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Teaching moral values: an uphill struggle in a secular society.

When I was a kid, sex, like Uncle Harry's drinking and Aunt Tilly's kleptomania, was locked away securely in the closet. Although we knew all these things were part of life, it was still considered bad manners to dissect them in any detail at the dinner table.

How times have changed! Today, the closet door has swung wide open, and all those old taboos have tumbled out and been swept away. Although we still may be able to set the ground rules in our homes, it is apparent the battle has been lost on television and in the majority of newspapers where anything goes. Values and life-styles that most people consider abhorrent or objectionable are portrayed as the norm in many of today's popular TV shows and news programs.

Today, the Scarlet Letter, according to the media, seems to be Abstinence while Adultery is viewed as normal and even desirable behaviour. The problem with this and other aberrations that run counter to the values we are trying to teach our children is that, if people repeat the Big Lie often enough, it isn't long before it begins to resemble the truth.

It is a tragedy when anyone tests positive for the HIV or AIDS virus regardless of how it is transmitted. The fact that former basketball superstar Magic Johnson tested positive is no less a catastrophe than someone who receives the virus through a blood transfusion during surgery. But I find it difficult to consider Johnson a hero -- as the media does -- when he incurred the disease through his promiscuous life-style. And to tout him as a role model for young boys does a disservice to all the fathers and other men who, measured against Johnson's flamboyant life-style, lead exemplary but ordinary lives.

Is it any wonder our 11-year-old daughter's head is constantly spinning. What is reality? Which message has the most impact on her impressionable mind: the moral values we've tried to teach her or those of dysfunctional families on television such as the family portrayed in Married ... With Children? How can we convince her premarital sex is wrong when someone as glamorous and successful as Murphy Brown is a single mother? And why is it wrong to put down her brothers, sisters and friends when the same cutting comments uttered by smart-mouth kids on sit-coms like Roseanne rate a big laugh on the canned laugh-track?

These programs are not "slice of life" vignettes as we know reality to be: full of grey areas, loose ends, unresolved conflicts and problems that have no easy answers. Instead, they present a slick and distorted picture of life in which characters who live an affluent life-style, out of reach for most viewers, wisecrack their way through a powder puff minefield of contrived and trivial situations that are all neatly resolved before the final commercial.

Critics will say that if you don't like what you see, turn off the television. And we do. Actually, we're probably considered dysfunctional by many people because we don't have cable TV or a VCR and we keep one hand on the remote control ready to turn off anything we don't want our daughter to see. And when we do switch channels, we try to explain why the program was objectionable -- not an easy task if "every one" of her friends is allowed to watch it.

Today, it's impossible to shield children from all of the ugliness they will encounter in life. But it's essential that parents give children specific answers to why we object to certain life-styles. We can't teach math to a kid without translating abstract numbers into concrete examples; and we can't instil moral values without offering kids tangible reasons why many of the value judgments made on popular TV programs are skewed and the exact opposite of the values we are trying to live by and teach them.

Jean Guarino is a free-lance writer living in Oak Park, Illinois. This article was first printed in Annals of St. Anne de Beaupre.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Presbyterian Record
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Guarino, Jean
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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