Getting Teenagers out of Their Shells and into Their Souls


My adolescent is completely immersed in himself, very focused on expressing himself. I’m worried that he’s losing sight of the objective truths we’ve raised him with.

My adolescent is completely immersed in himself, very focused on expressing himself. I'm worried that he's losing sight of the objective truths we've raised him with.

In charting the difficult course of parenting during the adolescent years, there's a very important distinction to make between individual-ity and individual-ism. It's very easy to confuse the two. Indivi-duality is a great good, affirmed by the Church: we're all unique, and uniquely loved, in the eyes of God. Individualism — at least one that says, "I can do whatever I want" — is a great evil.

To help young people — and ourselves — understand this, consider an analogy. Any good sportsman or musician wants to be unique, not the same as everyone else. But to be unique, one must first learn the same basic skills of the sport or instrument learned by everyone else. Only on that solid foundation can you build a truly unique ability. Any superstar will agree.

Here's another analogy. Think of your dream house — perhaps it's a beautiful log chalet in the mountains. You want it designed uniquely, so that no one else will have a house quite like yours. That's great but, however unique the design, the house will only be as good as its foundation! And that foundation will not be unique. It'll follow the standard rules for building a good foundation. Has anyone ever shown off their house to you by bragging about the beauty and uniqueness of the foundation? Probably not. They've probably shown off various unique features. Unique features are also great but, if you don't have a solid, standard foundation, they won't be around for long.

Great Analogy! I think I see how to apply it to one's moral life.

In the moral life, too, we want to be unique persons. But we must build that uniqueness on a solid, standard basis. A central theme of Pope John Paul II's encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (VS), is that our uniqueness and freedom as individual persons is not only compatible with our having a common, universal human nature, but that our genuine freedom is only found when we align ourselves with this nature: ". . . universality does not ignore the individuality of human beings, nor is it opposed to the absolute uniqueness of each person. On the contrary, it embraces at its root each of the person's free acts, which are meant to bear witness to the universality of the true good" (VS 51).

The foundation of the moral life might also be called the "moral foundation" or "moral bedrock" of the individual. One should never violate the moral norms in this bedrock — allowing oneself to sink below the standards of a sound foundation — for fear of damaging the structure of the unique individual. One of the most important truths you can communicate to your children is that there is a lower limit beneath which they should not go.

So, if there's a lower limit, a moral level too low to be acceptable, what about going above and beyond the moral bedrock? Is there also an upper limit?

Remember the rich young man in Matthew 19? He told Jesus he was already following all the Commandments and wanted to know if anything else was necessary. He was really hoping there would be an upper limit and that it wouldn't be too high. But, as Jesus' answer to him indicated, there is no upper limit, and this is what allows for the incredible diversity and uniqueness of each person striving to live the Catholic moral life. We all should share a common foundation, avoiding all the evils that Christ, through the Church, prohibits. Above that, the sky's the limit. This is the open-ended life of virtue, in which uniqueness truly flowers. No one practices the virtues in exactly the same way. We each bring our uniqueness to them: ". . . the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and love of neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken [there is no upper limit to the life of virtue, but the moral bedrock provides a lower limit under which we must not fall if we are to stay in right relation to God, neighbor and self]" (VS 52).

Let me ask you a question. What if someone forces you to go below the lower limit? What if someone exerts enormous pressure on you — at the risk of your job, let's say — to violate a hard-and-fast moral norm?

Well, I'd say that at the heart of the Christian moral life is the conviction that it's better to die than to do evil.

You've been reading Veritatis Splendor! It says, "Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil" (VS 52; the theme of martyrdom with which the pope ends this text is amplified in VS 90-93).

This is another excellent truth to instill in your children, especially as they grow into young adulthood. They should avoid evil, at all costs. A great motto to reinforce in them is "I'd rather die than do evil." Think of the famous story of St. Maria Goretti, who was willing to die rather than engage in unchaste acts with a demanding young man. Another pithy way to put the motto: "You'll make me do evil over my dead body."

Seeking a strong sense of unique personal identity — individual-ity — is natural to young people. In this quest, they invariably start to question things and "push their limits." All too often, they fall straight into individual-ism: "I can do my own thing, I make up my own moral rules." Let them know clearly what the lower limit is. Remember, they desperately want that reinforcement, even though they may often seem to be totally uninterested in it, and even in rebellion against it.

