There is a quote by Oscar Wilde that I am particularly fond of in which he states, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.” While I don’t agree that this represents the depth of morality, it does reflect an unfortunate abuse. Oftentimes I think people mistake morality for personal opinion. For example, there are is an organization in my town that does a great deal of charity fundraising through gun related events. I elect not to participate because I don’t want to be involved with guns in any way and it doesn’t make sense to me personally to connect charity with violence. However, that is my personal opinion and certainly doesn’t make the organization immoral.
With a less glib and more reflective version of Wilde’s thoughts, Socrates argues that “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” Both men raise the question of how emotional and personal bias can pollute morality; I ask then, if those elements are not part of morality (or at least shouldn’t be), what components should be used in constructing a moral code?
One of the many things I didn’t think about in great detail when my husband and I elected to become parents was how we would implement a moral code for our children. Certainly I considered it in an abstract way, but it wasn’t something that we made a clear plan for as we did for things like college funds. So now we (and I would guess a number of other parents) find ourselves trying to teach our children morality on the fly through modeling and real life events. Case in point:
A few weeks ago I was on my way home from a work function when I received a message from my mother (who had picked my 6-year-old daughter up at school) telling me that Liliana was in trouble for stealing. The basic story I got out of my mother (and later from Lili) was that my daughter found a bracelet on the playground. Lili was holding the bracelet and told one of the teachers that it was hers instead of turning it in. Another teacher asked her again if it was hers and she lied, which was quickly revealed because the actual owner of the bracelet had already told the teacher it was missing. On the phone, my mother was livid and had a list of things she wanted to implement as consequences. I told her just to wait as I needed to talk to my husband and Lili before we did anything (my husband was away helping the family of a friend of ours who had just had a stroke). I knew that this was an important moment that had to be handled carefully. (Side note: my husband and I talk about any consequences in big moments in advance so that we are both on the same page.)
I arrived at my mother’s house to find Liliana in time out in her room, pitiful and sulky. We talked about why she lied about the bracelet and tried to keep something that wasn’t hers (she liked it and thought it was pretty). We talked about how the other little girl, who did have the bracelet, must have felt losing it. We talked about consequences and consideration. We talked about right and wrong. It was a hard conversation because I didn’t want to lose my temper but instead wanted to make a point. Liliana did know that what she did was wrong; she knew it at the time. Yet she acted against her better judgment for short term satisfaction.
As a parent, it’s easy to say we teach our children morality, especially when we are there to help them make the right choice. It’s when we aren’t there that they are truly tested. I can’t say, even now, that I know exactly why she did what she did. Piecing it together from her story, I think that when the bracelet had no owner, in her mind it was up for grabs. By the time she was questioned about it, she panicked and lied. From what I hear from friends, lying to avoid trouble is common at this age. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. In the end, Lili lost her favorite toy for a set period of time and was made to write individual apology letters to the two teachers she lied to and the little girl she stole from. She spent several hours during her weekend playtime writing the letters (and rewriting until they were error free). As she wrote them, we talked about how the other person must have felt when she was committing the act for which she was apologizing.
Did we tackle this in the correct way? I don’t know. Like I said, events like this lead to parenting on the fly. I’m sure there was a better way to deal with it, better consequences to levy. Being responsible as the moral architect for another person is a heavy burden–I just hope I’m up to the job.