Challenge Your Students with

by Charis Denison

This is #9 of an ongoing series of discussion starters from the case files of Charis Denison. The situations presented are very real and are changed monthly. Please try them out with your students and share your results with us. You can find the complete archive of dilemmas here.

(present this to your students)

Chris was just about to finish his sophomore year and felt like his whole world was crashing in around him. His mom was a recovering alcoholic and had been sober for three years . . . until now.

When Chris was in  middle school his mom went through rehab. When she finally came home, Chris’s dad said he would leave her if she ever drank again. Everything seemed okay until his dad took a new job this year and had to travel a lot.

During that last few months, every time Chris’s dad left town his mom would drink. It was on the sly but Chris knew the signs. He saw the thermoses in the bathroom, the “water” bottles in her bedroom. It was like middle school all over again. It was like living in a nightmare.

The hardest part was trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. If he called her out on her drinking, his dad would probably leave all of them. If he didn’t do anything, something bad could happen to his mom. He was mad and hurt and lonely. He had friends he could talk to but what could they do? He felt like there wasn’t a single good choice to make.

What should Chris do?

For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.


(this is for you)

This is a tough one for students to chew on. They might know the dangers of alcoholism as a disease. They probably know this problem is too big for Chris to handle but they have a hard time muddling through the emotions of the case to get to the bottom line. Some situations are not for teenagers to deal with — they are for adults to deal with. No matter the outcome, this is not Chris’s responsibility. He needs to hand this dilemma over to someone else, an adult.

This case is really helpful to bring home the point to students that they can be incredibly mature, very wise, and STILL it is not their job to take care of their parents or any other adult. It is not their job. I feel like I have to say that sentence over and over and over again, even make my students repeat it out loud. They feel responsible for the people in their life and as teenagers they are beginning to define their own boundaries on how much power they have to affect change. Frequently, they fall under the false impression that they can save the people they care about or that they owe it to the important adults to “protect them”.  They need help establishing the boundaries that come with growing responsibility.

(also, debate topics, writing assignments, etc.)

  • What should Chris do?
  • What should he say to his Mom once something is decided?
  • What would you do in his situation?
  • Have you or someone you know ever faced a situation where he/she had an adult in his/her life that was doing something harmful or wrong?
  • What do you think is the hardest part of Chris’s dilemma?


SHARE YOUR RESULTS WITH US. How did your students resolve this dilemma? Did anything surprising happen? Tell us about your discussion and we may publish your comments. Click here to send us an email.


For some very helpful articles about conducting productive, lively, meaningful classroom discussions (including Socratic method), click here.


For an archive of previous dilemmas, click here.


For some excellent character education videos and DVDs that will give your students a lot to think about, talk about, and write about, visit Live Wire Media.


haris (KAIR-iss) Denison, founder of Prajna Consulting, is an expert in Community Involvement, Human Development, and Ethics.  She has built her experience primarily by working with schools and non-profits for the past 15 years.

After initially teaching middle and high school English and Creative Writing, Charis began to develop curricula and publish articles related to social justice, ethics, human development, community involvement, and experiential education.  She has received national recognition for her work in those fields, as well as for her community-based work with American teens and Tibetan refugees in Central Asia.

Charis co-wrote Tolerance for Others, a middle school human development text, with Leni Wildflower.  She currently works as the national Service-Learning consultant for both the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education and the Durango Institute for Co-Curricular Education.

Charis also teaches at Marin Academy in San Rafael, California, and runs Prajna Consulting.  Through Prajna she consults with schools, parents, students, and businesses both organizationally and individually.  Charis also facilitates workshops and speaks on a wide variety of topics.

Charis can be reached at:



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