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Lessons learned as a child
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Forsyth County News
Life is full of “lessons learned,” many of them the hard way. Childhood is probably the most dynamic learning period in a person’s life, not only because there are so many things to learn and new things to experience. Something special happens to shape behavior for the latter years. It is the time when ethical and moral standards are formed, and the time when one learns how to interact with others.

One of the best ways to learn is by doing. Children are explorers. They try things, and once they have mastered the “commonplace,” they often go further, pushing the proverbial envelope. And sometimes they push too far. That’s when the real learning occurs, particularly when it relates to things that are clearly within one’s control. Generally, the issues involved are minor, as are the transgressions and the corrections.

All youngsters are tempted to try forbidden things. In some cases, it can be a simple as rowdy behavior that leads to an otherwise-preventable accident. The accident wasn’t planned, but with “proper guidance” the child comes to understand that there are consequences to that behavior.

These are consequences of two kinds: First, the damage from the accident and; second, recognition that you were responsible and that there may be penalties to pay. It may not be a pleasant lesson, but the fact that there are consequences to one’s actions is an important concept.

Children also make conscious decisions to cross established lines. It took me a while to figure out how my mother always knew when I would stop with friends on the way home from grade school for a truly foul “adult” experience ... smoking a cigarette or two or three. Somehow I thought that all the wild onions we chewed on afterward to mask the smoke covered everything up.

But again, there was a lesson learned. If I transgressed, and got caught, there was a penalty to pay — grounding for a few days, a movie that I could not see, or something appropriate to the “crime.”

The key operative here is “if I got caught.” That introduced a whole realm of other considerations. Not getting caught invariably meant being devious. A little lie here and there, some type of excuse or cover-up. But one quickly learns how difficult it is to sustain a lie and how tense it can make one’s life, as opposed to dealing with the truth, which requires no fabrication or having to remember what was said before.

One develops a sense of “right and wrong.” Doing something on the borderline sets off uncomfortable internal signals. And, like a form of Newton’s Third Law (“for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) one learns that there are consequences to one’s actions and one is responsible that behavior. You also learn to differentiate between taking a risk that affects only you, and actions that have serious consequences for others.

I grew up in an area where winters were full of ice and snow. Like most of my friends, I developed reasonable skill driving in terrible conditions. But there were times when my assessment of my skills exceeded my abilities.

The time I skidded into a guardrail was an accident that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been going too fast. Even though it might be classified as an accident, I knew it really wasn’t. I had made a decision to take on additional risk by getting to the ski slope a bit earlier, and I had no one to blame but myself. Of course, if nothing had happened it would have been great.

It’s obviously quite fanciful to think that everyone should take responsibility for his or her actions. For many, that’s not the way this world operates. Is there truly “honor among thieves?”

Today we seem to live in a society where “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware), unfettered greed, and anti-social behavior rear their heads more and more frequently.

But the key point here is that those who knowingly engage in this behavior often believe that they do not have to take responsibility or pay the consequences.

People who commit crimes and are caught will not resign themselves to appropriate punishments or even restitution. Instead, if they have the means, they use every effort to warp the legal system to their defense. And enough of them succeed to make it a “worthwhile” behavior.

One can literally commit murder and get away with it with the best legal defense. Business and investment groups bilk people out of millions and billions of dollars, often receiving little more than a slap on the wrist. Executives hide behind corporate shields to blame things on the corporation, as if it had a will of its own. Government officials compromise their integrity to build power bases, campaign war chests or even personal fortunes.

My guess is that most, if not all, of these people realize that what they are doing is wrong. Instead, they run a simple economic calculation: The chances of getting caught are low; if caught, the chances of paying a penalty are even lower; and even in that case, they can still hang on to much of their ill-gotten gains.

We need to change this. I’m not sure if it primarily reflects a failure in childhood training and experiences, although I would bet that the breakdown in family togetherness of recent decades has played a major role. Clearly, it represents a lowering of our moral standards (i.e. the willingness to tolerate behaviors that once would have been considered immoral) and a weakening of the ability of our legal system to deal with transgressions. An unwillingness to face facts in view of “political correctness” has also played a role.

I wish I could think of a way to correct this decline on the front end, when moral frameworks are being developed. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

But perhaps there is a way to make a dent on the back end by increasing, dramatically, the penalties imposed on those who, when caught, refuse to acknowledge their culpability and who play the game to avoid all consequences.

This is probably a good issue for the legal profession to explore as well. And of course there is the question of rewarding and reinforcing appropriate behaviors, but we’ll save that for another day.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at