FROM: William Damon, 49, director of the Center for Human Development and professor of education at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Alarmed by the decaying moral climate for youth in the last two generations, Damon has started speaking to parent groups, schools, churches and other community organizations, hoping to convey his sense of urgency about raising standards in the home, the school and the community.
Damon proposes building a "youth charter" of common moral values among parents, teachers and communities so that young people run into the same high expectations of behavior wherever they go. Most people can agree that they want children to be kind, decent, honest, respectful, fair and responsible. The best way for adults to instill these character values in children is to model them and to move beyond blame to support one another.
One of his projects is an after-school program in which trained teachers involve 4- to 6-year-olds in serious long-term projects, like building a playground or publishing a community newsletter.
Rather than trying to protect children by isolating them from perceived dangers, adults need to work with the community to provide safer activities, Damon argues. The most powerful method of teaching morality for teachers or parents is the most difficult: an honest relationship.
The costs of implementing a local youth charter depend on the local conditions. Devastated areas may need federal funds to build up quality after-school programs. In other places, it's more a question of attitude.
If there is any opposition, it might come from those who believe that equal distribution of resources would make more of a change.
"People need to take responsibility for their neighbor's children. The problems are only solvable by getting right down to the place where the rubber meets the road, where grown-ups are making contact with kids. Until people do that, kids will be drifting around causing themselves and the community a lot of trouble."