It Is in Us to Care
Ethic: A basic human moral attitude.
Ethics: A philosophical or theological theory of moral attitudes, values, and norms.
It is an ethic rooted in deep caring, not the study of ethics, that is the concern of this book. Studying the various theories of morality can be an interesting and mind-boggling exercise, and at the end we might know even less about how to raise a child who can think and act ethically than we did before we began. What we would know is that there are many contradictory theories, and almost as many different systems of morality.
We could compare Immanuel Kant's theories to Pete Singer's, or universalism to utilitarianism, or absolutism to relativism. We could memorize the cardinal virtues, the theological virtues, the classic Greek virtues and values; add to them civil liberties, humanistic values, mystical values, ideals, the basic complement of instinctual states, behavioral tie-ins with conditioning theories, the vices of excess virtue, vices of defect (absence of virtue), and violence viewed as excessive defect. Disregarding all of the above, we could turn instead to a popular character education program, or grab a book of virtues that lists the fifty-six vital virtues our children need to work on during a year.
When finished, we would still have to ask:
“Do we emphasize the virtues of liberty and autonomy, or loyalty and respect for authority?”
“Do we value justice over mercy?”
“Do we inculcate children with 'traditional' values; or do we show them how to adhere to and practice certain virtues and avoid certain vices; or do we teach them to follow certain absolute rules or dogma-with the possibility of rejecting people who don't adhere to those rules or don't believe the dogma?”
“What happens when two virtues clash or contradict one another?”
“What is the difference between an ethical dilemma and an ethical temptation?”
And finally, “What is a moral child?” and “Do we want to raise a moral child? If so, how do we do it? If not, why not? Is there an alternative?”
Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make It Right is about something much simpler, though not necessarily easier. It is about a way of being in the world, about an ethic connected so deeply and pervasively to the whole of our humanity that there is no need to impose it, regulate it, or enforce it. I am heartened that people throughout the world-parents, educators, religious leaders, sociologists, theologians, and philosophers-are speaking out about the dangers of rigid moral absolutism, moral relativism, and nihilism. It is in us to care. We are as capable of being good as we are of doing harm.
If we are to raise kids who can think and act ethically, we don't begin with the thinking or the acting. We begin with caring-caring for our children and nurturing their innate ability to care; helping them to see themselves as both lovable and loving. Such an ethic is primarily about relationships, not principles or virtues or values. It is not that principles, virtues, and values have no purpose. They do. In an ethic rooted in deep caring, they are in service to and at the service of that caring. When children know that they are cared for, then they can begin caring deeply, sharing generously, and helping willingly. In turn, these three serve as strong antidotes to hating, hoarding, and harming-the three virulent agents that can rip apart the fabric of human relationships.
In kids are worth it! Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline, I offered practical advice for parents of toddlers through teenagers on how to use the stuff of everyday family life-chores, mealtime, sibling rivalry, toilet training, bedtime, and allowances-to create a home environment in which kids can become self-disciplined, responsible, resourceful, resilient human beings capable of acting in their own best interests, standing up for themselves, and exercising their own rights while respecting the rights and legitimate needs of others. Knowing how to think, not just what to think; feeling empowered, not controlled or manipulated; being able to distinguish between realities that must be accepted and problems that can be solved; and being able to act with civility and integrity-these are lessons that can be learned through these everyday and at times mundane activities. These same activities can provide opportunities to teach children to think and act ethically.
The tools of good parenting-acting with integrity, civility, and compassion; walking your talk and talking your walk; treating kids with respect; giving them a sense of positive power in their own lives; giving them opportunities to make decisions, take responsibility for their actions, and learn from their successes and mistakes-are the same parenting tools you can use to help create an environment that is conducive to raising children who care deeply, share generously, and help willingly; who can stand up for another child and against an injustice when the burden is heavy; and who can do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
This book is an attempt to delve more deeply into this way of being in the world, and into this human wisdom that enables us to meet one another morally.
Concerned with the social forces that “make human beings human,” internationally renowned authority on child development Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner warned of the breakdown of the social support system that had once helped children to thrive. “We've got all kinds of forces that are interfering and blocking the process of civilizing human beings and making them competent and responsible,” he told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1996. Since our story about our human nature in today's social and cultural climate is part and parcel of our human nature and our social and cultural climate, part of raising kids who can think and act ethically involves looking for ways of being in the world that will reduce the harm we do to one another and to our planet. At the same time, it involves creating homes, schools, and communities that will effectively support us in raising our kids. Our story is also guided by our compassion and loving-kindness, which recognizes that there is no “I” without a “Thou,” no “We” without community, and no way to survive without honoring both our unique individuality and our common humanity.