In May of this year, after a Florida jury convicted 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill of fatally shooting a schoolteacher, people shook their heads and asked the question that was previously pondered regarding Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold: "Where were his parents?" The question implies a value judgment—that good parents would raise children well enough to know that you do not resolve disputes with teachers by murdering them.

Killing the innocent is everywhere condemned. Murder is considered malum in se—that is, evil in itself. Everyone should know it is wrong, even if they are unaware of a particular law against it.

But how does "everyone" learn what is wrong? We enter the world armed with what James Q. Wilson, in his memorable book of the same title, labeled "The Moral Sense." But, says Wilson, that sense is no more than a yearning for rules, a need that must be filled. For Christians, however, the act of raising a child is, in large measure, a process of fulfilling that child's God-given desire for moral knowledge. In short, everybody knows that killing the innocent is wrong because every child is taught that lesson from an early age.

Who does this work of moral teaching? We begin, of course, with the family, which is why all the people who wondered about Brazill's parents were asking the right question. But parents do not act in a vacuum; they act in a culture. And the culture sends its own messages. When those messages are in competition, rather than cooperation, with what parents try to teach, we can predict trouble.

In the literature on moral education from two generations ago, one occasionally would come across the metaphor of the three-legged stool. Morality, it was said, was taught to children by the cooperation of three institutions: the family, the school, and the place of worship. If each of the three reinforced the moral teaching of the other two, young people would receive a consistent message, and that yearning for moral content would be fulfilled.

Sadly, many children today grow up in an atmosphere in which the character-building institutions are quarreling instead of cooperating. Many families no longer have time for teaching the young how to behave. Many schools are terrified of mentioning right and wrong, for fear of being caught in a Left-Right crossfire, because education has become the principal battleground of what some call the culture war. As to the place of worship, fewer and fewer children attend one with any regularity. Within Christianity, even when children do go to church, some traditions seem to have abandoned interest in suggesting that God may actually have given us rules by which we are to live.

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But even parents who try to raise their children to do right must struggle against a culture that pressures them to do wrong. A report issued in early May by the Motherhood Project, an arm of the Institute for American Values, set forth in alarming detail the methods through which marketers try to sell products to children—including the effort to instill in toddlers as young as 12 months out of the womb both the habit of consumption and a preference for particular brands.

Typical of the report is a quotation from a former advertising executive, who says that the goal is to persuade children to buy a product because "they'll be a dork if they don't." She adds, "You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it's very easy to do that with kids because they're emotionally vulnerable." One of the many ways of reaching children early is to advertise in public schools, which, strapped for funds, are selling space even in classrooms. Channel One, the TV news program beamed into schools, promises its advertisers that their wares will be marketed to millions of youths each day. Civil libertarians who react with horror if the word God is mentioned over the public-address system at high-school football games have yet to respond to the increasing number of schools that allow advertisers to buy commercial time over the PA.

The Motherhood Project (whose director I have the honor of calling my wife) has provided parents an invaluable service by reminding us of the shrine at which so many children are being taught to worship: the Shrine of the Material. The Christian duty of teaching the young where to lay up their treasure is not the same as the duty of telling them not to shoot their teachers. But if we lose control of the small, how long until we lose control of the large?

Related Elsewhere:

A Gallup poll found most Americans feel parenting is the best way to prevent another Columbine. offers tips to parents and teachers on teaching kids about violence.

The Institute for American Values site has a summary of the Motherhood Project's mission.

Channel One provides news and entertainment for teens in schools and online.

Conservative advocates, Commercial Alert, work to stop the captive audience advertising via Channel One.

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Nathaniel Brazill faces 25 years for teacher's slaying.

For more articles, see yahoo's full coverage on Columbine and school violence.

Christianity Today's sister publication, Christian Parenting Today, analyzed how to raise children to stay safe, offers ideas that work and guides in spiritual development.

Previous related Christianity Today articles include:

Raising a Wild Child | Is daycare preparing toddlers to become bullies? (June 12, 2001)

'To Rise, It Stoops' | How parenting mirrors the character of God. (Aug. 29, 2000)

Home Is Where the Parent Should Be | How to resist a society that pulls parents in every direction but home. (June 15, 1998)

Earlier Christianity Today columns by Stephen L. Carter include:

And the Word Turned Secular | Christians should count the cost of the state's affirmation. (May 29, 2001)

Vouching for Parents | Vouchers are not an attack on public schools but a vote of trust in families. (Apr. 2, 2001)

The Courage to Lose | In elections, and in life, there is something more important than winning. (Feb. 6, 2001)

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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