.

      • Steve Heisler on September 9, 2014 at 4:07 pm

        I appreciate your engaging with me I do not intend to disrespect your point of view. I have read several things by you and about but you are correct that I have never read your books (but then you haven’t read mine so there we are).

        As far as what I have seen, fundamentally, I do not disagree with your view that we are facing significant issues with children’s helpless caused by the misapplication of very good ideas (though I do question some of the historical antecedents you cite as being the root of the cause. For instance parental ‘over-concern’ well precedes the Tylenol scandal which I believe had major effect on packaging but little on parenting).

        Mostly though I thoroughly disagree that in order to be prepared for a life of difficulty one has to be put through difficulty. I believe you use the terms let children “fear, fail and fall.”

        However learning to fall, fear and fail is not the antidote to being helpless; learning how to do things differently is! The simple fact is that consequences and discipline enforced by others do not teach: they only reinforce learning that parents and teachers must provide on building habits of success and self-regulation.

        I agree that we should not rescue our children by fixing problems for them but neither let kids fail. Rather, help kids be resilient in the face of struggles, help them learn and apply creative solutions, help them understand that struggle is part of success and mostly that failure is only failure if they quit. To do this, though, we must be willing to be resilient ourselves, and creative and persistently facillitative. It’s a lot more complex, engaging, demanding, difficult and time consuming that just letting kids founder, which is one whole hell of a lot easier.

        Finally I really disagree with preparing my children and my students for life ahead filled with fear and failure. What I do believe is that we can do better that just preparing children to accept the status-quo. I believe in teaching children how to be resilient, hopeful, adaptable and courageous, and to have the power to believe that they do not have to live in a world mired by past mistakes.

        Giving our children the skill and the guts to create a better world in which to live is is what is at the heart of my book: The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills, is all about.

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Lies We Tell Our Kids