By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, March 24, 1991
Jon was disturbed by what he saw. It was just a handful of kids playing touch football at the park, but Jon was bothered. The kids were cheating.
Jon studied the children – three or four school-age boys and a dad – for some time. “I was shocked,” he reported later. “Those kids cheated. They lied. They went out of bounds and said they didn’t. They argued every call. They pretended they didn’t know the rules. They did anything just to score a touchdown.”
Maybe it’s just a stage, I suggested. Maybe all school-age kids lie and cheat and play dumb. Maybe lying is developmentally appropriate in a 9-year-old.
Jon didn’t think so. But Jon puts an unusually high premium on honesty. In the early years of our courtship and marriage, I used to wonder what it was that attracted me to him so.
He was handsome, witty and smart – all the things a single woman thinks she wants in a man. But there were plenty of other men around who were all those things. There was something else about Jon that I liked, something I couldn’t quite name. It was years before I realized the obvious. He was honest.
For me, Jon’s honesty was not so much a virtue as it was terra firma. It enabled me to trust him. After the do-your-own-thing uncertainty of the ’60s and early ’70s, it was nice to be able to trust again.
Now, Jon and I have children and we wonder, how are we to foster honestly in a social environment that presses friends to cheat on friends?
There is a place in Marina del Rey called the Joseph and Edna
Josephson Institute of Ethics whose goal it is “to improve the ethical quality of society.” A heady mission in these cynical times, but the Josephson Institute slogs away, with pamphlets, studies and workshops.
One of its most recent studies, “The Ethics of American Youth: A Warning and a Call to Action,” is all about the twenty-something generation—American young people between 18 and 30.
The report states that an unprecedented proportion of the twenty-something generation consistently chooses personal gratification, materialism and winning over honesty, respect for others, personal responsibility and civic duty.
Cheating is rampant amount the young, declares the report – as high as 50 percent at most colleges. So is sexual irresponsibility, date rape and voter indifference.
Not a very pretty picture. One has to wonder, will the coming generation – our children’s generation – follow this same downward ethical spiral? What is a parent to do?
It’s tough when you own a TV and folks like Pete Rose, Gary Hart, Ollie North, Jimmy Swaggert, Jim and Tammy Bakker and Leona Helmsley invite themselves into your living room on a regular basis. [For denizens of the twenty-first century for whom those infamous names don’t ring a bell – think Lance Armstrong, Bernie Madoff and John Edwards.]
It’s tough when you buy your kid a pack of baseball cards, he opens it to find a Ken Griffey Jr. Rookie card, and the salesman at the card shop declares, “Wow, Ken Griffey Jr. He’s worth $10 and going up.”
But there are also moments of hope. A few weeks ago, Peter’s fourth-grade teacher asked her students to keep track of the outdoor temperature for four days in a row.
On Saturday, Peter forgot to tell me he needed an outdoor thermometer. On Sunday, he remembered to tell me – but not until after the hardware store had closed. On Monday, we bought a thermometer, which promptly broke.
Peter was discouraged. “Maybe I should just call a friend and he could give me his readings,” he sighed.
Tuesday after school, we bought a second thermometer and Peter took his first – and only—reading.
“What about calling a friend,” I suggested. “Then you would have all four readings.”
“No,” said Peter. “That would be using someone else’s work. I’ll just turn this in and take a chance.”
“Are you sure you can’t call someone?”
But Peter had made up his mind. “No, Mom. I’m just going to turn it in like it is.”
It would be nice to end this column here, with my son looking like some kind of moral genius. The truth is, Peter had had some help in finding his way through this particular moral thicket. This same issue – copying homework – had been brought up at school recently during a parent-led drug education course.
The question was put to the children – what would you do if someone asked to copy your homework? The question has no easy answer, it was pointed out. If you say yes, you are guilty of cheating. If you say no, you risk losing a friend.
To his credit, Peter made the right choice. He said no – to his mom, of all people. A few days later, the thermometer assignment came back with a bad grade on it.
With that, my son learned the first lesson of honesty. It can cost you.
Reprinted by permission of The Oakland Tribune
Update: The Josephson Institute continues to report on the ethical behavior of young people — and the news is discouraging:
A 2006 Josephson survey of high school athletes found that two fifths of boy athletes and one quarter of girls said there was nothing wrong with using a playbook stolen from a competing team before a game. Thirty percent of all boys and 20 percent of girl softball players thought it was OK for a softball pitcher to throw the ball at a batter.
As for my own children’s generation — Peter is 31 now — what Jon saw in that pick-up football game in the park twenty years ago may have been a predictor of things to come: A 2009 Josephson report found that young adults ages 18-24 were more than twice as likely as those over 40 to lie to their spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner about something significant — 48 percent versus 18 percent.
Some might say that people are just more honest about their dishonesty than they used to be. But I find that thought really discouraging. It suggests that dishonesty is not as shameful as it used to be in some people’s minds — so they’re more willing to cop to it.
Read about Peter when he was “My Manners-Challenged Kid.”