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Getting Caught

Getting Caught

Nurturing ethical behavior in teenagers.


Every few months someone writes an article on ethics. They deplore the state of teenagers today. They excoriate the business world and they laud new programs established by universities and corporations to promote and teach ethics.

I don't know if it is really worse now than in the past. Is the pressure greater? Is the desire to cheat more prevalent? Or are we just creating more studies and surveys?

The latest piece I saw appeared in the Los Angeles Business Journal on December 18, 2006, presumably just in time to inspire some New Year's resolutions. The author, Anthony J. Buzzelli, has a solution to the problem. "Education on ethical decision-making is crucial to making real progress. Training, classroom assistance, surveys that focus attention on these issues -- all are invaluable in defining ethical behavior and instilling it in lasting ways in our young people and our culture."

While these may have a role, I am more skeptical than Mr. Buzzelli.

Training is interesting, role-playing may be fun, surveys may provide insight, but as the Torah and most behavioral psychologists know, only consequences really change behavior.

If there are no negative consequences to acting unethically, then all the classroom training in the world, all the business conferences and team-building exercises, won't prevent inappropriate actions. In fact, if there are perceived rewards to cheating or stealing, then the behavior may actually be encouraged by our society.

In its most basic form, the biggest barrier to unethical behavior is fear of getting caught. In this area, we have made strides. Commissions, rulings, attorney-generals with political aspirations, have all conspired to create a more tightly controlled marketplace with less room for manipulative behaviors.

But real success will only be achieved when the stakes are even greater and perhaps more personal. We care about our name; we care about the legacy we leave our children. Is it worth putting these at risk for financial gain?

We all want to be good. What does this mean? The Torah gives us an important insight, distinguishing between two types of theft -- that in broad daylight and that by cover of night.

Although the man who steals by day may be more brazen, it is the nighttime thief who comes under the greatest criticism.

To rob during the daytime means you know you are being watched and willing to take your chances. To rob by night means that you have a fear of being caught -- by people. Yet this neglects the most important Seer of all -- the Almighty's watchful eye.

A thief who is worried about being ensnared by the all too human police, but has no concerned about being observed by the Almighty, is considered a hardened criminal.

The recognition of ultimate consequences is the most effective tool for teaching ethics.

Each unethical act tarnishes our souls. Each act of goodness polishes this diamond within.

Sometimes people complain that their job lacks meaning. But every career can be meaningful if conducted in an ethical way. Caring for employers, employees, colleagues, sticking to the rules, creating a warm and friendly work environment, are all ethical behaviors available to everyone. Jewish lore is full of stories of simple shopkeepers and peddlers who merited sitting by great rabbis in the world to come because they smiled at their customers, kept their scales properly calibrated, or told jokes to the downtrodden.

All our actions have consequences. These can be positive -- we can lift the hearts of those around us, we can improve the situation in the world, we can come closer to the Almighty. Or they can be negative -- we can make our co-workers miserable, we can drag down the world through extortion and fraud and blatant disregard for the needs of others; creating tremendous distance from the Almighty in the process.

We all want to be good -- now, in the future, and in people's memories. Sometimes, as the teenagers surveyed suggested, the pressure to succeed works against us. Of course we need to redefine success -- as a moral virtue and not a financial goal. But apart from such lofty ideals, we need the effective strategy of fear of consequences. Not the cartoonish image of lightening bolts but a very real sense that through our actions we can bring about a sanctification of ourselves and the Almighty's name, or, God forbid, the opposite. That's how we will really be judged. And that's a lesson I think even teenagers can hear.

January 6, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Elissa Grunwald, January 11, 2007 9:41 AM

Ethics of our Fathers forgotten?

Understanding and development of consciousness in childhood is essential to empathy and future ethical and positive choices. Too many parents say "do good" but are modeling truly selfish or unmoral and unethical behavior that their kids are VERY aware of. This seems to be the "Me Generation". Pirke Avos needs to be taught in early grades. If I am only for me then who am I? Helping our children to protect themselves and make good decisions for the betterment of their future family and community in the long run all begins with the influence of PARENTS and teachers who will discuss right and wrong, teach respect of self and of others and engage young kids in conversations about making good choices looking at mistakes others made and encouraging their thoughts and feedback. Character development is not based on punishment but rather pride and knowledge of what is right and wrong. Parents do need to set loving limits with kids and explain why consequences for negative behavior are necessary as well as time to speak out about why they have made the "wrong choice". Teach so kids can understand and learn from a mistake. Model good behavior and watch and praise your children's good charachter choices. ie. I saw you hold that door open for that lady, I am proud you saw her hands were full. She smiled. That made me feel good.
I always love to read your articles they make me feel good. eg

(3) Irim, January 9, 2007 5:30 AM

Moral development?

Perhaps when a child is 3 or 4, fear of punishment is the driving force behind ethical behaviour - but isn't that a bit low on the moral development scale? Do we really want to develop a generation of humans who don't steal b/c they're afraid of being caught? Or who don't kill b/c of fear of imprisonment?
Consequences should be only a single prong - an early one, a bit like training wheels that come off - of teaching people to be ethical. What we really must do is make children think: "How do you think X would feel if you did/said that?" People need to learn to empathise, to care for and respect others - to love God's creation. The source of action/decision-making is love of God and love of neighbour. That isn't an ideal; it's an imperative, and we can teach it by making kids think of others and God in every one of their actions (e.g., have them volunteer time in a hospital, etc.) and by setting examples ourselves.
Teaching them to *do* rather than *don't* is always far more powerful and long-lasting.
And it wouldn't hurt them to hear this time and again:
Do not unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.

(2) Anonymous, January 9, 2007 4:53 AM

Ethical teenagers grow out of ethical children who blossom from ethical
toddlers who are hopefully being watered and nourished by ethical parents.
It's never to early and it's never too late to bolster the ethical teachings to
our children, of course, leading by example.
This is one of the biggest reason why keeping Jewish children in Jewish
day school is so crucial. The values that define the day school, regardless of which segment or slice of Judasim the day school affiliates, is built upon
values and Torah. Therefore, even if the children who go to Jewish day
school come from a home where Shabbos allows more liberties and is not a Shomer
Shabbos, there is still a constant conscious energy of being Jewish and
practicing Jewish values at home and in school and that continuity is essential and elemental.
Your writing is always so inspiring and meaningful. Thank you.

(1) Marc Schramm, Psy.D., January 7, 2007 9:05 PM

Positive attachments more than negative consequences

It is most certainly not the case that "only consequences really change behavior" at least in the sense that Ms. Braverman implies. Consequences by all means play an important role, but secondary to the impact of strong and healthy parent-child attachment. Please read "Moral Politics" by George Lakoff.

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