Children's Moral Compass Wavers

Girl Scouts Survey of 5,000 American young people reveals a diversity of ethical frameworks. US YOUTHS AND VALUES

THE ethical barometer of America's high-school students shows some sobering readings: 65 percent say they would cheat on an important exam.

53 percent would lie to protect a friend who vandalized school property.

56 percent say there are adults in their lives who ``really let [them] down.''

41 percent usually go unpunished by parents if they do something wrong.

47 percent report that the ``most believable authority in matters of truth'' is their own experience - with parents and religion far behind, and science and the media barely on the map.

These are some of the conclusions from the Girl Scouts Survey on the Beliefs and Moral Values of America's Children, based on polling by Louis Harris and Associates of more than 5,000 children between fourth and 12th grade in public, private, and parochial schools. It's the first survey of its kind ever done in the United States.

Based on research conducted last fall, the survey also finds that:

The family is the institution children most trust, with more than 95 percent of all the children polled reporting that their parents care about them.

Today's heroes are drawn from the entertainment world, including popular musicians and athletes - although 17 percent could think of no ``famous person of celebrity'' they admired.

The ``youth'' problems adults worry most about - teenage pregnancy, suicide, child abuse, violence, drugs, alcohol - are not the central worries of children. Topping the list of the children's own concerns: The pressure created by adults to ``do well in school and sports.''

Summarizing their findings, the report's authors were fairly guarded. Harvard University child psychiatrist Robert Coles, the project director, said the results showed ``a nation whose children are divided morally'' and speak with a variety of voices. For this report, Professor Coles and co-author James Davison Hunter, a sociologist from the University of Virginia, developed an unusual five-part classification system for the children's underlying moral assumptions, ranging from the ``civic humanist'' to the ``theistic.'' They found that these basic assumptions were far more important in determining a child's moral stance than race, gender, or social and economic class.

Reflecting on these findings since they were published several months ago, Professor Hunter says that the state of the nation's children ``worries me a lot.''

While he finds reason for both hope and despair, he noted in a recent telephone interview that ``our private hunch is that there's more reason for despair.''

The hope arises, he says, from ``the confirmation that children are capable of fairly sophisticated moral reasoning.'' The despair ``comes from our sense that very few people and institutions, including parents after a certain age, take moral education seriously.''

He's especially worried about the schools, which he says are so concerned about ``which morals are going to be taught [that] therefore no morals are taught at all. That might be OK if churches and synagogues and parents and youth organizations were picking up the slack. But our reading is that they're not.''

The survey results, confirming his point, suggest that on some issues children become less ethical as they become more educated. Elementary school children, for example, are largely unwilling to cheat on tests - a restraint they lose as they move through junior high and into high school (see graph).

And while only 14 percent of elementary school pupils would lie to the school principal to protect a friend, 41 percent of junior high students and 53 percent of high schoolers would do so.

Professors Coles and Hunter are preparing a follow-up study that will include in-depth interviews with selected children and with experts in children's issues. It will also examine the ways in which contemporary social institutions provide - or fail to provide - moral education.

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