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Today, teenagers are bombarded with conflicting, ever-shifting standards of ethics and morality, at the very time they’re in the process of formulating a system of beliefs. This is not only confusing for them but troubling for their parents because they can no longer rely on society to reinforce the values they teach at home.

Previous generations depended upon a complex matrix of people and institutions to uphold the community’s moral codes. Extended family members, neighbors, religious and civic organizations, and schools expanded a parent’s sphere of influence beyond the home. What’s more, most mothers and fathers felt they could depend on other parents and adults in the community to back them up, to adhere to the same basic values and rules of conduct for their children. In many cases, that safety net has been stretched thin, a consequence of the high divorce rate, longer work weeks and other societal changes that have taken place over the last several decades.

Exacerbating matters, we often find ourselves competing with the ever-more invasive influence of media, which tries to unify the increasingly fragmented audience by an appeal to its insatiable appetite for sensationalism, sex and celebrity worship. If we’re to counterbalance these outside influences, it’s up to parents to build their youngsters a sturdy moral and ethical foundation. Though it may not always seem like it, you are the guiding influence in your teenager’s life. Don’t hesitate to express your views on drug use, sex, racial intolerance, hate crimes and other matters that affect your children, especially when setting a limit or administering discipline. First, however, you must thoughtfully reflect on your positions. Discuss with your youngster what you believe and why, as in the example below. He may not like the rule or punishment, but at least he may come away satisfied that it’s not being imposed arbitrarily.

Children need to know where Mom and Dad stand, if only to have a belief system from which to craft their own. They may disagree with you—defy you, even—but eventually they will probably respect you for your convictions. According to a number of studies, most kids return to and adopt their parents’ values by their mid-twenties.

The Most Effective Way to Instill Values? By Example

Your words will carry more weight if you model the values and habits you want your teenager to emulate. Walk the talk, so to speak. Adolescents whose parents smoke, for example, are three times more likely to take up cigarettes than children from homes where tobacco is not used.

Nevertheless, the fact that parents may fail to practice what they preach—either now or in the past—does not preclude them from imparting ethics and morals to their children. Being perfect is not a prerequisite of parenthood. The inevitable protest, an indignant “But you do it!” (surely you saw that one coming), has a surprisingly simple comeback. In the box at right, “it” happens to be smoking. But you can tailor your response for any behavior or attitude that is inappropriate, unsafe or illegal for a minor.

Parents who perhaps experimented with drugs, alcohol or sex years ago face a similar dilemma. Is it hypocritical to prohibit your teenager from doing things that you did when you were his or her age? In a word, no. You are acting as a concerned parent who has learned from experience and wants to protect her child.

Earlier we cautioned parents against volunteering stories from their youth too freely. But what if your child asks you point blank, “Did you ever _____ when you were a kid?” When it comes to run-of-the-mill teenage dilemmas involving sex, drugs, smoking, school and so forth, speak up. A parent’s admitting to previous lapses in judgment or ethics can make for powerful testimony about the advantages of traveling the proper path. Don’t overdramatize or resort to scare tactics. Just be honest:

“When I was sixteen, I let a boy I was dating pressure me into having sex. Looking back, I realize I wasn’t mature enough to handle it. I got hurt pretty badly. I wish I’d waited until I was older.”

“During my sophomore year in college, I was getting high every weekend. One night I drove home from a bar drunk and crashed into a parked car. The police and the paramedics were amazed I wasn’t killed. It took me a couple of years to straighten myself out. That’s what drugs and alcohol did for me. I hope you’ll be a lot smarter than I was and not get into that stuff.”

However, there may well be aspects of your personal life that you would rather not divulge, particularly if your youngster is emotionally immature, a gossip or prone to throwing things back in your face when tempers flare. Consider relating your experience as if it happened to someone you “knew,” provided it’s not anyone your child could identify. The point of this type of discussion is to raise your teenager’s awareness of what’s at stake and how her decisions can have consequences, not to gain her trust by baring your soul or airing your dirty laundry. Parents who do that too often or indiscriminately risk losing their children’s respect and undermining their authority. Use common sense.

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