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Morally Stunted

As a parent and educator, I wonder about the moral health of today’s children. I love them and appreciate them, but so many children have encountered situations and circumstances beyond their age and level of understanding that it is frightening. From movies and television filled with suggestive words and actions and abrasive language that confuses my ears to video games filled with violent acts against people, animals and a multitude of inanimate objects, I asks where the sensitivity goes. Will we become a system of automatons with stunted morals based on a lack of personal love and a sense of connectedness with people, nature and the universe itself?

In several schools I have visited, reading walls adorn the hallway. When a child reads 10, 20, or 100 books, their name goes up and then paces the wall throughout the year toward a stellar reading goal. While encouraging children to read, I also know that this process also encourages children (and their parents) to lie. It’s easy to pretend to read and then impose a quick signature from a parent on a paper so that “proof” of reading can be provided and reading progress duly noted. While one week a busy parent may fall for this scheme, when it happens week after week the child comes to believe that honesty is overrated and success on a wall is much more. important. Ask any kid about a similar set of reading and I bet you’ll get an honest answer about not actually reading with a myriad of reasons not to follow along and justify this deceptive behavior.

Working with eighth graders for many years, we usually completed a unit on moral development. Teenagers are very curious about lies and deceit, honesty and truth and how these grow or fail to grow over time. They wonder why little liars become big liars, why little criminal peers end up in jail later. Their examination of good and evil is generally simple and pure – not all of course as some truly have a criminal mindset at a tender age, usually fostered by examples from back home. Inevitably, these students explain that cheating is copying, but then they deviate from my definition of copying. They explain in all honesty of heart that copying an English homework is wrong because it’s stealing words, but copying a math homework is fine because it’s all about numbers. Regardless of background information I shared or worked to explain, they have not budged. The cheating had many levels and degrees of intensity and reasons for doing it or not doing it. Every year I expected a moral shift towards cheating as cheating, but it never happened.

From math cheating (or not cheating, depending on your definition), we moved on to traffic lights. I’m sure you know the story of the stop sign in the middle of nowhere. Driving through a deserted part of the country, you come to a four-way intersection with stop signs. With the flat area and unobstructed views in all directions, do you have to stop and obey the sign even though it’s useless and seemingly silly or do you continue crossing ignoring the sign because does it seem unnecessary? Is there a moral responsibility to obey the law even when it seems foolish and unwarranted? You can only imagine the lively discussion and explanations. While the thrill of each class’s responses cannot be replicated to share here, I encourage you to find a group of teens and engage in this conversation. A spirit awakening for all is definitely in store.

Are today’s children morally stunted? Do they care less about other humans and animals than past generations? Are we unwittingly creating an egocentric society where “me” matters more than “us”? I guess if you look at the publicity and the political wrangling, you realize that these are the examples we give, where misinformation is valued more than the truth. It becomes apparent that our example of honesty and sincerity must come into play if we really want to ensure morally strong adults in the future.

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