Public health officials love the parable of the floating babies. You may have heard it -- the townspeople are gathered at the riverbank for a celebration when suddenly they notice a baby struggling to stay afloat in the river's rushing waters. Someone runs to save the baby when he notices another one coming from upstream. More and more babies now come rushing down the river as the people of the town quickly make a human chain to try to save the infants.

Then, the story goes, a few townsfolk begin to run upstream along the riverbank. Someone yells to them, "Where are you going?"

"We're going to find out who is throwing these babies into the river and stop them!"

And the moral, of course, is that we can't just rescue those who are caught in the current of health risk; we have to look for the source of the problem if we're going to make real, systemic change.

Welcome to the riverbank.

On Monday, the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics released its biennial Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, a survey of more than 26,000 teenagers from 100 randomly selected high schools across the nation.

The survey's results? Our children are drowning in a river of entrenched unethical behavior that appears to be so engrained that no amount of intervention may be enough to save them. Here are a few of the discouraging highlights from the Josephson Institute's report:

  • More than one in three boys (35 percent) and one-fourth of the girls (26 percent) -- 30 percent overall -- admitted stealing from a store within the past year.
  • More than two of five (42 percent) said they sometimes lie to save money. Again, the male-female difference was significant: 49 percent of the males, 36 percent of the females.
  • Cheating in school continues to be rampant, and it's getting worse. A substantial majority (64 percent) cheated on a test during the past year (38 percent did so two or more times), up from 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in 2006. There were no gender differences on the issue of cheating on exams.

Despite its statistically significant sample, the folks at Josephson Institute admit the survey may be off just a bit, since 26 percent -- more than one in four teens -- admit to lying on at least one or two questions on the survey.

And that's not even the worst of it. The most troubling finding is that 93 percent of those surveyed said they are satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent said that when it comes to doing what's right, "I am better than most people I know."

America's young people are floating down the river without a moral compass, drowning in their own unethical behavior.

Someone run upriver. Fast.

I hate to be the one to say it, but when they get there, they're going to find a generation of American parents who don't really know what the job of parenting is all about.

Too many people think the role of parents is to provide an education and opportunities for success and mountains of stuff. Too many parents think their job is to make their children happy all the time.

It's time to roll up our sleeves and recommit ourselves to the real job of parenting, molding our children's good character and instilling a moral code and a conscience to guide them.

It's time for every parent to run upriver and get busy, because if we don't, we're the ones throwing our children into the water.