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Think. Discuss. Act. Ethics

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Review: Morality And The Adolescent

Shelton, C.M. (1989). Morality and the adolescent: A pastoral psychology approach. New York City: Crossroads.


Students and practitioners of youth work have grown professionally through the study of this author’s Adolescent Spirituality (1983). The issue of adolescent morality is critical, yet little thoughtful analysis and pastoral help have been given youth workers.

According to Charles Shelton, psychiatrist Robert Coles “captures the essence of youth’s moral search when he notes”:

What matters for our young people, finally, is the quality of their home and school life-the origins of the moral character we adults possess or lack. Young Americans in the late 1980s sort themselves out the way young people always have. Those who have been lucky not by dint of their parents’ money or power, but their continuous affection and concern, their wish to uphold certain ethical principles and then live by them, rather than merely mouthing them-such youths are well able to handle some of the nonsense and craziness this late part of the 20th century has managed to offer us all. (p. xii)

Whether or not a young person experiences high moral values taught and lived out in the home, there is a vital role for any teacher, coach, or youth worker who comes to be “a valued adult in the adolescent’s moral life.”

We have already noted the need for adolescent separation from parental authority. Indeed, such venturing out from parental authority is critical for adolescent moral growth. The transition from exclusive reliance on parental authority to a responsible young adulthood (wherein the late adolescent takes personal responsibility for his moral life while being open to the advice and counsel of others) is eased considerably by the adolescent’s alliance with other valued adults. (p. 53)

The author accepts a definition of adolescent morality from the American Psychiatric Association’s A Psychiatric Glossary (see also “The Adolescent” in Nicholi, A.M. Jr. (ed.). The Harvard Guide To Modern Psychiatry.) This definition understands adolescent morality as

the adolescent’s personal striving, in the midst of his or her own developmental struggles, to internalize and commit the self to ideals within a situational context that incorporates the interplay of the developmental level, the concrete situation, and environmental factors, and which in turn leads to self-maintaining and consistent thoughts, attitudes, and actions. (p. 24)

How parents, youth workers, and others who care deeply about moral development can better understand ethical reflection and moral action in young people is the basis of this book. Shelton takes the moral theory of James Rest (1982, 1983, 1985) and uses his four components of morality as follows:

  • Sensitivity: Being aware of moral issues involved.
  • Judging: Viewing the moral problem in terms of one’s own moral ideals with resulting implications for action(s).
  • Planning: Choosing a moral course of action true to one’s values.
  • Executing: Carrying out the moral plan or decision and overcoming impediments. (p. 32ff)

Shelton is a priest, and the approach of this book is pastoral:

It is essential that adults convey the meaning of sinfulness to adolescents in ways filled with compassionate sensitivity and loving guidance. Yet, the very fact of sin needs clear articulation. In short, if we downplay a young person’s capacity for sin, we run the risk of depriving the adolescent of the enriching experience of personal forgiveness…Youth are ill-served by well-intentioned but misdirected efforts that fail to stress the empowering richness of the…mystery of forgiveness. (p. 6)

The writer has taught and counseled adolescents at various levels; he knows life in the real world, and his works reveal continued contact with adolescents. This analysis of adolescent moral life develops slowly and carefully toward practical application-in terms of a hundred strategies and questioning techniques.

The author is also a clinical psychologist. He teaches from a developmental perspective. He makes critical and adaptive use of Erikson, Piaget, Kohlberg and others.

Shelton acknowledges, but fails to give adequate attention to, the influence of culture on the moral life of young people. In particular, he fails to describe the struggle children and young adults are having in developing discriminatory skills with respect to media and pop culture. He does point to key underlying issues that must be considered regarding moral development in these times.

One area recently receiving attention in moral education is the imposing presence of cultural and societal factors that influence the adolescent’s moral life. The psychic numbing occasioned by nuclear war threats, the alienation fostered by competition, and the insidious lure of a consumer-oriented culture are difficult to combat. Youth today, facing an uncertain economic future, are vulnerable to the trappings offered by a materialistic society. The realities of cultural influences have forced adults to realize they can no longer simply encourage youth to be “moral.” What is needed are environments where young people can discuss their common concerns and doubts.

This diagnosis and its final suggestion are overwhelmingly echoed by youth leaders.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Do you believe the strength of a society lies more in its GNP or its morality? Is your country stronger today than it was a century or so ago?
  2. How do you see the moral dilemmas of youth today, and what do you need to see for moral education?
  3. To what extent can moral instruction of youth proceed without moral reform of our society?
  4. How do you define adolescent morality, and how does your definition compare with the descriptions here given by Coles and Nicholi?
  5. Do you agree that “venturing out from parental authority is critical for the development of adolescent morality?” Why or why not?
  6. Do you agree with the author’s idea of adults specially valued by an adolescent? Do you see yourself as such a one in the lives of any adolescents?
  7. How could you use James Rest’s “Four Components” in your work?
  8. Are you comfortable with the term “sin?” What words do you tend to use to describe moral failures? Are failure and forgiveness critical aspects of a developing adolescent morality? Does Shelton’s approach fit your counseling style?
  9. We have not described the author’s important discussions of adolescent development in this review. What questions about morality and development do you want (or need) to explore?


  1. Today’s youth are morally strengthened and weakened by our society. They will, in turn, strengthen and weaken our national future.
  2. Neither church nor school have found and agreed upon solid approaches to moral education.
  3. Young people today need strong and compassionate moral guidance, through teaching and counseling. They must have the opportunity to discuss their reaction to that teaching and to express their own developing opinions on moral issues.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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