Raising Honest Youth in a Dishonest Society (Part 1)

All of us take risks at some point in our life. Some risks are calculated, some impulsive. Some risks relate to basic life choices: getting into a relationship, going to college, applying for a job, buying a home. We take other risks for the feeling of thrill, excitement, or danger: driving fast, sky-diving, having an affair. Rule-breaking can be part of normal development – individuating and rebelling, testing the bounds of authority. But it can get out of control.

We also learn about taking risks and breaking rules from those around us. We appear to live in a world of risks and rule-breaking. The recent financial meltdown was due to high-risks and loose, if any, rules. When the “innocent” pay for the “sins” of the guilty, is it any wonder there’s cynicism – not to mention, a whole lot of people walking away from their mortgages whether they had to or chose to.  Be honest, have you ever done any of the following?

1. Shoplifted?

2. Stolen something, anything from work?

3. Lied to get out of a jam?

4. Cheated on a test?

5. Embellished your resume?

6. Been unfaithful in a relationship?

7. Fudged some figures on your taxes?

8. Broke or severely bent some rule to your advantage?

9. Found money or valuables and made no sincere effort to find its rightful owner?

10. Plagiarized someone else’s words as your own?

If you answered “yes” to any one of these questions, don’t worry, you’re probably not alone. If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, you may do well to do a little soul-searching, especially if you are trying to raise honest kids.

I’m not a parent myself but I have an 11-year old nephew I see regularly. My wife and I live in metro-Detroit and have been married over 10 years. Over the years, I’ve heard from many adults that there seems to be a frightful decrease in ethics, civility, and respect for rules and the law in our culture – especially among the younger “me/entitlement” generation. One could argue, however, that the adults (for example, Congress and many CEOs and public figures) aren’t exactly presenting the best role models of integrity for today’s youth.

Recently, we saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lance Armstrong, and Charlie Sheen stoop to new lows – not winning, but losing-public respect and support. However, there does seem to be a worrisome trend. Cheating typically begins in middle school. Back in 1940, only 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number has increased to a range of 75%-98%. We’ve even heard of scandals involving teachers cheating on tests for their own benefit by marking up students’ scores.

Consider the following statistics:

  • Over 10% (30 million) Americans shoplift and about 1/4 are under age 18. The Shulman Center 2011 estimate
  • 75% of employees steal from work and most do so repeatedly. (2010) U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Time theft (loafing) costs U.S. companies $500 Billion/year in lost productivity. (2005) Denver Post
  • 59% of American high school students say they cheated on a test in the past year; 21% say they stole from a relative; 80% say they lied to a parent; 92% say they’re satisfied with their ethics and character. (2011) Josephine Institute of Ethics
  • Nine out of ten middle schoolers admit to copying someone else’s homework; two-thirds say they have cheated on exams; 75%-98% percent of college students surveyed each year admit to cheating at some time in their academic careers. (2011) NoCheating.org
  • 15% of Americans said they would be likely to cheat on their taxes. (2010) DBB Worldwide
  • 30% of employers have fired employees for misuse of e-mails or Internet on the job. (2007) American Management Association on Policy Institute

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As an attorney and therapist, I’ve specialized in working with addicted clients, including many who are chronic risk takers and rule breakers, for over 20 years. In fact, for a 10-year period of my own life – from age 15-25 – I intermittently shoplifted and stole money or product from various jobs. I was arrested and prosecuted for shoplifting twice – at age 21 and 24 – before I got into therapy and began to explore and resolve many of the underlying issues that were fueling my bad “acting out” behavior. In part, I found out I had become “addicted to stealing” – to the rush and danger of it, to the relief I got from venting my pent-up anger and feelings of stress over having to become the “man of the house” at age 11 after my parents’ divorce. I felt like I was making life fair by getting something for nothing–it was a counter-balance to my suffering and sacrifice, my chronic over-giving. But I always felt conflicted, like I was living a double life. In essence, my stealing was a “cry for help.” But nobody seemed to be listening or attuned to me.

While I learned to accept responsibility for my dishonesty, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out I was basically a good kid and my dishonest behavior evolved from emotional distress and some pretty poor role modeling from my father who was an alcoholic, had affairs, routinely didn’t pay child support, never apologized for anything, and bent just about every rule he could.

Parents, pay attention! Your kids are watching you… and they’re learning about honesty and dishonesty from you (as well as others).

(Editor’s Note: Mr. Shulman’s article will continue with our next article posting. Terrence Shulman is a Detroit area attorney, therapist, consultant, and author. He is the founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft & Spending.  See www.theshulmansenter.com for more information.)

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