Most of us stole something as kids: a pack of gum from the supermarket, a toy car or doll of pocketable size from Wal-Mart, maybe a few quarters from our parents when they weren’t looking. My own sortie into criminal life was less glamorous, and definitely less rewarding. At 6-years-old, I swiped a plastic PVC pipe from the local hardware store. My dad didn’t buy the excuse that I planned to use the pipe to jumpstart a career in plumbing, but he did tan my backside for my trouble.
That taught me the age-old ethic of respect for the private property of others. By my seventh year of life, my stealing ways were ended thanks to parents who tempered my natural depravity with instruction. “Though shalt not steal,” says the Bible in both Old and New Testaments, and the principle has been foundational to civilizations since the dawn of time.
Too bad a growing number of American youth never learned it. According to a new report from the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute for Youth Ethics, cheating, stealing, and lying are common pastimes for some youth. One-third of teenagers say they shoplifted in the past year, and about a quarter admit to stealing from parents, relatives, or friends during the same period.
The study, which surveyed the moral beliefs and conduct of almost 30,000 high school students, also found that most teenagers have an inflated view of their own virtue. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they are “better than most people” when it comes to doing the right thing. That didn’t match the self-reported conduct of teens, which included 42 percent who said they sometimes lie to save money and 64 percent who said they cheated on a test at least once in the last year.
“It’s a hole in the moral ozone,” said Rich Jarc, executive director of the Josephson Institute. “These young people are going to become our future bankers, government officials, and business leaders.”
Of course, given current headlines, brushing up on lying, cheating, and stealing is probably a worthwhile pursuit for teens intending to join banking, government, or business (say, car manufacturing). The past few months have seen an unholy alliance of pseudo-capitalists and socialist politicians, the former grabbing for taxpayer money and the later eager to dish it out in exchange for unparalleled control of private industries. In that atmosphere, cooking the books or dolling out golden parachutes is not only tolerated but encouraged.
And while we’re at it, what’s wrong with filching a video game from Target when the Illinois governor almost got away with auctioning off Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder?
I asked Jarc to pinpoint what influences kids to readily accept unethical behavior nowadays. “Some of the factors are the media, the need for parents to sometimes work multiple jobs, and a lot of single-parent households,” he said. “Then there is all the pressure that kids feel today to get ahead — a lot of exposure, pressure, and bad modeling.”
All true factors, but none get to the crux of the matter. Surveys of this kind typically blame television, Facebook, little to no parental involvement, lack of role models, and other cultural factors. Few, if any, blame the government-controlled education system. With relativism and pragmatism the chief ethical philosophies taught in the public schools, and a social atmosphere steeped in promiscuous sex, violence, and drugs, why expect teens to have a solid moral compass?
The Josephson Institute found that teens in religious high schools were less likely than their public school counterparts to steal (although the numbers were still high). Home-educated students were not surveyed, but the results would probably have shown far lower rates of unethical behavior and beliefs since many of those students benefit from significant parental involvement, instruction in traditional ethics, and shielding from such unwholesome cultural influences as Britney and Paris.
Parents can try to be more involved by switching off the TV in the evening or eating dinner as a family, but the influence is negligible. Most teens spend half their waking hours under a form of state instruction that considers traditional morality unconstitutional. When not at school or doing homework, teens are with their peers or engrossed in media, both of which reinforce lackluster morals. Few parents are willing to do anything about it.
That could mean a bleak future. It took on generation, the Baby Boomers, to upend the social fabric of America and pave the way for political, economic, and social disaster. Imagine how Western society will look when a generation with an atrophying moral conscience takes the reigns of power.