In creating and delivering a public school curriculum that sought to reduce risk-taking behavior among adolescents, my colleague Chris Wallace and I sensed that the major factors in fostering or reducing destructive patterns of behavior were the beliefs, values and moral commitments of the students themselves. Although it is true there is not a one-to-one correlation between one’s beliefs and one’s behavior, the association of the two dimensions is strong. Nevertheless, we felt that to affect student behavior with a curriculum, the content could not escape examining values, beliefs and commitments—especially those related to the ethical and moral domain. We felt any curriculum designed to promote beneficial behaviors and to undermine destructive ones, would need to be explicit about what kinds of beliefs and moral commitments correlate with positive or negative behaviors. We affirmed the stand of Richard Weaver that “Ideas have Consequences” (1948). Thus, we sought to identify ideas that could foster moral, ethical and virtuous behavior.
Generally, the two strongest influences related to specific student beliefs and ideas about what is ethical are the family and peer group. We assumed that, in the main, parental beliefs would be more likely to promote the best interests of their offspring than would peer group values. So we needed to make discussions of family relationships central to our work. We wanted to lay a foundation for a relational, rather than an individualistic, approach to relationships. By relational, we mean that moral and ethical behavior always involves taking into account the best interests of the people we are connected to. The more ongoing the connections with others, the more important are mutual best interests. By individualistic, we mean beliefs and values that pit individual self-interests or desires against the interests of others or of groups with which the individual associates.
If there were a motto, an idea that could foster beneficial consequences and one symbolizing a relational approach to life, it could be: “How can I act in my own and others’ best interests?” Such a motto would apply in the family, in the classroom, on the hockey or debate team, and even on a first date.
If there were a motto symbolizing an individualistic approach to life, it could be: “What actions will best serve my self-interests?” Such a motto would not ignore others’ interests or needs, but other people and their needs would certainly be secondary in our decision-making, problem-solving, and quality of connectedness in our family as well as in our behavior in athletics, business, and peer groups. In brief, if we could not demonstrate the reality of how ideas have consequences, and how we as individuals help, in our beliefs and our behavior, create the quality of our future lives, nothing else in the curriculum would be very worthwhile.
Prior to training teachers and delivering this curriculum to junior high and high school students in selected school districts across several U.S. states, colleagues who heard our philosophy often said – with warm skepticism – “Good luck with that! Don’t you know teenagers are inherently self-centered and don’t even think of short term consequences—let alone their long-term future?” What we discovered in delivering our work was that when students were given a chance to consider the future, many began to understand their role in creating positive future possibilities in their lives. The students were neither stupid nor, in the main, resistant to seeing the link between ideas, their choices, and consequences.
The challenge of the curriculum was to pull the rug of rationalizations out from under destructive beliefs. In that sense, our critical colleagues were right about how some peer group norms did undermine adolescent well-being. Our task was to show the philosophy and practices of certain commitments and beliefs about how to treat each other, about how to behave in behalf of the members of one’s family, of themselves and even of the next generation. The idea of acting in behalf of the next generation seemed to be one of the best in helping adolescents link present decisions with future goals. Risky behaviors (drug and alcohol use, sexual involvement, not taking education seriously) were examples students raised as they began to see themselves as playing an active role in making their tomorrows better than their todays—and especially how to make ethical or moral sense of those yesterdays where they had been exposed to dysfunctional relationships.
The family unit became the laboratory of experience the students drew upon in making sense out of how quality relationships are possible. Parents at their best teach and live beliefs and philosophies that preserve the next generation. Alternatively, when parental beliefs or examples invite destructive lifestyles, the risk to the next generation is extreme. Thus we believe the family must be the hub of prevention efforts. Even students from families that most professionals would regard as disadvantaged or dysfunctional saw the possibility of becoming a “transition figure” in their approach to life so that they could do what could be done in not carrying to the next generation what they saw as toxic in their current circumstances. An idea that summarized the practical and philosophical reality was expressed in the curriculum this way: “Every act in the present moment is an act for or against the next generation.” Not all students saw this possibility, of course, but we saw no reason to give up on showing possibilities to all. Our goal was to be compassionate rather than condemning of human imperfections, and to show that beneficial change is possible in the present moment, even in negative environments. We sought to show how quality family relationships can be a means of transforming a culture—or more properly, restoring a culture—to the beliefs and practices which are family, child and next-generation friendly.
The choice in intervention efforts is not between merely giving facts or addressing cultural beliefs. In fact, it is philosophically and practically impossible to present facts that do not express a philosophy. It also is not a question of “whose values we are going to impose.” This invokes an assumption that humans are mere receptacles into which values and beliefs are poured—which then either enhances or ruins their lives. While it is possible for humans to be victimized by destructive cultural beliefs, humans are not mere victims of cultural practices. It is also possible for people to be exposed to, understand and then respond to those beliefs that are in their best interests. The question concerning values is what we are willing to expose cultures, families and individuals to, rather than what we are going to impose on them. The former approach grants the value of education and the reality that individuals have the ability to choose whether or not to act in their own and others’ best interests. The latter approach seems to deny a place for a human moral sense regarding those best interests. Any intervention must acknowledge the capacity that humans possess to live true or false to the knowledge they have. This aspect of the human condition—the ability to respond to facts and knowledge by living by them or by ignoring-rejecting them—is the Achilles heel of all prevention efforts. Whether our efforts are grounded in a philosophy that knowledge and facts are enough or in the philosophy of our proposal to also confront cultural beliefs, the reality remains that humans frequently do not live by what they know. This is a sobering reality that reflects why so many prevention efforts fail—no matter what philosophy they are grounded in. If a society places philosophy and beliefs that nourish, encourage, and reward commitment to family and to the next generation at the heart of its culture, it has a base from which to attack destructive attitudes and behaviors.
Surely it is time to marshal beliefs, which help one generation to preserve the next, and those of the next generation to preserve themselves. Such beliefs are most likely moral beliefs that sustain familial, generational commitments. An individualistic approach, no matter how unintentionally, treats individuals as if they lived in some relationship vacuum where family is irrelevant, and seem to invoke an ideology which threatens the greatest resource available for scientists, governments, the medical profession, and religious groups to use in acting in behalf of the next generation: the family (Olson, 1999).
Olson, T. D. (1999). Addressing parent-adolescent conflicts: Moral agency as a starting point. Proceedings, Seventh Australasian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, Perth, Western Australia October 17-20, 849-859.
Weaver, R. M. (1948). Ideas have consequences. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.