By Charis Denison, Prajna Consulting
Daily Dilemma — GoodCharacter.com
Andrew spent most of his time feeling like he could never please his father. In elementary school, he made the baseball team but his Dad tracked the time Andrew spent on the bench and posted his findings on the refrigerator. Once he studied all night for his history test and when he actually got an A-, his dad asked him if he had cheated. When he said no, his father replied, “You should have. You might have gotten the A.” No matter what Andrew did or how hard he tried, he felt like a failure when it came to his father. His dad always told him that he only wanted the best for him. One thing he felt pretty certain about, he didn’t know how to be himself and please his dad at the same time.
Now the pressure was even higher. Andrew was going to graduate from middle school in a few months and his dad expected him to go to one of the private high schools in their area. As far as Andrew was concerned, this was just another opportunity for him to let his father down. So far, he had been asked back for an interview at one school and been rejected by two. They were still waiting for the fourth response. Andrew’s father kept telling him not to worry, that he’d get in. He probably thought that because he had re-written the essay Andrew had written saying that he was merely “editing creatively.” Not only was Andrew not so sure about getting in, he wasn’t sure he even wanted to go to a private school. He felt more and more angry with his father. Whose life was it anyway? All his dad cared about was the right grades, the right number of home runs, the right school. His dad didn’t care at all about what “right” really means.
Things became even more complicated Friday after school in the computer lab. Everyone had gone home and Andrew was packing up to go to the parking lot to be picked up by his mom when he spotted a school laptop left out on a table. He knew it was a school computer because of the school sticker on the side of it. He had always wanted a laptop. Badly. His dad had told him when he got straight A’s for a semester, he would buy him a laptop. Andrew knew that would never happen. He had never stolen a thing in his life. Now, he wondered why not. Since he knew he could’t please his father no matter what he did, why not just take the computer? Andrew knew stealing was wrong. He knew there was a chance he might get caught. He thought about his dad’s reaction. Five minutes later Andrew was waiting in the parking lot to be picked up with a new laptop in his backpack.
By the following Tuesday, the assistant principal was on the phone with Andrew’s father. Andrew listened in enough to know that the assistant principal knew Andrew had taken the computer. He was the last person seen leaving the lab, and the computer teacher was in just before Andrew and the laptop was there. He also heard his father say clearly, “You can’t prove my son did anything and we’re considering withdrawing him from school anyway. Besides, maybe it will turn up sooner or later.”
The talk with his father went pretty much as Andrew expected. His dad didn’t even seem to care about Andrew stealing the laptop; he only cared about the fact that this could mean he wouldn’t get into the best high school. The “talk” ended with his father saying that he was going to pull Andrew from the school and have someone from his office quietly put the computer back on campus so that no charges could be made against Andrew. When Andrew said he didn’t want to leave his school, his father told him he didn’t care what he wanted. He was to keep his mouth shut and do what his dad told him to do.
At this point, Andrew didn’t know who he liked least—his father or himself. He felt stupid for making the decision to steal the laptop. He went to his room and turned on some music. Just then, his cell phone rang. It was the assistant principal. He wanted to talk. Andrew could feel his heart pounding. He respected the assistant principal. Was he ready to lie to him? And what was he lying for? Who was he making decisions for anymore? He felt so confused, he just wanted someone to understand how he never felt good enough. He took a deep breath and started talking.
Notes for the Facilitator
There’s a lot going on here. You can pick your ethical battle or tackle it in stages. I’m sure you all have kids in your work who are crying for attention. And you have probably had someone like Andrew who feels so defeated that while all he wants is someone he loves to be proud of him, he ends up making a decision no one could be proud of. This self-fulfilling prophecy is an easy trap for young people. It is easier to give up and say, “ No one cares anyway, I might as well screw up” than to hang on and pursue the hope that someone actually does care and that we must learn to be proud of ourselves.
At the same time, we are also dealing with a morally corrupt parent who has lost (or never had) sight of what matters in pursuing personal success or what supportive love means. While this is an extreme case, (albeit a true one) kids have no problem identifying with Andrew’s dilemma concerning his animosity toward his father’s values. Often, adolescents feel they have lost the ability to know what they want or believe in because they are so busy trying to please the “powers that be” (parents, school admissions, teachers, coaches). They feel like they are living a life that is being orchestrated by others and that they are simply puppets. Some realize they are feeling bad about letting down people they might not even respect. They begin to shut down and stop forming their own desires and values because they feel they would be disregarded anyway. Before long, the result is an apathetic, jaded, and very lost kid. It’s hard to inherit those kids in our classrooms and group work, but we all do. They are so needy and so toxic at the same time.
So the two main dilemmas deal with Andrew’s interesting choice to steal the laptop followed the choice between betraying his father and admitting what he did, or lying to the dean and following the plan his dad has for him. What is rich about these is that the stakes are pretty high no matter what he chooses. And no matter what choices he could have made from that Friday afternoon on, Andrew will still feel lonely and misunderstood by his father. No happy endings here, but fodder for some good discussion on what the path toward that happy ending might look like—not just for Andrew but for us as well.
I encourage you to add more questions to your discussion to fit the direction in which you head.
Discussion Questions (& Debate Topics, Writing Assignments, etc.)
- What are some of the reasons you think Andrew decided to steal the laptop? He had never stolen before. Why now?
- Have you ever made a decision to do something you knew 100% was wrong. What were some of the reasons you made the choice you did?
- Have you or someone you know ever felt you couldn’t do anything right in the eyes of someone you cared about? What does that feel like to feel yourself or to watch someone you care about go through that? What happens to someone and the choices he or she makes if that goes on for a long time?\
- Why doesn’t Andrew stand up to his dad more even before his dad tells him he had to leave his school? Have you ever been in a situation where you felt strongly about something and felt you couldn’t speak up for yourself? What factors do you think contributed to that feeling?
- Do you think Andrew’s dad cares about him? What makes it hard to see?
- Have you ever felt like you didn’t have any control in the direction your life was heading? What does it feel like? What might someone do that feels like that?
- Is lying ethically wrong? Have you ever lied to someone you respected? What contributed to your deciding to do so? Would you do it again? What do think Andrew said to the dean on the phone? What would you How do you know the difference between a challenging situation and a dangerous one?
- There is no doubt about the fact that Andrew stole the laptop. Is he justified in stealing because of his troubling relationship with his father? What do you think that Andrew would say to justify stealing in this situation? Is there ever a situation where stealing might be justified?
- If you were caught stealing, what would your parents do? Do you know anyone whose parents might hide the fact their child stole? What might contribute to their doing something like that? Is it ever morally right to do so?’
- Why do you think that Andrew’s father is putting so much pressure on Andrew? Do you think that Andrew has any understanding of his father’s reasons for putting so much pressure on him?
- What kinds of pressures does your family put on you? Do you feel pressured by your parents to achieve? Is parental pressure ever a good thing? How might expectations differ from pressure? What kinds of expectations do your parents have for you? Do you think their expectations are realistic?