Last spring, I set out to start a small garden in our yard. I thought it would be a great chance to eat more organically and teach the children about the value of working in nature. I cleaned out the plot, planted the early season seeds, and set it all up. But as the early summer waned, the area saw less and less attention and the weeds began to take over. The spring spinach crop barely consisted of a salad bowl full. The beans wilted in the summer sun before I had chance to pick any. By the end of the season, it was clear that I had failed completely as a gardener. The garden suffered horribly due to my lack of effort and commitment, and it ended up looking like an overgrown cow patch. Somehow, though, one green pepper plant persevered and miraculously provided two small tokens of a pitiful harvest as the summer closed out.
But fortunately for me, the poor harvest proved no mystery. I grew up taking care of a garden as a common chore. I knew that gardens not only needed regular watering, but also a good amount of sun, weeding and pest control, and fertile, aerated soil. In short, I was fortunate to know where I had gone wrong. But often when the stakes are much higher for our youth, they don’t have the tools to distinguish a decision that bears fruit from a rotten one.
A few years ago, I began seeing a teen and his mother in my office. He was an engaging, bright young man who was not afraid to voice his emotions on particular matters. Over the years, he had struggled with anxiety and depression, forged through difficult experiences with family members and his own internal strife. Despite the potential he held, though, it was clear that the decisions he was making were closely related to the urges and feelings that consumed him. He had come to associate rules and discipline with authority, which he despised. And, so it seemed, he saw little reason to look ahead to his future.
Instead, he set about gratifying his immediate desires even though it was leading him to a life of greater isolation and poorer health. I felt very sad, honestly, in that I had gotten to him late and was struggling to stem this negative tide. He seemed so self-absorbed, so impatient, and often so unkind towards others who were not meeting his urgent needs. He habitually insulted and degraded those close to him when just asked to complete a simple task. He voiced little awareness that in the midst of his own struggle, it was his lack of striving towards a virtuous existence that was really costing him the most. In some ways, I think he sensed this, but he remained lost and angry. Not unlike many, there seemed to be no framework of principles and values to lead him, his emotional reactions being the only guide.
In studying the ways in which we make ethical decisions, philosopher Edmund Pincoffs noticed a particular trend. In his research, he noted that for thousands of years, ethical decision-making was based on the exercise of virtue, such as justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage. Almost everyone agreed that this was critical for human success and progress. Youth were taught ways to develop these virtues, and over time, they learned how to use these virtues in making ethical decisions. He termed this approach character ethics. Although not without their misuse and misinterpretation, virtues provided youth with much clearer pathways about the types of behaviors and actions that they should take, and those that should be avoided. But over the past forty years, he noted that it seems Westerners have adopted a new approach in teaching youth, which he called quandary ethics. This focuses on using particular examples, and then asking youth about their opinions in how decisions should be handled. Although some might argue that this would provide better compassion for those in challenging circumstances, his contention was that it has provided a very confusing landscape for the younger generations of today. His worry was that when left without a secure foundation on how to properly channel urges and emotions while striving towards particular values, youth were repeatedly finding themselves struggling to know which direction they should take.
It was this sense that David Feinberg and Mike Levin had in 1994 when they founded the first two KIPP academies in Houston and New York City designed to work with minority youth from poor, underprivileged areas. As detailed on their website, they set out to “create classrooms that helped children develop the knowledge, skills, character, and habits necessary to succeed in college and build a better tomorrow for their communities.” A large part of their focus was on building the character of their students. They concentrated on seven, highly-researched traits that were very predictive of long-term outcomes: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. Today, KIPP schools serve over 50,000 students in twenty states and the District of Columbia. Eighty-six percent come from low income families; 95 percent of the children are African-American or Latino. More than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have graduated high-school. Eighty percent have enrolled in college. The founders profess a belief that “the development of character has been as important to us as the teaching of rigorous academic skills.” This belief comes through in the KIPP motto: Work Hard. Be Nice.
As I have thought about my teenage client who struggled with decision-making, in addition to anxiety and depression, in the passing years, I can’t help but feel that without a sense of virtues, he would continue to be lost. Like all, he would continue to encounter challenging situations that might lead him to distrust others. But I wondered if he, as a man, would give others a reason to trust and love him? When our youth go to live out their life story, with all the peaks and valleys, we hope that they can come back to fertile ground — a place where all decisions sprout in this ever-changing world. My small garden was anything but fertile because it lacked the critical components. It only led to invasive visitors I that I did not want to see. But just like water and sun and good soil are necessary for gardens to flourish, so are the virtues of kindness, diligence, wisdom, charity, patience, humility, and temperance necessary for our kids to flourish, too — in a way our world depends on. The more they neglect these virtues, the more painful and difficult life will become. And ultimately, I fear that they will simply follow the masses without thinking, and get caught up in unnecessary drama, all the while forgetting that every hour of every day, they have an opportunity to execute basic decisions that will play the odds in their favor.
Ironically, even the king of person-centered therapy, Dr. Carl Rogers, understood all of this. Although empathy and unconditional positive regard were considered critical in helping others overcome their problems, he considered congruence, or authenticity, to be the most important factor in really promoting positive change. We must be compassionate about another’s plight, but above all, honest about the truths we hold dear. We can’t teach the exception before the rule. We can’t teach decision-making without principle. We can’t teach love without the truth. Otherwise, the gardens of our youth will keep leading to more weeds.