Questions and Answers

Q: What are humanist ethics?

A: Humanist ethics are founded on two overarching principles: reason and compassion. Parents need to create a list of values that will guide their families' everyday lives and help their children grow into ethical people. For example, we teach our children to take turns because we value fairness (not because "it's a rule"). You can teach values most effectively if you have put them into your own words and decided for yourself which are more important.

Begin with universal values. After intensively researching values prized by societies around the world, the Institute for Global Ethics distilled this list of essential human values:

• Responsibility

• Compassion6

There are questions you can ask about the list that will help you to add specifically humanist principles. For example: Is respect reserved for those in authority, or given to all members of a family or society? Does "honesty" include intellectual honesty?7

These excerpts from the "Core Values" of the Ethical Society of St. Louis Sunday School8 exemplify humanist thinking:

• Every person is important and unique.

• I can learn from everyone.

• I learn from the world around me by using senses, mind, and feelings.

• I am a member of the world community.

• I accept responsibility for my choices and actions.

Contrast "I am free to choose what I believe" and "I am free to question" with the idea that heresy is a sin. You might choose to reword some values, or add others, like "humility" or "skepticism and independent thinking." One family might emphasize sustainable living, while another stresses social activism. The result will be an ethical vision tailored to your family, framed in widely shared humanist ethics but informed and energized by your own individuality—a set of "family values" that gives that phrase genuine, personal meaning. It will be a vision that can subtly change over the years as you and your children learn and grow together.

An important reminder: Ethics aren't only about how we treat other people, but also about how we treat ourselves. Support your kids' self-respect and help them feel that zest and enjoyment are the best approach to the only life we've got.

Q: I grew up with fairly black-and-white ideas about morality. It's even worse for my friends who grew up in churches where everything was framed in terms of being like Jesus and avoiding Satan's influence. Can you give me a better understanding of how moral development works—something to replace the black-and-white thinking?

A: There certainly is a better answer. You can work with your child's inborn ability to develop into a moral person. Much depends on the stage she has reached in her moral development. One of the most useful moral development frameworks for parents is Lawrence Kohlberg's six-stage model.9 Fear of punishment is the first stage, followed by hope of reward. Children younger than age 2 are rarely able to apply moral reasoning beyond these incentives.

Most children soon move into the third stage: seeking social approval and avoiding disapproval, especially from their parents. That's why the typical kindergartener is so devastated when Mom's upset about something he did.

The fourth stage is recognition of the value of laws or rules. The tattling second grader and the finger-pointing fourth grader are deep in the stage where rules are followed because they are rules. Many adults never get past this level to stage five, the "social contract" level, in which laws or rules are still seen as desirable, but it is understood that they have been created by consensus, and that they may change as the consensus changes.

The sixth level of moral development is reached when a person thinks in terms of universal ethical principles—that is, ethical principles that transcend a single social or cultural framework—and is sometimes even willing to defend such principles at the risk of punishment, disapproval, or even death.

Keep three things in mind when thinking about these stages. First, moral reasoning is developing at the same time as other types of knowledge and reasoning. One study found that until some time between ages 3 and 5, children don't understand that another person can hold beliefs the child knows are un-true.10 Until they reach that point, children don't fully realize that it is possible for someone to lie to them.

Second, children are simultaneously developing their abilities to perceive the feelings of other people and to care about those feelings. The same 2-year-old who tries to comfort a crying friend may do something that makes that same friend cry 10 minutes later.

Finally, the stages are fluid and open to influence. We want to encourage our children's growth to the next moral stage, but at any stage, a person may act according to different levels of moral reasoning. For example, someone who often acts on principle will choose at other times to act according to what others will think. The rule-follower may still respond to punishments and rewards, and the sophisticated fifth-level teenager may still feel a twinge of guilt when a parent disapproves of her moral choice, even though it's not the potent factor it once was.

Q: What discipline methods are most appropriate to humanist ethics?

A: "Discipline" can mean "a way to get obedience" or "a method of teaching." This distinction is important: Your method of discipline sends powerful messages about how to act. In the rush and routine of daily life, we can forget that everything we do teaches values. Saying "Remember to take out the trash," for example, is a reminder to take responsibility and that every family member has an important role to play.

The "five Es" of humanist discipline are the following:

Example. Model behavior you want to encourage. Hearing you say "Thanks" one time is more effective than hearing a dozen reminders to thank somebody else. With young children or new activities, setting an example teaches more than giving orders. Set the table together to show how it's done; later, kids can share tasks or take turns. For example, at breakfast, one kid sets the table, one makes toast, and so on.

Explanation. Explanation teaches your kids to expect reasons for rules, instead of merely obeying authority. In time, they will start offering reasons for their own actions. When there isn't time to explain, promise to explain later; keeping the promise builds trust and underscores the value of having a reason for what one does. Start early: An explanation can be as simple as, "No—hot!"

