Wes: This column tries to balance parental and teen anxiety with a rational picture of the world. We ask readers to reconsider what is worth worrying about and what may really be fear of the unknown or media hype. For example, we've argued the real danger of Internet sex offenders is one part reality and 10 parts sensationalism.
Last week David Finkelhor, Ph.D., the nation's foremost child abuse researcher released a report that suggests parents worry more about what their kids put out into cyberspace and how they choose to interact with others online, than they worry about Internet creepers tricking gullible kids into sexual abuse.
With that in mind, I'll tell you what's really making me anxious right now. Teenage ethics. I'm genuinely worried that an increasing number of teens do not consider life with any ethical frame of reference. Webster's dictionary defines ethics as the study of what is good and bad; our moral duty and obligation, both as individuals and as a society; and the values we hold personally, in our families and in our culture. Of course, it's better to act ethically than to be able to define it, and when it comes to ethical thinking and behavior, I fear we're losing a greater and greater chunk of the next generation.
I'm astonished at the increasing number of accounts I hear of kids stealing. They steal from shops downtown, some of which have actually gone out of business for inventory control losses. They especially like to steal from Wal-Mart, justifying this as a sort of political protest against large impersonal corporations. They steal from their parents. They even steal from each other. I did a little investigation on this and found that I'm not alone. Juvenile officers with whom I've spoken have seen an alarming increase in first-time offenders, and these are just the kids who get caught.
Both at the high school and college level, young people report that the work is getting harder and the demands greater. In response, cheating is on the rise. Just Google the word "cheating" and you'll find multiple news reports. There's also a distinct lack of ethics in personal relationships - bullying behavior, dumping a friend to improve one's social status, spreading false rumors or embarrassing photos over the Internet, and cheating on their romantic partners. And lest you think these are the "bad kids," I can assure you that they represent a cross-section of society. Of course it's not that "everybody's doing it" but there is distinct upward trend.
Ethical decision-making is nothing less than the basic foundation of all human interplay. Every choice we make as parents, teenagers, teachers, politicians, therapists and bloggers is an extension of what we believe to be good in the world. If we are violent, we are expressing the implicit belief that violence is an acceptable way of resolving conflict, or that the person receiving it deserves to be harmed. If we give our time or money to the needy, we are expressing the value of beneficence. If we teach or serve in the military or the Peace Corps, we are expressing the ethical position that we are serving the greater good, even if we are not paid well for it. How we express these values impacts others. When we make a decision for ourselves, we make a decision for everyone.
We could write 35 columns as to why ethical conduct may be threatened. It could be culture, music, parental absence, lax discipline or cynicism. I suspect there's a healthy dose of poor adult conduct, which in turn desensitizes teens to the impact of their own behavior. For example, I am astonished at how many parents I've seen over the years who cheat on their child's other parent, and then hold their children to a rigid set of dating rules. Care to guess how well that turns out?
In the coming months, Julia and I will discuss how parents and teens can approach the world from an ethical stance. We hope you'll give those ideas some consideration. When our ethics break down, we lose our faith and trust in others, and when that goes, we lose the fragile fabric of our social contract with each other. That's NOT the sort of world we want our children to inherit.
Julia: I'll be frank. Ethics, morals and all other decisions forcing me to stick to ONE and ONLY ONE conviction scare me. I'm only decisive if it's an urgent situation, and even then I don't feel sure of myself. That isn't to say I don't consider myself an ethical person. I recycle. I don't push people down flights of stairs and laugh.
Really, the word "ethics" hasn't meant diddly-squat to me. It seems like such a vague idea, but its applications are countless and worthwhile. I don't really feel qualified to talk about ethics in all of its glory but I know that teens today really are different about their ethics. It's puzzling when a 15-year-old can stand up for her beliefs and tear down all others, then turn around and get drunk a night later. It seems the ethical issues that teens are learning to handle are based more on their societal opinions, and less on their personal values.
I'm surprised when I see my peers feeling obligated to have convictions and opinions to stick to, but acting so nonchalant about their personal values. It would be a lot safer to start a teen off with a good set of values and morals before tackling larger societal ethics.
Only after you've solidified your values should you explore other beliefs - and I emphasize explore. Adolescence is the prime time to take in the ideas of culture, media, society, friends, family, and yourself and make thoughtful decisions on your ethics. Don't be surprised to see your opinions change with what you hear, but never let your ethics be based only on someone else's. Consider as many options as you can before making your own decision. Ethics is sort of an all-encompassing way of examining what decisions you make and why. I think it's most important to have the "why" (personal values) before the "what" (personal decisions and opinions), but neither should be immediately answerable, or else you aren't thinking hard enough.
Next week: The ups and downs of medication.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.