EDITOR’S NOTE: First of two columns on teens and ethics.
Take comfort in this: The items on the following “to do” list do not apply to all teens today.
Lie to your parents about those wild weekend plans — check.
Steal that scarf you want at the mall — check.
Download that term paper off the Internet and add a few mistakes to confuse the teacher — check.
Inflate your volunteer hours at your church’s soup kitchen to pump up that college application — check.
The problem with the Josephson Institute’s latest survey — the 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth — is that it contained so many bad numbers that many depressing readers were tempted to pin an “all of the above” verdict on most teens.
Consider the numbers on stealing. Nearly of third of the students surveyed — 29,760 in 100 randomly selected public and private high schools — admitted stealing from a store during the previous year. Also, 23 percent said they stole from a parent or relative. The numbers were lower for honors students and those who attended religious schools, but around 20 percent of them stole something from someone.
It’s easy to criticize the young, but it’s also important to know that they’re learning these behaviors from the adults around them, said Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based ethics center.
“Did you lie about your child’s age to save money? Did you provide your child with a false excuse for missing school? Did you lie about your address to get your child into a better school?”, he asked, in a commentary about the survey. “Most of us stray from our highest ethical ambitions from time to time, but we usually do so selectively, convincing ourselves that we’re justified and that occasional departures from our ethical principles are inconsequential when it comes to our overall character.
“Most of us judge ourselves by our best actions and intentions, but the children who watch everything we do may be learning from our worst.”
The sobering numbers leapt into headlines nationwide, while the researchers said the truth was almost certainly worse — since 26 percent of the participants admitted that they lied on at least one or two of the prickly questions. Students took part in the survey during class sessions, with guarantees of anonymity.
Other results noted by the institute included:
* More then eight in 10 students — 83 percent — admitted that they lied to a parent about an issue of some importance, while 43 percent of the students in public and private schools said that they have lied to save money.
* In a 2006 survey, 60 percent of the students said they cheated on at least one test and 35 percent cheated two or more times. This year, the numbers rose to 64 percent and 38 percent on the same issues.
* The Internet makes plagiarism easy, with 36 percent of the students confessing that vice — up from 33 percent in 2004.
* Self-esteem is not a problem, since 93 percent of the students reported that their ethics and character were satisfactory and, in a popular quote from the survey, 77 percent said, “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”
Buried deep in the survey form was another question that would be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who work with the young. When asked if they had done “things in violation of my religious beliefs” during the past year, 48 percent of those polled affirmed a simple answer — never. Another 15 percent confessed to one violation of their personal religious beliefs.
This survey is more proof that something has gone wrong with the way Americans are teaching their young people the meaning of right and wrong, said evangelical activist Charles Colson.
“Instead of being rooted in an objective moral order that exists independently of ourselves, right and wrong are subjective — they’re the product of the person’s ‘values.’ In that case, it makes perfect sense that people can lie, cheat, and steal and still be ‘satisfied’ with their ethics,” he said, in a radio commentary.
“After all, they are not answerable to God or the community, only to themselves. The question isn’t, ‘How shall we live?’ but, ‘How do I feel about it?’ ”
NEXT: The theological content of “whatever.”