What is wrong with American society? Thirteen people died and 16 were
wounded at Columbine High School, because two teenagers were in the mood
for some killing. Then, a month later, in Conyers, Ga., a student came
to school one morning and shot six of his fellow students before being
subdued. Both of these incidents occurred a little more than a year
following the incident at a West Paducah, Ky., school, when a student
arrived at campus and opened fire on a student prayer group. What’s
happened to America?

Some say these senseless killings are a result of too much violent TV
and music. Others say that weak gun laws are responsible. Still others
think it is the absence of after-school programs. Societal trends,
however, suggest that these gruesome crimes are merely symptomatic of an
already escalating crime rate.

The crime rate is at an all-time high. According to a crime study
from the Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, in the last 30 years the
murder rate has increased more than 100 percent; violent crimes have
risen 332 percent; and illegal drug use among youths age 12 to 25 has
risen more than 400 percent. What’s happened to America?

While crime is increasing, stability of family relationships is on a
downward spiral. On a national average, marriages are now dissolving at
nearly a 50 percent rate of divorce. The “generation gap” identified in
the ’60s has continued to widen. Now adolescents are not only alienated
from their parents, but they sue them for “emancipation.” And in one
well-known case, a man who had been born with a birth defect, sued his
parents for not aborting him. What’s worse, the American masses are not
shocked by such social disintegration, but their love for sleaze
talk-shows reveals that they find it entertaining. What’s happened to

Students are killing their classmates, crime is up, families are
falling apart, and academically, student success is at an all-time low.
Since 1963 SAT scores have been dropping steadily, from an average score
of “980” in 1963 down to a score of “901” more recently. In public
schools, where teachers a generation ago reported the greatest
challenges to be “talking in class” and “chewing gum,” now violence,
drugs, and sexual assault top the list. The disciplined, orderly
classroom, providing the optimum learning environment, is a thing of the
past. Students no longer typically regard teachers with respect or
honor, nor take as seriously the education teachers try to give. What’s
happened to America?

Sexually, we have become a nation ruled by its passions. In the last
few decades premarital and extra-marital sexual activity has increased
markedly. Graphic pornography, once available only on the black market,
and popular only with the “lower elements of society,” can now be found
in corner video stores and reputable hotels, and is enjoyed as
entertainment by the masses. In just the last generation, the number of
teenage girls that have become sexually active has increased from 12
percent in 1955 to 70 percent now. This increase in premarital and
extramarital sexual activity has produced a significant increase in
STDs, including the spread of the deadly AIDS virus. And our nation’s
premier role model for children, our president, although exposed for his
brazen lechery and deceit, still receives a high approval rating from
the American people. What we once considered outrageous or perverse is
now “normal” and even admirable. What’s happened to America?

What is the cause of our society’s condition? Are we in severe moral
decline because of poverty? If so, will society be cured if everyone has
money? Is it education? If so, will morality return if our schools do a
better job? Is the problem entertainment? If so, will we reduce violence
if we limit everyone’s access to violent TV, videos, and music? Is it a
lack of after-school programs, which, if funded, will restore order to
our world?

A society is not an entity in itself with a collective mind — it is
simply a reflection of the individuals which comprise it. Societies,
therefore, do not fall — the individuals in them do. Consequently, the
problem and its cure go back to the individuals in a society. To solve a
society’s moral problems, the individuals who comprise it must be cured.

The simple truth is that the individuals who contribute to America’s
present moral decadence are lacking a specific virtue. They are deficit
a certain character quality necessary to maintain a civilized society.
What is wrong with individuals in America is they are deficit the key
ingredient of maturity: self-control. Any society which is out of
control is obviously comprised of individuals who lack
self-control. We as a nation have moral problems today, because
our individual members do not have the ability to adequately restrain

Can it be that simple? Yes. In modern America most individuals are
ruled by their passions — they lack self-restraint — they cannot say
“no” to themselves. If they had the virtue of self-control, they and the
society they comprise, would not be so “out of control.”