What are some of these "lower limit" norms?

They would include: 1) Don't abuse your sexuality; also, save the marital act of sexual intercourse for your future spouse. 2) Obey your father and mother. You may often disagree, but the bottom line is that you're living in their household and are not free to do whatever you wish. 3) Speak the truth to your parents. Don't lie, don't cover up. 4) Attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. 5) Be honest in school. Don't cheat your way through a course that gives you trouble or that you simply don't like.

Pretty straightforward. How would you distinguish this lower limit from the "upper echelons" of the moral life, some of these expectations that are more in the realm of ideals rather than moral absolutes?

There is no limit to the moral life, but many virtues — like magnanimity, patience, forbearance, endurance — represent its higher reaches. Speak about these virtues with your teenagers and young adults, but they're not in the same category as the absolute norms. You shouldn't make them absolute requirements. In fact, you can't if you truly understand the moral life. Such virtues can only be cultivated over years of experience and effort.

The "dream house" analogy applies. The builder can give you absolute answers about your foundation and about its absolute importance but he cannot tell you exactly how to design your house. He can point you in many right directions, but the plan for your dream house is yours. In the same way, you can teach your children the moral basis for great virtue, but you have no way of knowing the exact design, or personal path, they need to follow to realize that virtue in themselves.

Purity, for instance, requires a great deal of effort and prayer. While one can be expected not to break the absolute norms regarding sexuality, the development of a pure mind is a lifelong project. Likewise, acting charitably is a lifelong project that cannot be "absolutely required" of a young person, or any person. There are many actions contrary to charity that are forbidden — and which you can require your children to avoid — but the full life of charity is a unique, personal, lifelong journey.

Let's get back to my problem adolescent. Alongside your advise about the foundational moral norms, do you ahve any advice about the more simple stuff? How about just getting the adolescent to cooperate around the house and "get out of himself" a bit?

You're in luck! Everything we've said about the moral "lower limit" can be applied to general house rules, as well.

First, build a list of lower-limit absolutes that simply will not be tolerated in your home. Then, list some upper-limit expectations that you urge your teenagers to do, but that aren't mandated absolutely. In doing that, you're letting your teenager know that he or she can easily get away with rebelling against your highest expectations. Their natural proclivity to rebel and set their own course — which differs in intensity, depending on the person — has an outlet.

With that outlet in place, it's much easier for adolescents to toe the line when it comes to the lower-limit absolutes. They've already "done their own thing" in the upper-limit realm.

Sounds like a pretty effective psychological technique! What should I put on the lower-limit list?

Everyone's list is going to be different, but here's a model to consider:

  • Always let us know where you're going.
  • Be back home at an agreed-upon time.
  • Be at Mass on Sunday.
  • Check with us about major purchases or changes to your room.
  • Absolutely no alcohol.
  • Your absolute minimum GPA in school is _____.
  • The types of music and literature prohibited in this house are _____ .
  • Basic standards for cleanliness for one's room and clothes.
  • How about the upper-limit "great expectations"?
  • Work to your full potential in school.
  • Set a great example for younger children: at meals, in church, etc.
  • Take a younger child under your wing and help with his religious instruction.
  • Help with extra things around the house and yard.

You can also include any other good thing you clearly wouldn't have done when you were a teenager! And remember, these high standards are exhortative. They are urged, but not strictly required. The Church exhorts us to live the highest ideals of virtue, but the basic rules for being a Catholic are set relatively low. Likewise, we parents can invite adolescents to live our high ideals while being very realistic about the basic absolute rules.

This is great stuff. I can hardly wait to try it. While we're on a roll, how about some suggestions for getting adolescents to appreciate sunday Mass?

Sorry, gotta run. But take another look at Veritatis Splendor. You'll find some great advice tucked between the lines.


Lowery, Mark. "Gray Matters: Getting Teenagers out of Their Shells and into Their Souls." Envoy (January/February 2000).

Reprinted with permission of Envoy.


Mark Lowery, Ph.D., is an associate professor of moral theology at the University of Dallas.

Copyright © 2000 Envoy

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