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Building Character: How to Raise Kids to Be Good in a World That Often Isn't

By Elaine Rogers

With the understanding that actions speak louder than words, parents can use family activities, particularly ones centered on volunteering or helping others, as occasions to emphasize important aspects of good character.

With the understanding that actions speak louder than words, parents can use family activities, particularly ones centered on volunteering or helping others, as occasions to emphasize important aspects of good character.Initially, teaching a child the difference between right and wrong is a pretty straightforward proposition: Cheerios tossed on the floor are a no-no; giving a sister a bop to the head is a bigger one. But add core values such as honesty, fairness, dependability and compassion to the mix, and character lessons get a lot more complicated.

The notion of raising G-rated kids in an increasingly R-rated world has become a classic parenting dilemma. As a culture, we've relaxed our morals over the past few decades. Today's parents have to sift through a mixed bag of media and entertainment offerings - all of which have upped the ante considerably in violent, sexual or just plain disrespectful content. Meanwhile, misbehaving sports figures, provocative starlets, gangsta rappers and other icons routinely make headlines for all the wrong reasons, contributing to what Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, dubs "the widening hole in the moral ozone."

How wide is it?

The Josephson Institute, which trains educators, business people, public officials and even athletes in ethics, surveys high school students on the topic every other year. Its 2006 "Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth" found some pretty big gaps between what teens believe - and what they do.

The good news is that 89 percent of the more than 36,000 teens surveyed believe that being a good person is more important than being rich, and that lying and cheating isn't worth it because it hurts your character. But while 92 percent give themselves high marks for their own ethics:

  • 82 percent admit they've lied to their parents about something significant during the past year.
     
  • 62 percent admit to cheating on a test in the same time frame.
     
  • 28 percent say they've stolen something from a store.

When the survey became public last fall, Michael Josephson noted that the rates of kids reporting dishonest behavior hadn't really changed from the institute's last survey in 2004. But he also worried that "unacceptably high rates of dishonesty have become the norm."

Lying, cheating and stealing? What's happening to character, and how can parents make sure they instill strong moral values in their kids?

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