%$#@!

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.

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  1. #1 by Titfortat on March 15, 2011 - 17:01

    Interesting post

    One thing I have noticed while raising my daughter is that there are two types of intelligence. IQ and EQ. I learned early on what can happen when I confuse the two. When my daughter was 6.5yrs old I made the bonehead move of letting her watch Lord of the rings. Because she is an exceptionally bright girl I thought my discussions with her about certain ideas were well received and so I let her watch the first movie. She was neither scared nor put off by many of the images, we discussed stuff all the way through the movie. She got it, well, sort of. We then watched the next in the series, Oops, my bad. Nightmares for 6 months regardless of how well she could intellectualize things her emotions got the better of her. Me too. I still kick myself for that one great blunder as a parent. Sometimes things arent as simple as they seem, hence the reason we have to guide(parent) them. Words have power that sometimes cant be understood just from IQ, just like some movies. 😉

    • #2 by Scott Erb on March 15, 2011 - 17:51

      My kids are really into Star Wars — they’ve been playing Lego Wii Star Wars and get lego Star Wars sets, learning all the characters, etc. This has been going on since December. The only draw back is the talk of war, guns, killing, etc, especially from the five year old. Ryan has been watching shows like “A Haunting” and “Haunted Histroy,” as well as Goosebumps. That has gotten Dana (the five year old) interested in ghosts and spirits and what happens after we die. That’s also created some interesting conversations!

      I tend to be pretty lenient in controlling what they watch. The Simpsons and Futurama are OK, but I had to draw a line when Ryan decided to watch “The Cleveland Show.” That was just too much. The worst reaction to a movie he had was to a “Lassie” movie from the forties when Lassie has to go through all sorts of perils to make it home. He cried himself to sleep (and couldn’t fall asleep) thinking of that poor dog, even though Lassie did make it home. I think its better to err on the side of not controlling them too much and instead explaining and working through issues than to err on the side of too much restriction. But the right balance can be tough to find!

  2. #3 by pino on March 16, 2011 - 02:01

    one is about to turn 8, the other turned 5

    My kids are also 5 and 8; though my oldest is a girl.

    “Why not, it’s just a word. I’m not using it against anyone else, I’m just mad.”

    My tactic has been to invoke respect. Some words indicate you don’t respect the person you’re talking to. “Dude” when referring to a formal adult or a less familiar friend.

    Other words indicate you don’t respect yourself. These are the curse words, the “F” word as opposed to “hate” and “shut-up”.

    My kids are really into Star Wars

    As is my 5 year old. What a wonder to see him fascinated by the same topys and movie that captivated me all those years ago!

    I think its better to err on the side of not controlling them too much and instead explaining and working through issues than to err on the side of too much restriction.

    I agree. Some time ago, my kid’s pre-school teacher approached me and mentioned that the kids were talking about “dying” while they were playing on the playground. I told her I’m okay with that as long as the kids don’t take to ghoulish teasing. She seemed surprised and mentioned that she still hadn’t let her 8 and 10 year old kids watch Lion King – too sad and mature to see the father die.

    I kinda shrugged and mentioned that she won’t be able to control whether or not her kids learn about such things, only how they learn about it.

    There is much life lesson learned value in crying yourself to sleep; and it’s a sign of a heck of a good parental unit when done out of compassion for Lassie!

  3. #4 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 14:44

    I don’t think is valid to say that a word is “just a word.” A word means something. That’s why we use words. If it is true that a word is just a word, then why say anything? The problem with the F-word is that it refers to a personal and private act between people that others don’t need to be thinking about when you happen to feel upset. I have a vivid imagination, and when people the F-word, I picture it. When they say the S-word, I picture that too and feel disgusted. So for me, saying it is about as bad as shoving it in my face. I’d rather you not do that, thank you very much.

    Does your son know what that word means? Does he know that some people consider it a very ugly word for a very beautiful act between people who love each other? Does he know that it is used in hostility in combination with the word “you” or in combination with the word “mother”? He probably doesn’t need to know those things yet, but you do. I think that we parents can sometimes say, you will understand it better when you are older.

