17. Ethical Behavior

I have some good news and some bad news about teaching children to behave ethically. The bad news is that the religions I’ve come in contact with (including my own) and the attempt to do it through school curriculum seem to do the job about as well as spelling programs make children good spellers. There are two important points I should make before I go any further. One is that I don’t think this is religion’s or schools’ fault; plenty of excellent people are deeply involved in religions and schools, and do all kinds of good work. The other is that the opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily represent anything but one guy’s opinion. That’s self-evident, but I thought I should mention it.
Now for the good news. I think there are ways to teach children to behave ethically. They are not fool-proof, nor quick. The most effective methods are modelling and tolerance. Modelling: If you don’t think children should lie, don’t lie. If you don’t think they should steal, don’t steal. The list goes on. This sounds simplistic, but in this confusing world, not lying, stealing, etc. is a challenge. Tax forms, contracts, social customs, and other parts of life seem to demand dishonesty.
And if you were spanked as a child, you may think that is an appropriate thing to do. The beat goes on, though; I think the main message children receive is that when someone less powerful displeases someone more powerful, the more powerful one should use physical force. Maybe they’ll notice such behavior now without passing judgment, or maybe they won’t even seem to notice it, but sooner or later there will be a judgment day. In a therapist’s office, maybe. You can find out how ethical your parenting was by seeing your children. Sure, they’re influenced by other adults, by peers, by media, but your influence is eventually pretty important.
Tolerance: It requires faith that your child can hit another child without later becoming Charles Manson. He/she can let an innocent racial slur slip out without later becoming Adolph Hitler. We can’t quite save the world by giving our children a quick fix of ethics. Maybe you know all about this, but I learned some of it as recently as two years ago. It was at a parent conference. A parent suggested that I should not be so rigid about forbidding violence in children’s writing. This parent, I think, was right. When we gently explain that a racial slur could hurt some one’s feelings, or gently show concern that the violence we read about hurts, that gentleness has so much more power than rigidity. Of course, other children’s reactions to being hit, insulted, or otherwise abused must receive respect, and justice must prevail, but I don’t think our nation’s penal system is a good model to follow. I wish I’d been thinking this way as my children were growing up.
This wasn’t easy to write. I’ve tried to avoid sounding preachy, or sounding as if I have “seen the light” and you haven’t. But whether or not I’ve succeeded in avoiding these potholes, I hope I’ve at least let you know I’ve found a mindset that works for me.

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