Sidewalk Morality

One day in June I watched from our front porch as my 5-year-old daughter Delaney received a moral lesson on a subject that has fascinated philosophers for centuries: ant squishing. Her brother Connor—11 years old and pro-life in the deeply literal sense — found Laney busily stomping her way into ant mythology on the front sidewalk.

"Laney!!" he screamed. "Stop it!"

"What for?" she asked without pausing. "There are lots of others."

He spluttered a bit—then a classic grin spread across his face. He raised his foot and aimed the sole at her. "Well, there are lots of other little girls, too!"

She screamed and ran. The ants huzzahed, and Monkey-Who-Pointed-Foot-at-Other-Monkey-and-Saved-Many entered the colony lore.

My boy had applied a great critical thinking technique by using the faulty logic of his opponent to generate a ridiculous counterexample. I wondered from the sidelines if it would stick.

A few days later, as I loaded the last of the boxes for our move, I got my answer. Laney walked with her head hung low, doing the aimless, foot-scraping walk of the bored child in midsummer, then announced her intention to "go squish some ants."

She stopped walking. "What?"

"Well, I dunno. Does that seem like a good thing to do, or no?"

She shrugged.

"Tell you what," I said. "You think about it for a minute and let me know what you decide."

"Okay." She took a little walk around the yard and thought.

I knew that Delaney knew the answer. Everyone knows the answer. Like most basic moral questions, knowing what's right is not the hard part when your foot is raised above the skittering dots on the sidewalk. The challenge is to do what we already know is right. And the best foundation for that right action is the ability to say why something is right.

Not knowing right from wrong is so rare that it is a complete felony defense. You are rightly considered barking mad if you fail to recognize the distinction. And it's so thunderously rare that the defense rarely succeeds. So why do we continue to pretend that our children's moral development is best served by merely dictating lists of rules?

Instead of listing "thou shalt nots," we ought to encourage our kids to discover and articulate what they already know is right, then ask them why it's right. This, not the passive intake of rules, leads to the development of moral judgment, something that will allow them to think and act morally when we aren't in the room with them.

Delaney came back after 2 minutes. "I'm not gonna squish ants any more," she said.

"Oh. Why did you decide that?"

"Because they should get to have a life, too," she said. "Like me."

That old reciprocity principle. You can't beat it.

—Dale McGowan, from the blog The Meming of Life example, angry behavior might express hurt feelings. Knowing that makes it possible to respond more appropriately.

"Starting small" is okay. While toddlers naturally respond to some emotional cues, a child must be at least 3 before she begins to understand that other people's feelings can be different from her own. You can help by explaining how her actions are affecting others: "Joey is crying. He's sad because you took his toy away."

It's okay, too, that kids first learn empathy in small groups, such as their families or playgroups. That's how everyone lived for most of humanity's time on earth. Just as mountain climbers need a base camp to support their explorations, trusted and familiar groups give your child emotional support and security as he or she meets new and different people.

Your child's introduction to diversity starts with interpersonal differences that don't come under the banner of social diversity—like the different size and abilities of younger siblings, differences in taste, or the different skin textures of children and their elderly neighbors.

Then, even if there is social and economic diversity in your kids' schools, and especially if there isn't, there are countless ways you can bring it into their lives. Diversity in your own friendship network, reading stories set in other cultures, and visiting ethnic neighborhoods are just a few examples.

We also need to teach about religious diversity. Even people who are non-religious need to be able to empathize with religious impulses at least to some degree, if we are going to build a cooperative and coexistent world.

It's important to help your kids find ways to put compassion into action; feeling powerless to help can be so painful that we shut down feelings of em pathy. Once again, start with small, intimate acts. Thank your child for bringing you a glass of water when you're sick, or ask, "Could you keep the baby company while I make dinner?" Help an older child find extracurricular activities where he meets different friends than he has at school. Involve your family in volunteer work, or, if you don't have time, encourage your kids to participate in volunteer activities.

Putting empathy into action is a powerful experience: Your kids enrich their lives while learning that they can make the world a better place.

Q: Sometimes it seems like my kids hang on to their quarrels and grudges endlessly. How can I teach them the value of letting go?

