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How do high schoolers get their morals?
Kendall Coffey stands with her parents, Barb and Darrin, on her high school graduation day, May 23. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Kendall Coffey is a good person, at least according to her mom.

Admittedly biased by her role in her daughter's upbringing, Barb Coffey said her endorsement comes from watching Kendall succeed as drum major for the marching band, care for her friends and show compassion for the elderly people she serves at her after-school job in a supportive living home.

"Kendall has stayed focused on finding meaning in her life," even if she can be a little boy crazy, said Coffey, 44. When looking toward the future, "she's never placed priority on income or success."

These strengths are on Coffey's mind as her 18-year-old daughter graduates and prepares for college, even as arguments over curfew occupy everyday life.

As high school seniors across the country don caps and gowns over the next few weeks, parents, teachers and faith leaders will consider what kind of people these young men and women will become.

Some, like Coffey, already catch glimpses of maturity in their kids and hope that college and career adventures will finish the work of putting these young adults on the path to a life that's good in both moral and worldly terms.

Others see moral development as something secondary to more tangible successes, including, it seems, graduates themselves. While 82 percent of 2014 college freshmen cited "being very well off financially" as an "essential" or "very important" life objective, only 45 percent said the same about "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

New York Times columnist David Brooks describes this subversion of introspection to financial success as one of the great crises of our time in his latest book, "The Road to Character," released in April. "Tradition tells you you have to do the things that will propel you to the top, but it doesn't encourage you to ask yourself why you are doing them," he writes.

According to education experts, social workers and parents, equipping a high school student with the tools to build a meaningful life is challenging and, at times, awkward. But it's also rewarding for both the adult and the child, they said.

"Without other people to help you determine right from wrong, you're left wandering around trying to figure it out for yourself," said Erin Davenport, a social worker and ordained Presbyterian minister. "When you're making up (your morals) as you go along, it's easy to get lost along the way."

The soft, still voices

In "The Road to Character," Brooks describes certain elements of life as drivers of character development, including participating in community groups, reading great works of literature, spending time with loved ones and developing spiritually.

These activities are some of the defining features of high school life (even if English teachers assign the reading) and yet their potential influence can be undermined by the chaotic pace of adolescence, as well as adults' uncertainty about starting deep conversations, Davenport said.

Parents, teachers, sports coaches or faith leaders might "assume that youth and children are going to naturally pick up on how to be good people," or struggle themselves with living morally, she said.

Additionally, it is difficult for high schoolers and adults alike to set aside time to address moral questions, said Trisha Ross Anderson, a research project manager for Making Caring Common, an initiative based at Harvard's Graduate School of Education that equips parents and educators with the tools to raise respectful and responsible children.

As Brooks notes in his book, life in the 21st century has "become faster and busier. It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."

Making Caring Common tries to remedy the modern world's lack of self-reflection with capstone experiences, encouraging school administrators to make space in the curriculum for students to think about who they are and who they want to be.

The same type of model can be employed by parents, who encourage the difficult work of character development by asking questions and providing opportunities for their children to blossom morally, Anderson said.

"The idea is that youth need an opportunity to reflect, to consider things like, 'Who am I? Where am I coming from? What kind of world do I want to live in?, she said. "It's broader than self-reflection. It's asking, 'What can I give back?

According to Anderson, these questions are traditionally associated with religious coming-of-age rituals like confirmation or bar mitzvahs.

"Throughout time, religion has been a huge source of moral grounding," she said. As U.S. church membership declines, addressing spiritual concerns and morality can become less natural, but passing on a spirit of other-mindedness and self-reflection remain a crucial way to ease the transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

Seeing beyond

Sometimes it takes a dramatic event to make teenagers recognize they aren't the center of the universe.

Coffey's voice cracks as she remembers the loss of one of Kendall's friends last year, and how much her daughter grew up in the span of a few weeks.

"She learned that life can be awful and hard. You just have to learn how to react to it, making choices along the way to keep yourself going," Coffey said. "Kendall kept her focus on what was important and was good to others throughout a really trying time."

Davenport credited church mission trips to underprivileged communities in Mexico and the Appalachian region of the U.S. with helping her realize that the world was much bigger than her own experience. The trips taught her to recognize other people's needs instead of just her own.

"I realized I had a choice to either make a difference and be a person of good moral character who looked outward or just worry about my hair and my clothes," she said.

But a strong character can also be formed in more mundane ways. As a youth group leader, Davenport has discovered the value of simply providing space for students to think through their behaviors.

"Instead of just saying, 'This is who you need to be,' I want them to think through" what morality means to them, she said. "Sometimes they come to conclusions I don't agree with, but as long as they thought through the consequences, I think that's being faithful to who God wants us to be."

Both Davenport and Anderson highlighted how important it is for the adults in a high schooler's life to model introspective behavior. It's wrong to expect young people to prioritize moral concerns if adults won't, Anderson said.

"If you really want to teach your kids that something is important to you, you have to start by being a good example," she said. "More than listening to what we profess, they're watching what we're actually doing."

Encouraging morality

Last year, Making Caring Common commissioned a survey of 10,000 middle and high school students, asking them to share which aspects of life were most important to them.

"Almost 80 percent of (respondents) picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, while roughly 20 percent selected caring for others," MCC reported. Additionally, youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree with the statement, "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school."

Anderson said the results surprised many parents and teachers, who were confused about why their concern for being kind to others seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

"Too often, we as adults assume kids are getting the message that caring is important," rather than making our expectations about morality clear, she said.

She advised parents of graduating seniors (and of children of all ages) to be explicit about their moral concerns in order to emphasize that kindness and community-mindedness are as important as good grades or athleticism.

"Rather than asking, 'How did your test go?,' (parents) can say, 'What did you do today to be nice to someone else?, Anderson said. "You can show it's not just achievement you care about, but also raising good people."

Over the last year, Coffey has been intentional about talking to Kendall about her life plans, helping her feel more independent. She said her daughter was open to having conversations about intimidating topics like faith, career dreams and house rules when she realized they were conversations, not lectures.

"(My husband and I) went from being in charge of her to saying, 'Let's talk this out, Coffey said. "She had to know that she could make choices on her own that we trusted."

Kendall's graduation and transition to college won't pass without tears, but Coffey said she's more excited than sad to watch her daughter continue to grow.

"I see such signs of maturity in her," she said. But does that mean Kendall got that curfew extension?

"Let's just say we met in the middle," Coffey said with a laugh.
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