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Stealing, Lying, and Cheating

Dec 05, 2008
Apparently, these ethical qualities are as American as apple pie, hence our illustration today. The Josephson Institute has released its latest biennial report from its Center for Youth Ethics, entitled The Ethics of American Youth. It’s not a pretty picture.

Over a third of high school boys (35 percent) and a quarter (26 percent) of girls admitted having stolen something from a store in the past year, each number up three percentage points from two years ago. Almost all high school children (83 percent) have lied to a parent in the past year about something significant. And cheating in school is up four percentage points (to 64 percent) from 2006. And the numbers may even be worse, since fully a quarter of the 30,000 respondents confessed to lying on one or two of the questions during the survey!

Not to worry, however, since our pedagogical emphasis on nurturing self-esteem has been one of the educational success stories of the past generation. Despite their cheating hearts, fully 93 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent said that “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.”

Before we lapse into Paul Lynde1 mode,2 however, let’s take a few deep breaths and look for some perspective.

Speaking only for ourself, we lied like a rug when we were in high school. We lied about everything to everyone. When we turned 21, we swore off lying, not because it was wrong, but because we refused to continue to be so diminished in our own eyes by our constant lies. We have pretty much kept to that determination throughout a longish adulthood.

We stole from stores a time or two, probably before we were actually in high school, and even committed a few misdemeanor-level vandalisms during the difficult transition from innocence to experience. But that was then and this is now and it is inconceivable to imagine we would steal again from any motivation but the direst want. The fact that we don’t recall cheating in school may probably be laid to the fact that we never sat close enough to the ones who were smarter than we were in order to crib off their papers. And cheating in school always struck us as rather like cheating at solitaire. Finally, what’s the point?

We generally consider that seven-year-old children have reached the Age of Reason,3 before which a child has no real concept of the difference between objective right and wrong. However, to understand that right and wrong exist is not the same thing as to have the capacity to subordinate one’s own interests to ethical considerations. That takes much longer, which is why society doesn’t emancipate its children until they are considerably older.

We take some reassurance in the fact that there is such a significant disconnect between teen behavior and their own self-conception. We do learn right from wrong at seven, and we do struggle for years to bring right and wrong into alignment with our own needs and inclinations—many of us ultimately failing, of course. However, believing that we are essentially such admirable boys and girls cannot, in the end, but help to make us so.
1 Paul Lynde, from Wikipedia, accessed December 2, 2008, as are other footnoted sources today.
2 “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?,” from Bye Bye, Birdie
3 The Age of Reason, by Adele M. Brodkin, from Scholastic, July 1, 2006
tags: Youth | Human Nature

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