When they are angry, they give vent to their anger and lash out in
violent actions or words. When they lust, they gobble up pornography
like candy and pursue those they lust after, with no thought to wedding
vows or little thought to risk. When they covet, they steal to obtain or
they cheat to achieve. When they need an escape from stress they drink,
inhale, or pop a pill to numb the pain. When it’s to their advantage,
they have little regard for integrity, but lie, mislead, or break a
promise. The addiction to personal gratification rules the individuals
who comprise America. The land of the “free” has become inhabited by

A few decades ago people were just as human as we are in this decade.
Like us, they were angry, they lusted, they coveted, and they drowned
their grief by one means or another. But in one important way, they were
obviously different from us — they had greater self-control. Because
they were more self-restraining, they didn’t allow themselves to be
ruled by their anger, hence the murder rate was markedly less. They
lusted, but they had greater sexual self-restraint, so had sexual
contact with fewer people, and contracted fewer STDs. They coveted other
people’s money and possessions, but they had the ability to not act on
their covetousness, hence fewer were compelled to steal. In the last 40
years we have lost the virtue of self-control. No longer is our society
dominated by individuals who can govern themselves.

Interestingly enough, our founding fathers told us that America’s
success would require that its members be self-governing. Samuel Adams,
on Oct. 4, 1790, said that without “the art of self-government …
they never can act a wise part in the government of societies.”

When a society is comprised of individuals with self-control, fewer laws
and regulations are needed, police have less to do, doors need not be
locked, and lost items are routinely returned to the owners. In that
society, a man’s word is his bond and a handshake solemnizes a promise.
A society whose people are temperate is one which can remain free, but
one in which the people lack temperance is one which requires more laws
and greater governmental controls.

The question is not — how did we as a society lose self-control, but
rather, how did we as individuals fail to gain what our predecessors
obviously had? Self-control is not learned in school. It is not a
byproduct of getting older. It is certainly not learned from childhood

Self-control is a deep-rooted character trait trained into us by our
parents in the first few years of life.

The true cause of America’s decline is that most modern parents were
not raised to value self-control as a virtue — so few have trained
their children to have it. They may have trained their children to
respect the rain forest or to use condoms when their sex drive rules
them, but they have not given them the virtue they need most of all —
that society needs most of all.

If society is to be turned around, it is to be done not by government
programs, not by gun legislation, and not by better-funded public
schools. If society is to be turned around, it is parents who
must do it — they must teach their children to have self-restraint.

A child who learns self-control does not habitually hit his brothers
and sisters when he wants his way, and does not grow up to lie, cheat,
steal, murder, or violate his wedding vows. He may feel like
sassing his parents, his teachers, or his boss, but he is able to
control himself and speak with respect. He may feel like making
an obscene gesture at the driver who cut him off, but he is able to
restrain himself and not escalate a conflict. He may feel like
shooting his classmates, but he is able to not do it. He has passions
and all natural drives, but he isn’t ruled by them. Because his passions
are not calling the shots in his life, he has discretion and is free to
make wise decisions. Because his craving for pleasure does not rule him,
he is faithful and reliable in duties. Because he is not a slave to
self-gratification, he has little to cover up with lies.

As parents we have our children at home during the most influential
years of their lives, and we are the ones with the opportunity to do the
training. We must stop elevating “self-expression” and
“self-actualization” and seek to teach our children self-denial.
Life does not give us everything we want, so we must teach our children
early that they cannot have everything they want. One day their boss
won’t view them as the center of the universe, so we must be careful now
of accidentally sending them the message that the world revolves around
them. Our country may be a democracy, but few employers will offer them
a vote, therefore we must teach them to submit to authority while they
are young.

Self-control is learned in small children by having to say “no” to
themselves and “yes” to their parents. We therefore, must offer our
children strong leadership for the first few years of their life, giving
them little say in the decisions we make for them. They must not be
included as a part of the parental leadership team, not only because
they must learn the self-denial which comes from following parental
leadership, but because psychologically, their small shoulders can’t
handle the stress of running the home. Children, once relieved of such
duties may be angry at first, but soon become secure and happy.

