Help Your Teen Become an Ethical Thinker

Ethics. Our culture does not always seem to value integrity, and our youth receive a lot of mixed messages about the merit of having good principles. Some teens have seen too many adults acting unethically to believe it’s important. Many teens want to do good deeds but they struggle to find the courage to “do the right thing” at times. The fact is, teenagers make tough decisions every day, and peer pressure often makes it more difficult for them to choose the right path. Providing our youth vague advice, such as “do the right thing!” does not provide them with the reasons and means to follow through, nor does it allow them the opportunity to think through the complexities of living responsibly in our culture. So, let’s consider some of the common dilemmas today’s youth face and how we can encourage teenagers to become ethical thinkers.

Common ethical dilemmas that teens face:

Cheating. Cheating is epidemic in our schools, making it a common problem teens face daily. The importance placed on grades puts a lot of pressure on teens which can give them the mentality that it’s ok to do whatever it takes to succeed. Teens might give a peer answers to a test to please a friend or to fit in. Teens who might be penalized for getting a low grade (e.g., getting kicked off a sports team or losing some privilege from a parent) might justify cheating. You can learn more about this issue on our previous blog about cheating.

Lying. Teens are often tempted to lie for many reasons, such as wanting to fit in with their peers, get out of responsibilities, avoid punishment, protect a friend, hide their own bad behavior, or avoid disappointing someone. You can learn more about this issue in our previous blog about lying.

Snitching. In the teenage world, snitching is perceived as a betrayal of your peers and can lead to harsh rejection. Teens often know they should tell an adult if they see someone stealing, cheating, using drugs, bullying someone, or acting suicidal, but the fear of the consequences from their peers is difficult to overcome.

Experimenting. Youth face the ethical dilemma of choosing whether to smoke, drink alcohol, or try other drugs. Teens can develop many justifications for experimenting with these substances, and they face a significant amount of peer pressure in this area.

With so many challenges, how can we help our youth to value integrity and pursue ethical actions? Like with so many other values you want to instill, you must train them.

Ways to train teens to be ethical thinkers:

Focus on valuesOur culture exposes teens to many negative messages. Movies, TV shows, and news stories frequently highlight the bad behavior of adults. As a result, our positive messages of good values must be more powerful, more frequent, and more compelling than those other messages. Whenever you see positive ethical stories in the media (news, movies, etc) or in the books they read, bring them up and talk about them.

Label them good. We need to help our youth define themselves as good people who are learning. This requires frequently telling teens that they are good people. When they make a mistake, we should state that it is simply a detour from a path that they can return to. Never label your teen a cheater, liar, or thief – remind them that they are good and help guide them back to an ethical path. Additionally, make sure you tell your teens that you value being honorable and responsible more than any other measure of success, such as grades.

Help them find their contribution in the world. When an individual discovers a way to help others or make their community a better place, they will find true meaning and purpose, which solidifies their moral identity. Help your teen learn to use their own interests and strengths to improve the lives of others or serve the community.

Offer a broader perspective. When facing a decision, all humans typically start with determining which choice is most beneficial to themselves. Help your teen broaden their framework by using stories or your own experiences to discuss how our choices impact others, our schools, the communities we live in, and even the long-term greater good of society. Seeing the whole ethical picture can help teens stop before they do something they will later regret. It’s also a good idea to point out the joys of doing the right thing.

Express confidence in their ability to make ethical choices. People often live up to others’ expectations of them. If you tell your teen not to do drugs, but then say you think they will probably drink alcohol at a party, you have told them you expect them to fail. Instead convey your certainty that they have the strength, values, and determination to make an ethical choice even when it’s difficult.

Create open communication. One of the best ways to help youth think through ethical dilemmas is to ask them open ended questions. These questions, which can make great dinner conversations, get them thinking about different situations they may face in life and also allow you to share your values without lecturing or preaching. Here are some great ideas for questions:

  • What would you do if :
    • you saw a kid cheating off of your test paper?
    • your friends starting making fun of someone?
    • your best friend was wearing something ugly and asked how she looked?
    • someone put on a movie that you know isn’t good for you to watch?
    • you saw a friend shoplifting?
    • your friend was being abused in a dating relationship or by their parent but they asked you not to tell?
    • someone offered you the answer key to a test you have to take?
    • you knew you could get someone you really don’t like into trouble by telling a lie about that person?
    • you found a $20 bill on the hallway floor at school?
    • your friend said he sometimes thinks about killing himself?
    • your friend asked you to lie about something so they didn’t caught?
    • you knew you could get accepted into a very good university by lying on your application?

As you’re having these conversations, keep in mind that the fastest way to get a teen to clam up is to express disapproval, judgment, or horror at something they say. Remember that teens often say things for shock value, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will follow through.

Whatever your teen tells you, stay calm. Focus on hearing your teen’s viewpoint completely and understanding their thoughts before you even say a word. When you are ready to share your opinion, avoid using sentences that start with “you.” Stating “you should have…” or “you need to…” causes your teen to become defensive. Use “I” statements to express your thoughts, such as “I wonder what would have happen if you…” or “I think it could be helpful to…” You are trying to prompt your teen to think ethically, so realize that this conversation may plant seeds that gets them to consider approaching a situation in a new way.

Final Thoughts…

Be sure you are role modeling the behavior you want them to exhibit. Research proves that role modeling is the most effective teaching tool of parents. As you talk through ethical dilemmas with your teen, it’s valuable to share how you struggle to make the right choice sometimes and what thinking you do to make the ethical decision. Teens should know that the ethical choice is often not the easy one and that everyone makes mistakes and a mistake does not mean you are a bad person.

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