Twenty years ago last month, I published an opinion editorial in the Cape Cod Times titled “Tell Teens: Character Does Count.” It was in response to a plethora of content in the media advising parents on how best to counsel their children on information recently made public in what has become known as the Starr Report.

That was not a political statement. Neither is this.

With today’s teenagers spending an average of nine hours a day online, according to analysis in a report announced by Common Sense Media dating back to 2015, it’s not a stretch to imagine that questions are similarly on the rise given recent highly public statements and events.

Much of what I offered by way of advice back then still has salience today.

For teens, and those who parent, teach, coach and mentor them, what appears to be more critical than the personal circumstance of private indiscretions is this: What should that person, or persons, do next? How this question is answered by influential role models – be they in the media or known personally – will likely foreshadow the ethical behavior of our next generation of leaders.

As young people struggle to find direction in their own, evolving lives, they’ll need more guidance than ever, especially from the important adults who surround them. Unfortunately, as Patricia Hersch reported in her book A Tribe Apart, such support may be in short supply. “What she found was that America’s teens have fashioned a fully defined culture that adults neither see nor imagine – a culture of unprecedented freedom and baffling complexity, a culture with rules but no structure, values but no clear morality, codes but no consistency.”

The translation? Adults have abandoned teens in droves, often in the social-emotional sense – leaving them on their own to figure out who they are and who they are becoming.

Sounds familiar.

Indeed, as I wrote in my own book, Reality Gap, “No doubt, many well-meaning parents often have difficulty summoning up the courage to confront … hard to talk about subjects. But not engaging children in meaningful dialogue about critical issues, through commission or omission, leads teens to make poor decisions and to engage in destructive behaviors.”

It may be the case that adults buy into a false sense of maturity, independence and preparedness projected by their kids when their real selves may actually be quite fragile and riddled with fault lines. As a result, we often underplay our own significance during a developmental time period when youth need caring adults more than in any phase of the lifespan other than early infancy.

With complicit approval from those adults, many young people simply make up their own personal code of conduct as they go along, not understanding that each decision becomes part of a foundation on which their values are constructed.

In my January 2018 Psychology Today article, “Big Little Lies: Character, Culture and American Youth,” I noted, “The turmoil roiling in industries ranging from entertainment to government to broadcasting and beyond raises some significant issues with regard to how we are raising our children and the examples that potentially powerful public role models are, even unwittingly, providing to American youth … Thus, the process of character development is of critical importance to all who serve as touch points for young people.”

Enter our high-profile public role models. Regardless of their personal or professional status, when they refuse to accept responsibility for their behavior, young people take note. In fact, lying, or at least shading the truth, by influential adults in order to avoid an unwanted consequence can leave an indelible impression on brains not yet fully formed: that doing wrong is not what matters, it’s getting away with it that counts.

This is not to suggest that such public figures avoid all consequence, as certainly a price has been exacted from their families and reputations. Public figures’ blatant disregard for the sanctity of each often destroys what they may have taken a lifetime to build. It’s a sad commentary on our society at a time when children need more heroes, not fewer. It’s our collective responsibility to provide them.

As a psychologist and counselor, I know that, every day, American teens face critical decisions about personal choices, and about accepting or rejecting responsibility for those choices. I also know that, every day, it is critical for America’s adult caregivers to engage young people in dialogue intended to educate, persuade or cajole them into understanding the importance of accepting responsibility for their actions, learning from the experience and moving on.

Back-to-school time is generally one of fresh starts and new beginnings. Maybe even for adults. Perhaps if we offer some a “do over” on the role model requirement, they can look our youth in the eye and apologize for setting a severely misguided standard for appropriate behavior. Only then can they can convincingly convey the message that, indeed, character does count.