Should we back off, add fuel to the fire, or hand them a road map?

A few years ago I joined a round-table consultation for a high-school ethics syllabus. We all agreed that teens were often confused about ethics, but on what to do about it, we did not.

Some asserted we should respond to questions with more questions. Others, that we should acknowledge questions and help students become ‘comfortable’ with them. Most believed that we should not turn teens away with hard answers.

I, in my youthful naiveté, proposed offering them guides for seeking answers, philosophical principles which help to discover truth. My comment was swallowed in an awkward silence.

Neal Shusterman’s latest addition to what had been a great series for teenage boys chooses to add fuel to the fire by ‘getting comfortable with the questions’. It stirs up all sorts of teenage confusion, explores it, wonders about it, and pointedly omits showing the consequences of making (or not making) ethical choices.

Unfortunately it’s also brilliantly witty, and harbours some wisdom, too.

Sixteen year old Antsy and his family are invited on a cruise in honour of old man Crawley’s eightieth birthday. But in addition to too much of a good time (aka an eyeful of string bikinis), Antsy manages to be drawn into some shady business. And once in, he doesn’t exactly try hard to get out. Nor does he regret his choices.

On the contrary, we find him justifying his position, “Most of the time all we know for sure is what we did, when we did it, and where it happened… [but] when we ask ourselves why, the answer never really comes, so we find someone or something to blame, because “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer.”

So when facing our response to ethical dilemmas, instead of getting to the bottom of how we acted, whether it was right or wrong, why we made that choice and what we should have done instead, we should get comfortable with ‘I don’t know’.

To illustrate how Antsy (and Shusterman) does this I’ll need to include some spoilers. First, Antsy forges a birth certificate for his friend so he can come on the cruise at short notice. (Antsy admirably feels sorry for this friend and wants to do him a good turn, but I’m not sure that justifies it.) A girl on the cruise discovers this and blackmails Antsy into helping her steal small amounts of money from passengers. He goes with her to a shady part of Jamaica to make a transaction he suspects is probably wrong, though he doesn’t know what it is. He then discovers he’s helping illegal immigrants attempt passage into the USA. While he sympathises with the immigrants, he feels guilty and wants to confess to someone so they can talk some sense into him, but there’s no opportunity, and he doesn’t go looking.

What does Antsy get when the police and media find out and all hell breaks loose? A month-long holiday on a Caribbean island (while the news scandal blows over), and the prospect of military school.

Antsy is not the only confused teen. His friend Lexie has her own problems: when her parents renege on their promise to join her on the cruise, she tries to do something reckless to make them notice. She throws herself at a guy on the cruise, wanting to sleep with him to shock her parents. Antsy tells her it isn’t a good idea, but has too many problems of his own to prevent her. It doesn’t eventuate, but only because the author avoids the logical development of actions and their consequences.

Then, when Antsy’s friend Howie tells him he’s had a confusing year questioning his sexuality, Antsy makes him feel better by admitting he has “all kind of hormonal freaky stuff filling up his head” and asks “what makes his freaky stuff any better than the freaky stuff that gay personages feel.” Later he puts it another way, “Let’s face it, we all got issues”, so live with it.

The appeal of ‘getting comfortable with confusion’ (not to mention ‘freaky stuff’) is that you get the thrill of rule breaking with none of the consequences. That’s not life, and it’s not helpful for teens. Why are we hiding the road maps?

Originally published on the blog of

Clare Cannon is the editor of and the manager of Portico Books in Sydney.

Clare Cannon lives in Sydney where she is editor of The Good Reading Guide and manager of Portico Books,...