A: It's true: Family life involves conflict, especially when there is more than one child, and you inevitably find yourself in the role of referee for a thousand petty irritations. It's tempting to urge your child to "Forgive and forget," or "Just move on." But don't do it. Moving on without clearing up the original problem leads to running around in circles. This is just as true when there's no clear victim, because each party in a conflict did harm.

Much of the research and writing about these issues uses the word "for-giveness,"but there are problems with using such a religiously loaded word. For one thing, it often implies "absolution"—freeing the person who hurt another of the guilt that attaches to that person's action. But, nothing can make a wrong action into a right action. What's needed instead, if possible, is to repair the harm that was done. Also, the idea of "forgiveness" as a virtue unfairly puts all the responsibility on the victim, without offering the wrongdoer a chance to make amends. And finally, using the one word "forgiveness" sometimes confuses two very different processes: "acceptance" and "reconciliation."

Primatologist Frans de Waal has commented, "Forgiveness is not. . . a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity."12 True—but the influence of Christianity in our culture has glorified the idea of unconditional forgiveness, no matter what harm was done, putting all the responsibility for healing on the victim.

Acceptance is the decision to let go of corrosive anger or resentment—that is, accepting the reality of the situation. And this is something for which research points to very real emotional and physical benefits.13

tt Modern Darwinism makes it abundantly clear that many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by robber barons and Fuhrers — altruism, general intelligence, compassion—may be the key to survival. ^^

Acceptance is especially useful when the person who did the harm is unable or unwilling to make amends, and even more so when those in conflict must continue living together—like family members—even if agreement cannot be reached.

Reconciliation is a process in which the victim and the person who hurt him find a way to repair and continue their relationship. The concept of reconciliation holds the key to a better approach. Alhough some think of this as a strictly religious concept, de Waal notes that it is a process whose roots go far deeper than religion—even appearing among other species: "The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior means that it is probably over 30 million years old. . . ."14 If monkeys can reconcile, so can we. Perhaps you can even inject a little humor into the process, noting that at least you're not asking your children to pick off each other's fleas.

There is more than one path to reconciliation, but every path depends on mutual understanding. Alfie Kohn makes a wonderful suggestion that also helps children develop empathy: "[S]ay after a blow up, 'Tell me what just happened, but pretend you are your brother and describe how things might have seemed to him.' "15 This approach may lead to the discovery that the harm was unintentional—something much easier to forgive. The younger the child, the more likely the harm was unintentional.

Then there are the painful times when a quick, muttered "I'm sorry" just isn't enough to repair a rift. Ideally, your kids will have seen you apologize, so they know how to begin the process. This outline of the "Steps to Seeking Forgiveness" detailed in Appendix 2 is a guide to the reconciliation process that can be used over and over, not only helping your kids get along better, but also giving them skills they can use for a lifetime of relationships.

1. Acknowledge wrong-doing

• Clarify why a certain behavior was hurtful.

• Acknowledge to yourself and others that the behavior was a mistake.

• Express genuine sorrow to all those involved for the mistake you have made.

2. Make amends

• Act out of a deep sense of honoring yourself and the other party.

• Find a "stroke" that is equal to your "blow."

• Make amends in a timely manner.

3. Commit to change

• Make a clear commitment to change harmful patterns.

• Act visibly on your commitment.

• Respect the process of change.

Q: How can I help my child act on principles and not just follow the rules?

A: There is no magic day when your child graduates from only following rules to thinking about them. It was a major accomplishment to learn and follow many sets of rules: rules set by different caregivers, different rules in friends' homes, more rules at school, the rules of games ... the list goes on. It takes self-control to follow rules and good memory and judgment to know which rules to apply at any time. Build on those skills.

While your child is learning to live with rules, you will be hearing about it. Often a 44 If you put a kid in a pro-child who doesn't know the rules in a new social family, in a pro-social situation—say, a new school—gets yelled at culture, with parents who un-by the old-timers. That's not all bad; as derstand how to raise a child Arthur Dobrin points out, "[Children's] effectively, the child comes moral development is spurred by others equipped with the tendency to whose sophistication is slightly more ad- capitalize on that and develop vanced. . . ."16 As long as the rules are rea- into a good person. •• sonable, and it doesn't sound like other kids ., . „ , r

—Marvin Berkowitz, professor are leading yours into trouble, just reassure

0 ' ' of character education, her that things will get better as she learns TT . .17

° ° University of Missouri the ropes.

