Recalibrating Our Moral Compass

As I travel around the country doing workshops for parents, community members and teachers, I constantly hear people say that todays generation of young people arent moral. I dont agree. Moral means that you know ...

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As I travel around the country doing workshops for parents, community members and teachers, I constantly hear people say that todays generation of young people arent moral. I dont agree. Moral means that you know right from wrong and immoral means you purposely choose to do wrong. I believe a large number of our young people are amoral-by that I mean, they genuinely do not know right from wrong. They have had little guidance or direction in calibrating their moral compass.

Think about it for a moment. Think about how many social choices in a given day the average teenager must make. Think of all the mixed messages and conflicted signals they are given from the media, their parents and their teachers. Many young people grow up, genuinely believing that if it feels good do it; and as long your social choice doesnt hurt another, it is okay.

Where has the present generation learned right from wrong? Who teaches them problem-solving skills? What about conflict resolution skills? Where does todays teenager learn about coping with self-esteem and self-worth issues?

Those of us who were reared during the baby boomers era grew up with some very clear parameters about moral decision-making and problem-solving. For those of us who grew up in a strict ethnic household that was religiously grounded knew that most of life was black or white; never gray. I grew up in a strict Irish-Italian Catholic household. For many of us, everything short of breathing was a mortal sin and we were all going to hell in a hamper.

In my house, every Saturday, we kids had to go to confession, whether we needed to or not. Please note, confession, 40 years ago, was not what it is today. Today it is a very positive, painless, life-giving experience. Forty years ago, it was about fire and brimstone, pack a lunch. You were spending the afternoon.

What I found amazing as a teenager growing up in the 60s, when I had to go to Saturday afternoon confession, was how many of my Protestant and Jewish friends, loved coming with me to confession. They loved seeing all those sinners in one place. The superintendent of schools was on line, the football coach was on line and our English teacher was on line. The first thing we did when we got to church was to check out the communion rail and see how long people were kneeling. Then we got a sense of how bad it was going to be. The second thing we checked out who was hearing confessions that day. We never went to the Irish Monsignor, because he was very loud and everybody could hear everything he was saying to you. We all went to the foreign-born priests, who didnt understand English very well. They forgave everything without asking any questions!

In those days, life was very simple. Right from wrong was clear. There were no questions. Sometimes we needed compassion and understanding from our clergy, and we got a fire and brimstone response. However, we knew where we stood and what was expected.

Today that clarity is lacking. The present generation is growing up, oftentimes with no clarity regarding moral decision-making. For many, they are overwhelmed with the choices and decisions that they must make. Im not suggesting for a moment that we return to the fire and brimstone of yesteryear. However, I am suggesting that we work harder at providing our children with the appropriate tools to make positive moral choices and more appropriately navigate lifes complicated social landscape.

Let me illustrate my point with a simple example. Most reading this column would agree that stealing is morally unacceptable, no matter what ones religious or philosophical perspective.

JK was in the mall and went into a small clothing store. He purchased a couple of things that he paid for. He unfortunately, attempted to steal a T-shirt that he really liked. He got caught as he started to walk out of the store. When he was confronted by the stores security, he made up an excuse trying to justify why he was taking the T-shirt.

He told security after he purchased a few things he was walking out of the store and saw a T-shirt on the floor that was slightly soiled, and was his size. He rationalized in his head they would probably throw it away so that was his justification for taking it.

What is more tragic than this teenagers logic was his parents defense of his actions. They literally minimized his thievery. They actually felt that the store was making a big thing out of nothing, because the shirt was soiled and probably would have been discarded by the store, because it could not be sold.

Constantly, I hear parents minimize underage drinking, illegal driving and the smoking of marijuana. Too many parents take the position that its not a big deal; they did it and made it and are living productive lives. Some take the position that they are going to do it anyway, so what can we do? Still others pretend that its not happening until something tragic occurs.

All this kind of thinking is sloppy and counterproductive. It gives a very mixed message to a generation that is struggling to develop some basic moral principles to live their lives by.

Recently, at an area high school baseball game, a brawl broke out. It was instigated by a parent who basically thought it was okay to harass a high school athlete on the opposing team. One thing led to another and there was a physical altercation in front of these young athletes. The behavior was reprehensible. Other students, who were there, were cheering people on.

The whole episode is a tragic commentary on where we are as a culture, when it comes to basic human values. Some people were genuinely enraged by the adults who acted out, others sadly to say were indifferent.

It definitely was a teachable moment for all the parents who were there to point out the inappropriateness of that violent act and the blatant disrespect for people. It was an ideal moment to recalibrate ones moral compass. I wonder how many who were there seized the moment to do that!