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Values anchor teens during turbulent times

Published on: December 01, 2004

"When I cheat, I cheat well," one honor student says. And he doesn't regret it. He does what he has to do to satisfy his parents and get good grades.

Consider these statistics released in October by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, based on a national survey of 24,763 high school students. In the last 12 months:

  • 62 percent of high school students cheated on a test.
  • 82 percent of students admit they lied to a parent about something significant.
  • 57 percent said they lied to a parent two or more times.
  • 35 percent of students copied an Internet document.
  • 83 percent copied another person's homework.

Ironically, the study also indicates that 98 percent agreed with the statement, "It's important for me to be a person of good character," and 92 percent claimed to be "satisfied with my own ethics and character."

Linda and Richard Eyre define values in their best-selling book, Teaching Your Children Values, as "the standards of our actions and the attitudes of our hearts and minds that shape who we are, how we live and how we treat other people."

"If children start from a values vacuum -- with none taught, none learned -- they will float at the mercy of circumstance and situation, and their lives will never be their own," they say.

Most parents struggle just to keep up with their busy teens' schedules, let alone teach values to an age group highly resistant to anything resembling advice. However, "kids are always searching for a sense of who they are and for a sense of family, regardless of whether they are pulling away and saying 'I can't stand you.' 'I can't wait to get out of the house,'" says Carleton Kendrick, a Harvard-educated family therapist and co-author of Take Your Nose Ring Out, Honey, We're Going to Grandma's: Hanging In, Holding On and Letting Go of Your Teen.

Teens are learning to reason during this critical developmental period, and recent research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) supports what parents have long speculated: "The areas of the brain that involve making judicious decisions with a high degree of conscience and temperance are not fully developed until about age 22," Kendrick says.

Many parents have found that talking with teens is an important way to hone their reasoning skills.

"I do a lot of driving my kids places, and the car seems to be a crucial time to talk," says Janet Moore, a Seattle mother of two teens. When driving for field trips, she makes a point of discussing afterward what she heard teens discussing. "I say, 'Gosh, I observed this in the car -- is that how it is? Was I right? Was I wrong?" It opens up a dialogue that allows the girls to compare their views and ask questions about behavior choices, Moore notes.

Recently, Moore's 17-year-old daughter wanted to attend the under-18 clubs with friends. But Moore probed, telling her daughter: "I don't know the point of going. If the point is to be with your friends, then they can come over." To get a better handle on the request, Moore and her daughter drove together to the club and watched the scene. What they observed -- teens falling down drunk -- was eye-opening and clearly demonstrated the reasoning behind Moore's resistance.

"Integrity is the cornerstone of our family," Moore says, and that encompasses telling the truth and being responsible about commitments and going to school. While friends' parents let their kids arrive late or skip school when they haven't completed their homework, or even offer regular "mental health days," the Moores are more likely to look at their girls' commitments and see if something needs to be eliminated due to over-scheduling.

Kendrick, who offers individualized coaching for parents through his Web site,, recommends opening up a child-centered dialogue among family members. He advises parents to skip the sermonette or lecture and have teens answer the questions first (but you still may not escape the eye roll and big sigh); otherwise they are more likely to simply agree with you in order to escape the family discussion. Then use their answers as a springboard for discussion, "and weave in what you want to get them to transfer about family values. You have to give examples and you have to probe a little bit," he says.

"To me, the best question that a family can ask is what does our family stand for? What constitutes the moral fiber that makes up your family? Do your children know, and more importantly, see in action, what you feel about integrity and compassion and tolerance and equality and forgiveness?"

Parents also need to live out their values. For instance, Kendrick says teens who hear their parents talk about "creative finances" around tax time may get the message that cheating is OK in certain instances. Or, if they see their parents down three drinks in an hour then drive home, teens may begin to think drinking and driving isn't really that risky. Explaining that a waiter who made a mistake in your favor will have to pay for that error when he balances the books is an opportunity to teach honesty and empathy instead of celebrating that you saved a few bucks.

Reinforcing values anchors kids to their family. Kendrick says "When other kids can question them or call them a geek or a prude, and it can get very malicious, you remind them, 'They don't know you like I know you.' And the kid will say, 'Oh, Mom,' but they hear you, and they take it in and they need that anchor during these tumultuous times."

Jolene Gensheimer is a freelance writer, mother of two and a former high school teacher.

Teen ethics resources for parents


  • Parenting to Build Character in Your Teen by Michael S. Josephson,
    Val J. Peter and Tom Dowd. Published by Boys Town Press. $14.95. Available through, or at 1-800-282-6657.
  • What's a Parent to Do? Basic Strategies for Parents Who Care about the Character of 13- to 18-year-olds by Peggy Adkins. Also available for younger age groups. Published by Character Counts! Available through, or call 602-542-1755 for ordering information. $4.95
  • Teaching Your Children Values by Linda and Richard Eyre. Published by Fireside, Simon & Schuster. $11.00

Web sites:

  • Character Counts! provides a character-building framework involving a coalition of schools, communities and organizations. Check the Web site for details about a high school essay competition.
  • More details on the recent teen ethics survey as well as other resources.
  •, Family therapist Carleton Kendrick's Web site for parents with information about his personal parenting coaching.
  • The National Character Education Center has a Values in Action! program targeting kids and materials for purchase.
  • The Institute for Global Ethics' youth-oriented Ethics Education encourages "ethical literacy through ethical fitness."

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