Meanwhile, explain the reasons for rules. For example, when you stop for a traffic light, explain that signals help drivers take turns. When your child starts recognizing that some aspects of rules are arbitrary ("But why is the stop light red?"), you'll know he's starting to look at rules more thoughtfully.

Bring your child more fully into the process of modifying and making rules. Taking part in rulemaking makes your kid less likely to decide, "If rules come from people, then I can make my own rules."

A first step is to modify rules when possible, in ways that give your child more choices and more responsibility. For example, replace a "clean plate" rule with an "eat healthy foods" rule. Then, if your kid doesn't want to eat her carrots at dinner, say, "Well, the carrots have lots of vitamin A; you could get yourself a slice of cantaloupe or microwave some broccoli." (This approach also gives the child responsibility for the extra work involved.)

A step that some kids can handle by age 10 is to set the rules for a limited situation. They will reach into the toolkit of rules they know, and you can figure out together which will work best. For example, you might ask, "How will we decide what to do for fun on our vacation?" One of your kids might answer, "We could take a vote every day."

Q: How can books and movies contribute to my child's ethical development?

A: Let's begin with something that many of us take for granted—the bedtime story. You already know that reading to your child at any time of day, but especially bedtime, usually creates an island of calm and closeness in your day. But what does that have to do with ethics?

Just this: Nobody is ethical in a vacuum. The support of friends and loved ones can help give us the strength to behave ethically despite pressure or temptation to do wrong. Anything we do that strengthens our bonds with our children makes it more likely that we can continue to support their ethical growth and remain someone they can talk to when they face ethical dilemmas.

When our kids learn to run movies and read to themselves, we can still watch with them and read some of the same books. It's a good way to stay close and to continue conversations about important topics.

Any well-told story offers material for ethical learning, even when it's not preachy. Here's a partial list.

Characters that we can identify or sympathize with give us a chance to learn compassion for their problems. For example, reading about the feelings of a character who has been bullied can help your child be more understanding toward a classmate who seems to be "an obvious loser" who "practically asks" to be picked on. A teen reading Angela's Ashes (or seeing the movie) might learn compassion toward alcoholics by seeing how the father in the novel drinks in response to hopelessness and prejudice. We can also be inspired by the way both real and fictional people respond to life's challenges.18

Self-compassion—treating one's own perceived shortcomings with the same kindness and understanding that one would give a friend—isn't always easy to learn or practice. Reading about real or fictional people who have similar problems can make self-compassion easier. Maybe the author's insight into a character offers a reader insight into her own character. Or a parent reading a book with a child might comment, "Does that sound familiar?"

Even when reading about a person with a similar problem (for example, the anxieties that go with attending a new school) doesn't lead to self-compassion, it breaks through the feeling that "I'm the only one." Feeling less isolated reaffirms the sense of connection to other people that underlies ethical behavior.

Reading also stimulates and develops your child's capacity for moral reasoning. Some families enjoy the direct approach of books that describe ethical dilemmas the whole family can discuss. Some of those books are recommended in the resource section, but if that's not your style, don't worry about it. Life and literature are full of situations that raise questions worth serious thinking and discussion. For example, there are many movies whose main character is a "charming rascal"; somehow, the director gets us on the side of character(s) trying to get away with committing a clever crime. What do the directors and writers do to get us to like these characters? How do we feel about those manipulations?

By reading books about people in other cultures and socioeconomic groups, we gain knowledge and understanding that are crucial to developing the open-mindedness we need if we are to develop a peaceful, democratic global culture.

Finally, many freethinkers enjoy giving their children myths and fairy tales to read, reasoning in part that the kids will see the resemblance between those stories and various scriptures.

All true—but let's look at another reason for reading myths and legends. Their common themes are another way of showing us that different human groups have a lot in common. For example, the "trickster" character occurs in many cultures' lore—Loki in Norse mythology, Coyote among Native American cultures, Anansi the spider in many African cultures, and Reynard the Fox in European folklore. Myths also offer a symbolic or allegorical way to talk about real-life problems such as sibling rivalry. Enjoy them, and—for the best medicine against literalist thinking, for imaginative exercise, and just plain fun—encourage your kids to make up their own.

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