Encouragement. This is different from praise. Praise emphasizes what you want from your child and can even discourage the praiseworthy behavior. Encouragement acknowledges your child's goals and efforts. Praise is often a global evaluation; encouragement is specific.11 Contrast, "What a great athlete you are! I am so proud!" with, "Wow, ten laps! All that practicing you've done really shows." Among other problems, the first statement could make your child wonder, "Will she still be proud of me if I have an off day?" The second remark supports the effort that was made, and that won't change.

Empathy. Empathy takes into account your child's feelings and thinking, including what can be expected at their age. For example, when my 3-year-old broke a ceramic doll, it was from ignorance, not carelessness. She thought it was metal. When a 10-year-old shouts, "You're mean!" when reminded to do a chore, avoid a war of words by acknowledging his emotions: "Sounds like you're frustrated that this needs to be done when you're almost finished with your drawing."

Engagement. Involve your kids in family decisions, from what to do for fun this weekend to figuring out the consequences for misbehavior. They will learn negotiating and decision-making skills and have more respect for decisions they helped to make.

Q: Those "five Es" are very nice, but sometimes the best approach is good, old-fashioned punishments and rewards . . . isn't it?

A: It's all too common for us to see our highest ideals as luxuries to be indulged in fair weather and abandoned when the going gets tough. Free speech is all very well, goes the reasoning—but not in time of war. The same kind of reasoning says, "Explaining to your child is terrific—unless he gets out of control, at which point only a good thrashing will do."

Nonsense. Unless we are willing to act on our ideals when it's most challenging, they aren't worth pursuing even in the good times. Fortunately, principles are as rugged and workable as our commitment to them.

The "five Es" are practical applications of humanist ideals. Living according to those ideals is your best bet for raising children The highest ethical duty is who will not only do what they are told in often to discard the outmoded the moment, but live by those principles in ethics of the past J J the long run. —Corliss Lamont,

Yes, it's an imperfect world. But rewards humanist philosopher and punishments are the least effective tools for moral development because they focus on the power of the person who deals them out, like a god controlling people with eternal punishments and rewards. It is better to focus on experiences that help children become people who are ethical on their own than to teach them only to behave well by doing what they are told. Kids learn best from experiencing the positive and negative consequences of their behavior.

Helping kids learn from consequences of their actions is not a substitute for the "five Es." Again—consequences are a tool, and the "five Es" are their foundation. It's important to explain your goals and engage your children in the process of reaching them. For example, the reason for a curfew is your concern for your child's safety, and the time and conditions of the curfew may be negotiable as your child matures.

Besides being positive and negative, consequences can be natural, logical, or arbitrary (which isn't always a bad thing). If your child breaks a toy by angrily or carelessly throwing it at the wall, a natural consequence would be delaying or refusing to replace it (especially if something similar has happened before). There's also something to be said for working together to repair the toy.

Sometimes we can't allow "natural consequences" to occur. If your child keeps leaving toys on stairs where someone could trip on them and get hurt, you'll have to step in with preventive action. If she often leaves toys on the stairs, a logical consequence would be taking away any toy you find there and not giving it back until there is evidence that she'll at least try to change.

An arbitrary consequence has no clearly natural or logical relationship to the action that brought it on. If it's a negative consequence, it's likely to seem unfair and not be helpful as discipline. For example, grounding your teen for coming home from a party two hours late is a logical consequence (although there might be some disagreement on how long it should last). But grounding him for getting too involved in a game to set the table on time is illogical overkill. Logical consequences (maybe subject to negotiation) might be adding or substituting another task such as washing the dishes or temporarily taking away the distracting game until you've agreed on a way for him to remember to do chores on time.

Sometimes arbitrary positive consequences are okay. We adults use them ourselves; for example, "I will begin my stop-smoking effort by getting myself a CD for each week I go without cigarettes." Why not teach our kids this method of motivating themselves to do things that are necessary but unpleasant or unrewarding?

Positive consequences can get us into tricky territory. Suppose your child practices hard to learn a new skill, such as batting better or learning a difficult piano piece. Positive natural consequences might include pride in mastering the skill, or pleasure ("flow") in performing more effortlessly (read more about flow in Chapter 5). Logical consequences include such rewards as being chosen for a competitive team, winning a music scholarship, or being asked to play at a friend's party. The last example shows how the reasons an experience is rewarding can be mixed. One doesn't have to play music unusually well to have the fun of helping friends have a good time.

The tricky part comes in when a child feels that your approval, or their friends' acceptance, is conditional on performing well. It feels unavoidably natural to be proud when your child succeeds, but it's just as important to be supportive when kids have made an effort and somehow things don't turn out as well as they had hoped.

Q: How can I help my children develop the widest scope of empathy?

A: First, help your child develop "emotional literacy"—recognizing, expressing, respecting, and responding to his or her own and other people's feelings. With young children, name emotions: theirs, yours, those of characters in stories and of the people around them. ("You look sad.""I'm so happy, I can't stop smiling." "Looks like he's in pain.") Feelings can be mixed, so talk about that, too.

Don't judge emotions. For example, anger is not bad in itself, although it may be uncalled-for at times. As your kids grow older, help them understand that the most obvious emotion may not be the only one a person is feeling. For

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