As my children, two boys, slowly grow up — one is about to turn 8, the other turned 5 in December, an interesting question is how do you teach young children about morality and ethics.
The easy way, of course, is just to invoke rules. To the inevitable “why” that is asked the response is “just because,” or “because I told you so,” or “because that’s the right thing to do.” I avoid this approach like the plague. It’s OK if the boys are out playing and it’s time to come in – “because I told you so” is a fine reason in response to open defiance – but not when it reflects a genuine puzzlement about why a person should behave a certain way.
We live in a culture that values the simple. People prefer their explanations to be straight forward and easy to understand. President Bush disliked ‘nuance.’ Whether in food or politics, people embrace what is easy. Complexity is distrusted, as if it is used when someone is trying to fool you. And, of course, complexity can serve to obfuscate what should be transparent. But overall this is a very dangerous tendency in our culture because the world is a complicated place, and often what seems clear and obvious — and thus embraced as ‘common sense’ — is simply wrong. Understanding how the world operates actually takes some time and work — indeed, the lessons keep getting learned and refined until we leave this world.
Nowhere is that more important than in the realm of morality and ethics. The problem with trying to just teach kids rules is that if they don’t believe the rules are necessary (they don’t understand why the rules exist) then there is nothing wrong with breaking the rules. Most college kids who plagiarize don’t really see it as wrong; in their eyes they’re harming no one and just finding a way to get a good grade. The only question is “can I get away with it?” Morality becomes something people adhere to only out of fear of the consequences of their action, not because it is the “right thing to do.” Given that my kids are already smart, creative and independent beings, I know they won’t simply follow a rule because they are told to. They are too much like their rebellious and independent father!
This leads to some interesting conversations. When my (nearly) eight year old used the “F word” the other day, I was surprised and responded, “Ryan, don’t say that word.” (For the record, I almost never swear so I know he’s getting it from somewhere else!)
“Why not, it’s just a word. I’m not using it against anyone else, I’m just mad.”
I was going to respond, but I realized that he was absolutely right. There is nothing wrong with the F word. If you doubt me, check out George Carlin’s irrefutable analysis of the seven words you can’t say on TV. (If you click the link you’ll have to verify you’re 18 to continue!) I didn’t want to say “it’s a bad word” because he’s smart enough to know that would be a stupid argument.
“I know,” I replied, “it’s just a word. I don’t use it because some people really don’t like hearing that word.”
“Why?” His face made it clear he was genuinely puzzled. “Why would people let a word bother them?”
Yikes. He’s right. “There are a lot of silly rules in the world,” I confided. “Rules that really don’t make sense….” I stopped. What next? I didn’t want to resort to “just do as you’re told” and leave him thinking that I’m simply commanding him to follow senseless rules. But sometimes following “silly rules” is absolutely necessary in daily life. Luckily as a teacher I have a tactic to use when I’m in this kind of bind — turn the question around.
“That’s a good question. I don’t use those words because they bother people, but you’re right — it is pretty silly to let a word bother you. Do you think we should use those words anyway?”
Ryan thought. “I guess if we know it’ll bother someone we shouldn’t,” he said without enthusiasm. “But you said it doesn’t bother you, so why can’t I use it at home?”
That was easier. “Because you get into habits and say the same things without thinking. If you get used to saying the word it’ll come out when you don’t want it to.” He accepted that but still was a bit dissatisfied. “I still don’t see why people let words bother them.”
“Why did you use that word?” I asked.
“I was angry about the legos,” he said, his voice showing that the frustration was still there.
“I think a lot of people have been shouted at by angry people who use those words since words like that are most often used when someone is upset. It’s sort of like how I don’t want you to call your brother an idiot. It hurts his feelings. If people have had their feelings hurt by people using angry words they’ll remember that when they hear a word again.”
OK, I thought, that’s probably the best I can do at this stage of his development.
“Then maybe we shouldn’t use angry words and just talk calmly.” Yes! Ryan’s tendency to explode and get angry is something we’ve been working on for years.
“Exactly. Try to really work on that. I think that it’s even more important to try to stay calm and be nice to others even when you’re mad than what word you use.”
“So if I calmly say ‘damn it’ that’s better than being angry and not using any bad words?” (Hmmm, I thought, he’s the one who brought up the concept of ‘bad words.’)
“You got it kiddo!”
“Why do people not want you to say ‘Jesus Christ.’ I thought some people think he’s a God, why is that bad?”
Sigh. “Yes, but people who think he’s a God really don’t want you yelling his name when you’re angry. Also, God is supposed to be a very good, important entity — there are some people who get angry if you even try to draw a picture of their God.”
I knew his frustrated look. “People get bothered by strange things,” I shrugged. “People take things far too seriously in this world, life would be easier if people didn’t let things get to them. So I guess we shouldn’t be bothered by the fact some people get bothered easily!”
He laughed a bit. He went back to his legos, I went back to preparing a lecture on Iranian politics. Somehow I think this is just part of a conversation covering a variety of themes that will recur and grow in complexity over the coming years.