Ethical Parenting: Achievement vs. Morality

In last week’s New York magazine, Lisa Miller wrote about the predicament of “ethical parenting”—the constant moral dilemma parents face about whether to put the interest of their own children ahead of the greater good.

This encompasses issues such as knowingly sending your child to school with a case of lice because it’s a statewide testing day , doing your child’s homework for them, and hiring $22,000-per-year SAT tutors. Our culture needs the reminder that actions speak louder than words and that parents’ behavior correlates with the values of their progeny.

I remember when I was a high school senior, trying to pick a topic for my college-application essay. My parents and I mentioned to our closest family friends—two brothers who are 8 and 10 years old than me, respectively—that I was having a hard time choosing a topic. We brainstormed a bit, but nothing clicked. A few days later, the boys knocked on my front door. They busted into the house, clearly really excited about something.

“We did it for you,” they said, handing over two neatly printed double-spaced pages.

WHAT?

“I didn’t ask you to do that,” I said.

“No it’s great. This is the best essay ever. We both wrote it and it’s amazing. You will get in anywhere you want with this,” they said, nearly jumping out of their skin at the idea.

I was dumbfounded.

“I can’t use something I didn’t write,” I said.

The assignment called for a personal statement, so the fact that I had to be the one to write it seemed obvious to me. I was shocked that they saw absolutely no problem with cheating.

“You think that other kids are all writing their own?” they asked.

The answer to that question didn’t really matter. I was certainly going to write my own. And I did. And I didn’t get in to my first-choice school. But I did get in to some great schools and attended one of them. When I walked through the gates to move off to college, I knew that I had earned my spot and that this institution chose me.

I know kids who lied on their resumes to make them seem more well-rounded. I know kids who cheated on tests. I know kids who slogged through AP classes they had less-than-zero interest in because our guidance counselors told us that if we took anything less than six AP classes  we would not get into college.

In this hyper-competitive world we are gaining achievement and losing morality. It’s not just learning to opt for right instead of wrong. We are not teaching our children how to treat others. Our actions tell kids that ends justify means—no matter how unethical those means are. This type of decision making becomes more deeply ingrained in our culture each day.

I was at a bar mitzvah recently, and while in the ladies’ room two tween girls were gabbing away. One girl complained that the boy she liked was “all over” some other girl at the party. “Just tell him she’s a slut,” her friend replied. “If you tell him that, he won’t like her anymore and then you’ll be in.” This girl was going to lie about the reputation of a peer so that she could get ahead. The choice would be cruel, let alone dishonest and unfair, but this young girl learned to think that way via cultural norms.

The deeper issue is that our children cannot learn to operate on principles like honesty, fairness, and altruism if adults operate on the principle of always looking out for number one.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t protect our children. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give them the best opportunities we can. I’m not saying that parents should not help their struggling student with homework. I am saying that parents must  be conscious of their behavior and the message it’s sending. Consider the long-term consequences.

We need to focus not only on rearing achievers, but also on raising good people.

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