Kate asks: How can we stop teenagers from being crime-minded?
Hi Kate –
What an interesting question!
I think what you’re really asking me is how we can keep teenagers honest, give them a moral sense. Because all sorts of people think about crime all the time; frankly it’s fun! Humans all love to think about breaking the rules, going against society, even such outrageous things as major theft and murder (if we didn’t, bestselling book lists and TV ratings would be VERY different from the way they are!).
My quick and easy (and too simplistic) answer to your question is that you should instill those moral values earlier, when those teenagers are children. Parents, teachers, guardians, etc. get a window of a few years when their kids think they’re perfect experts. During those years, if an authority figure teaches them to share, refrain from hurting others, not steal, tell the truth when possible, etc., those values will become ingrained in those kids, and last through their teen years and into adulthood.
The problem arises when, around age 9 or so, kids start to focus more on their peers than on adults. By the time they’re teenagers, their parents and teachers have become, not quite “the enemy,” but at least “the other.” Part of the job of being a teenager is to dare to question authority, to push boundaries, to take risks. And if those teens don’t have a moral core by this time, they might choose to do crimes as part of that process.
Now note, even those teens with a strong moral core are likely to break some rules at this time. Doing so doesn’t mean they don’t have moral values; it just means they’re doing that rebellion they’re supposed to do!
So what do you do about it? I have one big answer: Clear Boundaries. If a teenager (or a three-year-old, or a forty-five-year-old) wants to push boundaries, it’s the job of others to clarify them. Say that a 14-year-old decides it’s a great idea to listen to her iPod during class one day. The teacher could fret and worry and talk to the parents who also freak out and feel ashamed and horrified and… you see where this is going. OR the teacher could take the student’s iPod away, give it back to her at the end of the school day, and tell her that next time she’ll lose the iPod completely and get a detention. So much more calm. And it’s more effective, too!
You see, a teenager rebels because deep down they want to know what the real limits are. If a parent or teacher calmly makes that boundary clear, the teenager is, in a funny deep way, satisfied! They’ve discovered what they needed to know.
So, to get back to your question, how do we keep teenagers from being too “crime-minded?” Talk with them, listen to them (can I say that ten times more, LISTEN to them!), trust in their incredible innate wisdom and good hearts, but also set those clear boundaries.
And what will amaze you is that actually, by the time they reach the age of about 16, teenagers are the most moral-minded people in the world. They’re obsessed with it. That’s why we see so many teens becoming politically active everywhere. It’s why their music is so often about moral issues.
And by the time you’ve seen teens acting this way enough times, you’ll start to join me in asking the other question: how can we make adults less crime-minded, and more like the teenagers we see!