Those children who are raised to think they should have a say in all
decisions which affect them, grow up self-centered, demanding,
impatient, and ungrateful. They are so absorbed with what is best for
them and not others that they are often discontent,
critical, and prone to complaining and bickering. And as a side effect
of treating children like peers and asserting weak authority, modern
American parents lack the respect received by parents of prior
generations. In fact, our children grow up despising the ones best
suited to train them. And these children are generally not happy, often
making those around them miserable along the way. The pursuit of their
own personal happiness becomes a stress-producing obsession.

The bottom line is that children gain inner controls by having
to submit to outer controls. If parents establish firm behavioral
boundaries for their toddlers, never offer a reason why they
should obey, and limit their personal choices, by the time these
children are 4 years old they will have learned self-denial and be well
on the path to self-control. A self-governed 4-year-old has accepted his
parents’ authority to be parents, and is in the optimum mindset to begin
hearing the wise reasons behind Mommy and Daddy’s directives. If we
offer our children reasons to obey before they have learned to obey
without them, they will not learn the self-denial, which is the
foundation for self-control. A child who has learned self-denial is one
who knows he can survive quite well without getting his way. He has
learned that his happiness need not depend on having his way in life.

The problem for most American parents is that our children intimidate
us, so we are afraid to establish the outer control necessary to train
them. We are unlike parents in past generations who did not need
their kids to like them. They knew that life was hard, and in an effort
to prepare their children for life, didn’t tolerate whining or
complaining. Somehow, America has raised a crop of insecure parents who
fear their children’s rejection. We are afraid to let our kids cry. We
fear making them mad. And we dread the thought that they will hate us.
We therefore do all we can to make them happy, whether that means buying
them all the toys we can afford, letting them complain ungratefully
about what we have given them for dinner, or never requiring them to
wait patiently for our attention. Perhaps it even means we cut the bread
crusts from their sandwiches — to be sure, they will have to face the
bread crusts in life eventually.

When we fear their anger and base our decisions on what makes them
happy, they grow to have an exalted view of their own importance in the
home and come to believe that it is their right to have their way
in or out of the home. When we make decisions based on their unhappiness
or anger, we reward them for their insubordination and reinforce their
self-centeredness. We accidentally send them the message that we are the
servant and they are the master. And when a servant occasionally
attempts to assert authority over the master, is it any wonder that the
master responds with indignance at such audacity?

Effectively, it is children, not the parents who run the homes in
America. The Duke of Windsor described it well. When asked what
impressed him most in America, he said, “the way American parents obey
their children.”

What happens to self-absorbed, undisciplined children when they are
sent off to school? They do not learn well. Is it any shock that they
fail to rise to the academic level of students a generation ago?
Academic learning is a discipline which requires a measure of
self-discipline in the student. Should we expect teachers to succeed in
teaching when the children we send them lack the self-discipline
necessary for learning? For many teachers today, the struggle to
maintain classroom order is as great as their struggle to teach. Even
worse, many teachers become like intimidated parents and fear upsetting
or alienating their students, so they lower classroom standards
according to the reactions or mood of the students. Poorly trained
children today run their homes, then their schools, and ultimately their

Until parents get the vision for teaching their children to be
self-controlled, America will continue its downward slide into the moral
cesspool. What is particularly frightening about America’s path isn’t
just that the land will be more and more dangerous to live in, but that
the loss of moral fiber is historically symptomatic of a society which
is nearing its end.

As discovered by the late British social anthropologist Joseph Daniel
Unwin, famous for his study of world civilizations, the society which
becomes ruled by its passions loses the moral fiber necessary to
maintain civility. Studying the decline and fall of nearly 100 world
empires, Unwin found that it was the loss of self-restraint, culminating
in unlimited sexual expression, which precipitated each nation’s demise.
Either the individuals in those societies became personally ruled by
their passions, resulting in lawlessness and social chaos, or in their
self-absorption they lost the moral fiber necessary to successfully
protect themselves militarily. America on both fronts has great reason
for concern.

Reb Bradley, father of six, is a pastor, writer, and conference
speaker, addressing issues related to parenting, marriage, and family
life. He is best known for his book, “Child Training Tips: What I
Wish I Knew When My Children Were Young,”
available at select
bookstores, through his web site, or by
calling 800-545-1729.

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