Guiding teens without a moral compass

English: A HTC Desire S showing a compass app

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Picture this: a class of freshly minted teenagers, not even a year after becoming b’nei mitzvah, who attend an optional Jewish education program.

Ostensibly they come from homes where the parent/s place an importance on Jewish values. Yet, despite that, they seem to have internalized society’s penchant for abdicating personal responsiblity.

Over 90% of high school students cheat. Entire schools have been accused of tampering with test results.

These incidents reverberate beyond charts and stats–and I felt the tremors last week.

I presented this scenario to students taking a class in Jewish values and ethics:

Your teacher asks you to take home and complete a unit summary without looking at notes, any textbooks, or the internet. What would you do?

I value their openness with me. Only one student in the class said that he would not cheat. One out of 15 students. Eighth graders.

What did the other students say? Most nodded enthusiastically to this response:

It was the teacher’s fault….she shouldn’t have expected us not to look at anything. Did she think we wouldn’t cheat?”

So, what they were saying is that the teacher should have known better. She should have known not to trust them.  For them, there is no such thing as an honor system.

When I was in middle school, cheating also occurred. It’s just that we knew who would cheat and who wouldn’t. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

In fact, what was the kicker to my question? Three students said that their teacher just gave them a similar assignment–to complete a worksheet at home–and when they came back to school she revealed that she expected them to look things up even though she asked them not to.  So this lack of trust goes both ways.

This is the world we are all living in and this is what we’re up against. 

There were other comments by students toward the beginning of the lesson that didn’t surprise me; comments about whether ‘to tell’ on a friend who cheated or stole. That was pretty predictable. The peer pressure is so intense they admitted, that no one wants to be labeled as ‘the kid who tells’.

When I discussed their reasoning for what they shared with me, they said that it’s okay because in “middle school you don’t have to worry about anything yet” (i.e. high school then college). They  continued trying to convince me that their choice was okay: “what you do in school doesn’t really matter until you get to 9th grade, or even 10th.

I wanted to teach them a different course of action and there were many topics to explore, but the clock was ticking with little time left in the period.

I could have espoused other teachings from sages and scholars who have been grappling with these issue throughout our tradition. I didn’t think this would resonate.  Instead, I briefly mentioned the perspective of Jewish law regarding personal responsibility.

Then, I told them they are like onions. Their character has layers, and everything they do, every action they take, forms who they are.  Those layered experiences are part of them, much like the peels of an onion that won’t just disappear when they get to another grade.

And if they make choices that they will regret, those choices will be there, under the surface, but there none the less.  And it will affect them.  Guiding teens through these perplexing situations is what we can do as Jewish educators and parents. How do we begin the process with our teens?

A good place to start is by opening the door to these types of conversations. Allow your teens to share what their school environment is like, and what ethical challenges they face. Listen to what they say. They are our very sweetest onions.

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About Ruth Schapira

I am a Jewish Educator of teens, interested in changing paradigms of Jewish high school education, incorporating strategic and creative initiatives and collaboration with like-minded organizations. Interested in creating new educational opportunities for Jewish teens using best practices and networking tools. View all posts by Ruth Schapira

2 responses to “Guiding teens without a moral compass

  • Ruth Schapira

    Gloria, thanks so much for your response, and for opening up the conversation. As you said, it’s confusing to our teens when some lies seem to be acceptable (white) and some are not.

    The difference is alluded to in our tradition when Hillel advises that ‘the bride is always beautiful’ (I think that’s the quote). Meaning, that in some cases, we don’t need to always tell the truth in certain cases especially if it’s hurtful, or if our opinon is about an action that was already taken.

    I’m sure we’ve all been hurt by the best intentions when someone says something hurtful and then adds “but I’m only telling you the truth”. If we encourage our teens to think about the intentions of their actions, that can often guide them how to proceed. Saving money at a movie theater? Not the best intention. Saying someone looks nice in an outfit she already bought? I can live with that.

  • Gloria Becker

    Teens learn to cheat and lie at a very young age. How many under-13 year olds have Facebook accounts? How did they get them? Their parents set them up and lied about their child’s age. Has anyone claimed their child was younger than they actually were in order to receive a discount? Those are what adults consider “little white lies,” and that there is some benefit to lying or cheating.

    My parents taught me to lie when I was instructed to say, “My mom’s in the shower and can’t come to the phone,” when my mother wasn’t home. It was for our family’s protection, but a lie nonetheless. I learned that my answer to the question, “Do I look fat in this?” needs to be, “no,” regardless of what I actually thought.

    We often lie or cheat to survive or be safe or be kind to another. There are clear benefits to these types of lies. So how can we really teach kids not to plagiarize, lie, or cheat? I’m not sure we can, but I’d love to hear the thoughts of others.

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