My daughter and her brother fight a lot; both of them give me way too much push-back at bedtime; and they’d rather play on computers than do their homework. Having said that, I realize when I talk to other parents how lucky I am with my children. What I’ve described are behaviors. We all have them. But what makes my kids so great is that they both have a strong moral core. They may do stupid and irritating things, but they’ll never do bad or destructive things.
One of the things behind that, I believe, is that I tend to focus on Big Ideas. One of my pet peeves with public school in our area is that it eschews big ideas. Everything has to be self-referential. You learn Shakespeare by having the kids do a project where they “re-imagine” Romeo and Juliet in their own high school. You read books that are all about feelings. All of the books have messages about liking yourself, or not bullying, or not committing crimes, but none are premised on Big Ideas. All of them revolve around social dynamics (nice kids will support you, bad kids will hurt you) or getting the correct feeling about what you’re doing.
These books are kind of like Google Map instructions. You print them up, and they tell you drive 1.2 miles, then make a left turn onto the freeway, then take the 2nd exit and make a right turn at the bottom, etc. They’re very helpful for that particular situation, but they give you no guidance should you make a wrong turn. Their very specificity renders them useless at that point. Having a big map, or even a compass (North? I’m supposed to be heading north?!) enables you to deal with all situations.
Although my children have been resistant to reading the classics, I feel it is incumbent upon me to talk about Big Ideas. “Don’t bully” is a rule, not a moral principle. Discussing with them the differences between Hillel’s and Jesus’s formulation of the Golden Rule has vast moral implications, though. I find both formulations morally fascinating. Hillel said “Do not do unto others as you do not wish them to do unto you.” Jesus said “Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.” Both versions have profound and important implications for good behavior in a functioning society. Both offer guidance. Each needs serious thought to understand and apply.
Girls today, who are bombarded with faked up images of luscious women, and who are told to hate men but to have sex with them at the drop of a hat, get very limited fare when it comes to dealing with these pressures. Their books have the distraught “ugly” girl who somehow manages to triumph in the end over mean popular girls. They’re fun to read, but I defy you to find me a real girl who can use the tactics in the books to her own advantage in the real pressure cooker of a real high school.
I grew up reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (a book I doubt any Marin girl has ever read), and found it a very useful moral guide. Jo and her sisters grapple with poverty, social pressure, impulsive teenage behavior, and poor-decision making, but they do so at a deep moral level. They don’t triumph because they’re more clever; they triumph, sometimes after years, because they look at their values and determine what is most important to them — and believe me, it’s not being skinny and in with the in-crowd.
Jane Austen’s comedies of manners are also deeply concerned with core values. Elizabeth and Darcy find each other because, when push comes to shove, they follow the correct societal values. Elizabeth tries to tame a wayward sister; Darcy comes to the aid of the woman he loves, because he believes that he failed her morally when he did not warn her about Wickham’s true character. Both come to realize that they were blinded by superficial behaviors, and recognize the other’s moral worth. Certainly manners matter. But the fact that Austen’s books include villains who abuse manners as a method of taking advantage of young women too foolish or emotional to separate moral wheat from immoral chaff is core to each of her stories. They’re not about mere rules, although they take place in a rather rigid, rule-bound society. They are about core principles that transcend class.
Anyway, today is a funeral day for one of my Mom’s old friends, so I am off, and won’t be back for hours.
Please consider this an open thread.