    Are you teaching your sons good table manners? You might just as well say that it shouldn’t bother anyone for you to chew with you mouth open or to burp at the table or to smear food all over your face, but it does bother people. The hallmark of good manners is to consider the feelings of the other person, even if you do not think that they should be bothered by something.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 17, 2011 - 15:02

      I’ll stick with George Carlin on this. Words are arbitrary. The meaning is in our minds. Gift in German is “poison” in English. The word itself is just a signifier. And, as the Supreme Court noted, when someone says “F*** the draft,” they are not saying they think someone should have sex with the selective service system. The meaning of terms depend on context. That’s something that you have to take seriously if you do translation work (as I have).

      I am very focused on making sure he knows that he can’t use those words in public (or at home). But the word doesn’t hold the meaning, the mind does. When someone uses the S word I never think of feces unless that’s the context. We each experience the word differently because our minds determine what it means for us, not the word itself.

  4. #6 by renaissanceguy on March 17, 2011 - 15:22

    You are mixing categories. It is true that a particular stream of phonemes is arbitrary, but it is not true that that stream has no conventional “meaning.” In German Gift has a meaning that all German speakers know and understand; in English it has a different meaning that all English speakers know and understand. A person who knows only English would not think that a person giving him a “gift” was giving him poison, and nobody who knows only German would think that a person was giving him a present instead of trying to kill him.

    If words did not have assigned conventional meanings, then your post and these comments would not make sense. They would be pointless, because they would be a serious of strange, useless marks.

    The f-word has a meaning in our minds, because we have by tradition and convention assigned a meaning to it. In fact, it is because of what it means that people say it. As for doing it to the draft, of course nobody literally means it. That is a stupid idea, but they certainly mean it metaphorically. They don’t mean, submit to the draft when the say it, do they?

    You are right that the “meaning” exists only in our minds, but that is what I was talking about. I was talking about what my mind does when I hear certain words spoken.

    You could argue that when people use the f-word as a simple epithet, it has no particular meaning, sort of like saying ugh!, and I could accept that. However, it would not change the fact that some people will think of the conventional English meaning of the word when they hear it.

    By your argument, your son could call his brother an idiot, since the word idiot could mean anything or nothing. In fact, idiot might mean “genius” in some language, although I don’t know of such a language.

    • #7 by Scott Erb on March 17, 2011 - 19:39

      I agree, there is a conventional meaning. However, meanings are also influenced by context. If I say that my dad is terminally ill and someone says “that’s heavy,” they clearly don’t mean it weighs a lot. Words have multiple meanings, dependent on context (one could say it’s less the word that has meaning, but an idea that may require numerous words). Swear words to me become mere expressions of anger or frustration. But obviously each person reacts in their own way.

      I also am not saying that just because the word itself isn’t “bad’ doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to convention and use it — again, I almost never swear, unless I’m completely alone. But I also want my sons to learn not to let words hurt them, and part of that is to get them to see that the word itself should not bother them (including if someone calls them an idiot). Finally, I really want them to grow up critical of societal norms and rules, and willing to question both authority and convention — and part of that is to recognize the George Carlin philosophy on words (one of my favorite comedy bits of all time). At the same time, they need to learn that often it is best to choose to follow conventions they might consider silly. I really want to raise free thinkers — we’ll see if it works!

  5. #8 by renaissanceguy on March 18, 2011 - 00:14

    Scott, thanks for the cliarification.

    I think you have struck a good balance. I have raised my kids in almost the same way. Like you, I want them to respect societal conventions but not accept them blindly. I want them to see that most of these things are culturally bound and not morally based. They are a matter of good manners and good taste rather than absolute goodness. Since we have lived in different countries, the added component for them is to “do as the Romans.”

    I also want my kids not to let other people’s words hurt them. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but I am glad that I did. I have had people swear at me, and I am able to shrug it off. I want my kids to do the same.

    By the way, I never make it a big deal when people around me use less than pristine language. I figure that it’s their mouth and they can use it as they wish. If I happen to cringe inwardly, that’s my problem.

    • #9 by Scott Erb on March 18, 2011 - 01:31

      I get teased by friends for being very social/civil libertarian in theory, but rather conservative in my personal morality. I don’t swear, but I love George Carlin’s bit. Oh well, we all have our own internal paradoxes.

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