Building Your Kid’s Moral Compass One Piece at a Time

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Written by Jeremy Bangs

Few things in life are as entertaining as hearing cops share funny stories about their work.

So not too long ago, I was looking forward to a fun conversation with my buddy, Andrew, for lunch. Andrew and I worked together in another life—the corporate world where we crunched data on spreadsheets and worked hard to increase our company’s margins. We had both found our way out of the company so I was looking forward to catching up, especially now that Andrew was living his dream of working in law enforcement full-time.

Even while working in the corporate world, he had worked weekends as a cop in another suburb of the city. His weekend shift meant he spent a lot of time working traffic accidents, issuing speeding tickets, and making DUI arrests. Among the corporate cubicles, he’d regale us with stories about questioning a DUI suspect who denied drinking anything even though an open beer sat in his cup holder in plain sight, telling a woman that her four bald tires were probably the reason she skidded into a concrete barrier in a one—car accident, and so on.

Once we got our table and ordered lunch, I got to the point.

“So how are the mean streets of suburbia?” I asked.

I was expecting Andrew’s big grin to appear as he said something like, “You wouldn’t believe this guy I pulled over the other night …”

Instead, he raised an eyebrow and shook his head in disbelief.

“Dude, I spend most of my time talking to parents whose kids have gone off the rails,” he said.

He went on to explain his shock at not only what the kids were up to, but what their parents were coping with. The parents fit into two major profiles: the ones who had no idea their kid was doing anything wrong at all, and the ones who knew something was wrong and had no idea how to fix it.

One case in particular bothered him. It involved a 15-year-old girl and an $800 designer handbag.

A non-emergency call had come to the department from the mother of another girl who is a friend of the 15-year-old. The mom couldn’t understand why this 15-year-old had such an expensive handbag. Was the bag stolen? Something seemed off and the friend’s mom wanted someone to look into it.

Andrew contacted the 15-year-old’s parents, explained the phone call, and asked if they needed any help. No crime had been committed as far as he knew. There was no complaint to investigate. Andrew was just offering help and if the 15-year-old’s parents declined to accept it, that would have been the end of the story.

But, the 15-year-old’s parents wanted help. Their daughter had been in trouble with alcohol before and they were scared. They didn’t know about the handbag. The 15-year-old’s mom didn’t own anything like it. The 15-year-old didn’t have a job and there wasn’t any money missing from the family’s bank accounts so no one knew how she could have paid for the bag.

That evening, Andrew talked the situation over with the parents and the 15-year-old, in the family living room.

“Do you have an $800 handbag?” the officer asked.

“No,” the 15-year-old said.

“Your parents invited me into the house and gave me permission to search your room. If I do that, am I going to find an $800-handbag?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Is it yours?”

“Yes.”

“Did you steal it?”

“No,” she said.

“Did you buy it?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Can you show me a receipt?”

“Yes,” she said.

“How did you get the money?”

The 15-year-old girl explained the whole thing. She was selling nude pictures of herself to people she was meeting online. She took the pictures herself on her phone (never showing her face, she pointed out) and sent them to people. Using her phone again, she had opened her own PayPal account so she could collect the money. All of this to buy a designer handbag.

Andrew said there was a horrified silence in that living room. What struck him more than the story itself was the confidence with which the 15-year-old girl told it. It was, he said, as if she was proud of her ingenuity.

Beyond the personal and moral tragedy this family was confronting that night, criminal charges began falling like dominoes. When the 15-year-old girl clicked “send” on those photo files of herself, she became a trafficker of child pornography. A conviction on those charges would likely require her to register as a sex offender.

There may have been more to the story, but I can’t remember it. The horrified silence of that family’s living room was now hovering over our lunch table.

The rest of our meal was spent working our way upstream of this story trying to figure out what her parents could have done to stop this.

Parental controls on the kid’s phone?

I spent years working for newspapers trying to move my print business online. To do so, I thought I needed to understand all of the content sharing services, curation strategies, apps, and devices on the digital landscape. I talked to a good friend of mine who is a software developer and he explained it simply.

“You’ll never understand it all,” he said. “I don’t know it either and it’s my industry. No one knows everything that’s out there online. It’s impossible. New tech is launched every day. You’ll never keep up with it.”

He was right and the same thing applies here. I can manage parental controls on my daughter’s phone every waking moment and still not account for all of the technology that’s out there. Furthermore, my daughter, at the age of 8, fixed my cable box as I was calling tech support. It would be delusional to think that I can build a firewall around my daughter so impenetrable that she’ll just give up on doing what she wants to do. No, the solution wasn’t based in technology.

My buddy and I looked further upstream.

Maybe the parents dropped the ball responding to their daughter’s earlier problems with drinking? Doubtful. Andrew said they were good people. When he offered help, they accepted it willingly. Pride or denial or lack of interest just didn’t fit the picture. The answer was still further upstream.

My lunch with Andrew happened over a year ago and I’m still paddling upstream trying to make sense of that story. The truth is, there probably isn’t just one event or decision in the history of that family that anyone can point to and say, “Ah-ha! If we had gone left instead of right at this one moment, none of this would have happened.”

So far, all I’ve come up with is this: the best thing I can do as a father is build the kind of moral compass within my daughter that steers her away from making bad decisions. That compass is made of experiences, whether they’re good or bad, accumulated over many years. It’s also made of shared stories about my own experiences, whether they’re good or bad.

When my daughter freaks out forgetting her homework or getting caught not telling the whole truth, my first impulse is to rescue her. In my reality, thank goodness it’s only elementary school math homework or a white lie on the playground we’re talking about. But in my daughter’s reality, the stakes are huge in these situations which is why they generate strong emotions like fear, anxiety or embarrassment. Sometimes it’s better to let her feel the tension and stress of those situations just enough to make a lasting impression while the stakes are indeed small.

And when she asked me once if I ever cheated on a test, I would have loved to tell her I never did. But I couldn’t tell her that. Instead I told her the whole story and told her how, even though I “got away with it,” I felt awful about it then and worse as I explain it to her now. What she takes away from that conversation is not so much the idea that I cheated on a test once, but that I was honest with her when she asked a serious question. If I can talk to her about something I’m not proud of, she hopefully understands she can talk to me about something she’s not proud of, too.  

Life is messy sometimes. There are rough edges to it. Most of the time, we’re the ones who make the mess and rough edges. Parents naturally want to shelter their kids from sadness or disappointment of these realities. But there are times we go too far and, instead, end up sheltering them from learning good life lessons. The trick is finding the right balance.

Meanwhile, experience by experience and story by story, the moral compass within our children gets built one way or the other. When the time comes, hopefully the needle points north. If not, we just keep building it.

 
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Meet Jeremy Bangs

Jeremy is a single father of a 9-year-old daughter, Olivia. He spent more than 17 years as a writer, photographer and managing editor for community newspapers along Colorado’s Front Range.

 
Stephanie Corder