Living and teaching right from wrong


by Walt Mueller


My trip to the local shoe store for a pair of new running shoes quickly turned into an educational experience. My head was already spinning from the vast array of shoe choices facing me on the wall, when a group of three shoppers on a similar mission arrived and stood next to me. Two of the shoppers were teenage boys, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. The third shopper was a father who had been enlisted to provide transportation to the store for his son and his son’s young friend. In a matter of moments, two things became abundantly clear. First, the young man only valued his father’s presence as the one who held the car keys in one hand and a wallet in the other. Dad was simply there to drive and pay. Second, this young man lacked the character to keep his mouth and behavior in check.


How was I able to come to such conclusions so quickly? It was obvious. Upon arriving at the store, Junior and his friend immediately went to the spot on the wall where the latest and most expensive sets of running shoes were prominently displayed. When Junior took a shoe down off the wall, Dad very calmly and nicely suggested that the price marked on the shoes might be out of his price range. Immediately, the boy spun around to his cowering father and yelled, “Dad, shut up! You are so annoying.” The boy then turned back to his friend and continued his conversation. I immediately rewound the tape of my life and wondered what might have happened if I had spoken to my dad like that when I was a teenager. The picture in my mind’s eye was very clear. First, I would have never spoken to my dad like that. I knew it was wrong. And second, if I had, I know I would have been taking my life in my hands!


I was snapped back into present reality when the father attempted to offer his advice a second time. Immediately the scene played itself out again. While Junior used the same disrespectful words to address his dad, his tone and volume were both more intense. When all was said and done, the scene occurred three times before dad gave up. My educational experience ended with me watching Dad hand his credit card to the cashier as she rang up a bill for the most expensive pair of running shoes in the store.


Granted, there were many dynamics taking place and I was an uninformed observer. But one thing was abundantly clear: Dad had little or no authority in Junior’s eyes. How did it get that way? My guess is that Dad had done very little to warrant his son’s respect and obedience. But I also know that Junior is part of the first generation steeped in the postmodern worldview.


Young people growing up in the postmodern culture have lost their sense of right and wrong as they grow up in the world without a clear sense of moral direction. They seek to find their way on their own, only to be molded and shaped by a postmodern media culture and circle of peers that is equally lost and confused. “Many of our children’s friends and our neighbors have no reference point, no guiding standard by which to assess life,” says theologian Marva Dawn. Without an external guiding standard to define right and wrong behavior, Junior was free to respond to his father any way he’d like. To him, there was nothing inappropriate or wrong about challenging and humiliating his father in public.


I recently had the privilege of traveling to the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. for the launch of a mentoring recruitment program designed to match “caring” adults with “needy” children. It wasn’t long into the presentation by the Deputy Attorney General that it became abundantly clear that what “needy” children need is a sense of right and wrong that will guide them through adolescence and serve them and society through their adult years. The “caring” adult mentors were being recruited to guide young people, teaching them right and wrong in the absence of other significant role models. They were to serve as a moral compass for kids growing up in a world void of ethical standards other than what “worked” for them or what “felt” good. The significant fact that this program was being launched by an already overworked Department of Justice—that arm of the federal government that works to enforce the law—indicates how far we’ve gone in losing our moral footing. You see, if the internal constraints no longer exist to guide us in our choices and behavior, external force and constraints must be enlisted to maintain social order.


The ever-growing moral void is manifest in behavior in every corner of our society. It should come as no surprise that our schools—the place where young people spend much of their time—have been especially hard-hit by the rise of postmodern amorality. Once the place where teachers taught students lessons in math, English and history, our schools are now a place where teachers spend a growing amount of time dealing with behavioral problems and issues.


This reality has necessitated the advent of school-based “character education” programs designed to turn the tide of moral decline. One of the leading proponents of character education, Thomas Lickona, is convinced that “schools cannot be ethical bystanders at a time when our society is in deep moral trouble. Rather, schools must do what they can to contribute to the character of the young and the moral health of the nation.” Lickona notes that while many of our kids are committed to causes like human rights, the environment and global awareness, there are general youth trends affecting our young people, our schools and our world that are very alarming. I believe that as the postmodern worldview continues to take root and grow, we will continue to see a not-at-all-surprising rise in a variety of school behaviors Lickona lists as indicators that our families, churches and society are failing to provide for the moral development of our young. These include violence and vandalism, stealing, cheating, disrespect for authority, peer cruelty, bigotry, bad language, sexual precocity and abuse, increasing self-centeredness, declining civic responsibility, and self-destructive behavior. Sadly, research continues to document the rise in manifestations of each of these behaviors among our emerging generations—a clear sign that we are losing and have lost our moral compass. If the trend goes on, we will continue to see a decline in civility, increased loss of respect for authority and a rise in violence on the streets, in the classroom, on the athletic field and in the home.


In effect, all of our children are “needy children”—their growing moral confusion loudly shouts that what they need is a clearly defined and modeled sense of biblical right and wrong. The loss of a moral compass is increasingly evident even in our Christian homes. That said, what can we do to turn this troubling trend around? While it’s certainly a complex issue that’s not easily undone, the starting point is rather simple. That starting point is one I think about each and every morning as I look at myself in my mirror. My challenge comes in the form of questions that I intentionally ask to the face I see: “Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?” “Do you love your neighbor as yourself?” “Are you modeling those priorities to the kids who live under this roof?” “Is that model clear and consistent to the point that they know where you stand on matters of right and wrong?” “When they fail, do you show them the same grace your Heavenly Father shows you every minute of every day?” “Are you praying for your children?” “Are you involved enough in their lives to know where they are struggling and where they are succeeding morally?” “Do you affirm them, compliment them and tell them you are proud when they make good choices?” “And, are you willing to speak up and lovingly challenge those assumptions and ideas they adopt that are contrary to God’s standards for their lives?”



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©2005, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding