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The Need To Teach Your Children Right From Wrong

In a New York Times article, David Brooks summarizes the findings of Christian Smith’s book titled Lost In Transition.  The book is concerned with young adults’ beliefs about the moral life.  David writes, ‘the results are depressing.’  The basic premise of the article (and the book) is that we as a culture have failed the younger generation in giving them the framework to judge between what is right and what is wrong—i.e., about the good life. The youth in Christian’s study, 230 young adults ages 18-23, simply lacked the ‘categories or vocabulary’ to even speak about moral issues.

The overall moral perspective that these young adults express is one of ‘extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism.’ Such a moral outlook expresses itself in statements like, ‘I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel,’ or ‘I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.’ Whoopsy! (As one of my professors use to say when one of us would say something non-sensical.)

Such a finding is actually not all that surprising, for our whole culture spews an ethos of radical moral autonomy. As Jean Twenge writes in her book Generation Me, the young are a ‘product of their culture—a culture that teaches them the primacy of the individual at virtually every step . . .’ (p.8).  Basically, the young have a mantra of ‘Me, Me, Me, I, I, I, not you, not you, not you, but Me . . . .’ going on in their minds with great rapidity.

Now I cannot begin to tell you how such a worldview is going to reek havoc on these youths’ future marriages. We are already seeing rates of divorce at about 50% to 60% (depending on the study) with the Baby-boomer and the first few generations of Generation-X (those born between 1972ish through 1981). And this even with each of these social groups still having the social milieu of the WWII generation impressed upon them. While many of them rebelled against the ‘traditional morality of the past’ they nonetheless still knew it. They knew what they were rebelling against, which does slow down the moral decay a bit.

The situation is different today. As Twenge writes, the younger generation (those born after 1981) inherited this culture of radical moral autonomy as ‘firmly in place’ (p. 8). Even if they wanted to rebel, they would be hard pressed to know what to rebel against: ‘what do you mean I can do whatever I feel like,’ I can imagine them protesting. Perhaps this is why we see youth confusingly searching for something to complain about. They are not unified as a generation about what is wrong with our culture because they don’t even have the categories or vocabulary to know what right and wrong is. Indeed this is why the younger generation is best described as exhibiting the ‘virtue’ of apathy (see chapter 5 in Generation Me).

Since moral revitalization becomes more difficult as a person progresses in age, much of the damage that has been done to the our youth is likely not to disappear anytime soon, though we can pray that it does. However, I do think, we as parents have a moral obligation to inculcate the basic notions of right and wrong in our children who are still under our care. There is nothing oppressive about teaching your child how to act correctly because there is no dichotomy between doing the right action and with human flourishing as many today seem to suppose.  Teaching your children to do whatever they feel like will only develop a narcissistic psychology of isolation and loneliness.

To teach them how to pursue good and avoid evil actually liberates them, rather than places them in bondage. There is a reason the world religions and major philosophies (even most forms of Atheism) advocate teaching the virtue of self-control and self-giving (not to mention the plethora of other virtues).

But where do we to begin?

Of course, this all depends on what age your child might be. In what follows will be some suggestions.

There is one thing that is vital for your children to learn right and wrong and that is for you to display virtuous activity yourself. It is well documented (and simply known by common sense) that your children are heavily influenced by what they see you do. If you only yell and scream at them, they too will probably yell and scream at others. If you are a glutton, they too will more than likely will be gluttons. If you are selfish, don’t be surprised if later on in life they too are selfish. If you treat your spouse like a piece of crap, they too will probably treat their spouses like crap. This is not difficult to understand. So the first thing you can do is change yourself.

So, just as self-perfection can be a pedagogical method to teach your children right and wrong, so also can your marriage. By staying in your marriage, even when the times are tough (assuming physical abuse is absent), you are teaching your children the lost virtues of commitment and loyalty. Believe it or not, there once was a time when people said what they meant and acted as they promised. Letting your children see you working on your marriage teaches them cooperation, teamwork, and patience. Such character traits being taught by your example could not only save your kids future marriages, but they will also be helpful in the other areas of their life, such as collage, their job, and friendships.

However, if you divorce because of low conflict or don’t ‘feel in love anymore,’ what you are teaching your children is that they don’t have to keep their word—that commitment and loyalty are but a fairytale. You are teaching them that selfishness is the key to life. It is unsurprising, then, that studies show children of divorce are much less trusting.

The third thing you can do with all ages (assuming under the age of 18) is learning to say no and winning every time. The basic philosophy here is you are the parent and they are not. I look at my child one time and say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to him after I ask him to do something. He certainly knows what happens if he says ‘No’. This is not oppressive or authoritative. You are actually teaching your child that he or she cannot always get his way and that self-control is rewarded. This is how the world works. Sorry! This will greatly help him or her later in the job force.

Of course, the earlier you start this practice the easier it will be to plant the seeds of obedience into your child’s heart. It is true that obedience is not a popular virtue, but it actually teaches humility, which is absolutely required for a flourishing life and marriage. Learning to follow ethical orders without questioning, while not prized in our culture because we are taught to be suspicious of all people in power, actually teaches a person that they are part of a social group that is larger than themselves. Such awareness allows for the virtue of justice and fairness to brew in the soul of the child. When they see that their actions not only affect themselves, but also those around them, this becomes a powerful tool of self-restraint and empathy.

Lastly, it is important to give your children the vocabulary and categories to think ethically. As fare as I can tell, the best way to do this is through narratives. Storytelling is a powerful educator. There was a reason Plato wanted to restrict what stories would be told to the youth in his imagined city-state. Today, we simply let our children watch or hear whatever they like. Always remember the power of the media to shape a person’s imagination.  With this being said, I suggest reading the books by Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination and/or William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues.  Reading and discussing the story’s implications is a great start to shaping your child’s sense of moral awareness.

You might think it is too late to begin having your 14-year-old reading kids stories to learn moral lessons, but I beg to differ. After rereading many of these stories again to my little ones, I am amazed how much I have learned about a flourishing life.

Also, since T.V. and movies are such a part of our culture, you can watch shows or movies with your kids and then take them out for Buffalo Wings to talk about them. Don’t be preachy to your teens, but just engage in a lovingly Socratic dialogue with them. Challenging them to really think about what constitutes a flourishing life. (It might help if you had some knowledge of this area yourself, so I recommend pondering Thomas Aquinas’ question on what happiness consists in.)

Just remember one thing, it is your responsibility as a parent to train your child’s sense of right and wrong.  They already have awareness of the good; all they need is for loving parents to refine what they already know.

One last thing, it is total nonsense to say that you are going to let your child make up their own mind—especially if they are really young. This is just lazy parenting steaming from a bad philosophy of education. It has the semblance of tolerance (the new virtue of our times), but really all this approach teaches your children is that nothing is really important, and he or she should just be indifferent to the many goods in life. If you are wondering why your teen is apathetic, you might first want to ask yourself if you have taught him or her to care about anything of worth.


Books you might want to buy:

The Book of Virtues

Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination

Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before


Brandon Wall is a counselor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.


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