As they enter their teenage years, many people start to question what they've been told about life, and try to work out their own sense of moral values. As teens go through the process of moral development, their cultural environment plays a role, including their relationships with parents, peers, and the larger community.
Parents with strong feelings about moral behavior may worry that their teens will come under the influence of other teens with different values. While this is certainly possible, parents play a large role in shaping the moral character of their children. By the time a teenager starts to spend a lot of time outside the house with his peers, much of his moral character has already been formed by the culture of his parents and community. However, teens do have more ability to engage in abstract thought than children do, and they may use this ability to question the values their parents and other authority figures have taught them. According to Kentucky-based behavioral health care provider Seven Counties Services, this is a normal and healthy stage in moral development.
With the exception of those living in homogenous traditional communities, no one participates in just one cultural context. According to a 2005 article in the "Journal of Research on Adolescence," teens engage with an overlapping network of different cultures, each of which can send different messages about moral behavior. In a conservative religious family, the culture at home or in the church community can be very different from the culture of other students at the same high school or the culture portrayed in the mass media. Many teens identify with subcultures that may have different values from those of their parents or other teens. Even though all these different cultural contexts can influence teens, the common perception that all teens rebel against the values of their parents is not accurate, according to a 1999 University of Nebraska research paper.
The idea that teens usually reject the value system of their parents is not supported by evidence, according to the University of Nebraska paper. Although teens may question their parents' decisions about some issues, they generally accept the values with which they were raised. For instance, a teen may want to get a piercing or a tattoo against parental objections, but that doesn't mean she has a totally different sense of right and wrong than her parents. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 71 percent of teens said their social and political views were about the same as their parents. However, teens do go through a stage of developing and internalizing their own interpretation of these values.
Teens who question and explore the morality they've been taught by parents or other cultural influences often develop a deep sense of their own values that can make them feel compelled to take action. Some teens get involved in political activism. Others volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, charity organization or youth group. According to Seven Counties Services, teens who feel compelled to act on their values have achieved moral maturity, a stage in which moral behavior is no longer based on cultural influences but on inner reflection.