I recently gave a presentation on the ethical issues that often arise within my field of law, emphasizing that the law not only punishes willful wrongdoing, but also accidental (even incidental) violations as well as the mere appearance of impropriety. Several clients commented that this potential minefield of problems was so intimidating as to be somewhat paralyzing. I agreed, but reminded them that knowing the risks and being mindful when taking actions is the best approach to prevention.
This got me thinking about the ethics of parenting. Unlike in the law, where there are statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions that lay out the parameters of acceptable behavior, parenting presents mostly gray areas. In the U.S., there is a strong cultural norm against any kind of corporal punishment – spanking, hand-slapping, etc. Beyond that, however, there is a wide range of “acceptable” parenting approaches, all with potential pitfalls. As in the law, accidental or perceived violations can be grounds for condemnation in the court of public opinion or one’s own conscience. It’s not uncommon for me to feel guilty about something I said or did in retrospect, even when I hadn’t realized I was facing an ethical issue at the time. However, unlike the law, which is (mostly) universal and objective, ethics in parenting can vary across people, time, and circumstances. What is “right” in one situation can be completely “wrong” in another.
For example, I saw a television interview with a woman who had forced her teenaged daughter to post a picture of herself holding a sign saying she is too young to drink on Facebook after finding posts showing her posing with bottles of hard alcohol. The teen was humiliated, and many parents criticized her mother’s use of public shaming. However, after the photo went viral, the teen admitted she was glad her mom had made her take down the photos with the alcohol and would be more thoughtful about her online behavior. The mother defended her creative response to her teen’s actions, saying that public embarrassment was the only way to get through to her daughter, but that that tactic would have no effect on her son, and would not be appropriate for her younger daughter.
Growing up, my parents almost never punished me. Instead, they established boundaries and made clear what their expectations were, and conveyed their disappointment when those expectations were not met. One of my most vivid memories is of proudly presenting my mom with a bouquet of flowers I’d picked from a neighbor’s garden. When my mom frowned, “I hope you didn’t pick these from someone’s garden, because that would be stealing,” my six-year-old self panicked, and told her our neighbor had left the flowers on their porch with a note bearing my name. “How thoughtful of them!” my mom exclaimed, and promptly picked up the phone to call the neighbor. As my mom thanked the neighbor for putting together such a lovely bouquet of flowers for me, I slunk to my room, mortified.
The incident was never mentioned again; that is, until I recently told my mom I still feel bad about that lie to this day. She just laughed, and said she couldn’t recall that happening at all, but that she surely only pretended to call our neighbor. In all these years, it had never occurred to me that my mom was just trying to teach me a lesson. She never raised a hand or her voice, but I got the message loud and clear and never forgot it. My mom could have easily put the flowers in a vase and continued about her day, or marched me over to our neighbor’s house to apologize, or made me save my allowance to buy them a new plant, but her little lie (pretending to call and thank the neighbor for the flowers) was much more effective for me at that time.
But we all want our kids to be honest, so when is it okay to tell them a lie? What do you say when they ask you point blank about the tooth fairy, or what happened to their pet goldfish, or catch you in a lie? Lisa Miller opined in the New York Magazine that “[p]arenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral.” When given the choice between giving their child an advantage or doing something for the greater good, Miller writes, parents will always prefer their child. And children witness this hypocrisy, and learn from their parents’ behavior that doing what is best for themselves is the right thing to do. This is both tragic and natural, asserts Miller, citing the ancient example of Noah, who put his three sons on the arc but left the rest of humanity to die.
In a response, Jessica Gross points out that Miller’s experience – of parents lying, cheating, and hoarding to insure the best for their kids – is specific to the scarce conditions prominent in New York City, where everything from gymnastics class to math tutors requires a hefty fee, multi-part application, and/or a long waitlist. Personally, that doesn’t make me feel much better, since I may be raising my child(ren) in downtown D.C.
In “The Ethics of Parenthood,” Norvin Richards writes that parents are obligated to ensure that their children develop empathy, a sense of fairness, and a sense of responsibility for their own actions, on the grounds that these are necessary traits for living in society with other people. Parents should also instill in their children a capacity for friendships of mutual value, trust, and loyalty. I agree that these are all very important values and abilities. However, Richards says little about how to teach these to your kids. He suggests that how parents respond to kids’ bad behavior is a critical teaching tool, but it is difficult to have ethics in mind when your child is biting another kid or just broke your best fruit bowl.
My son is only one, so we still have some time, but already I am keenly aware that I am not setting a very good example for him. I am embarrased by my own hypocrisy when I scold him for yelling and then shout out him if he gets in harm’s way. I wonder if he notices when I tell him he cannot have a sweet and then sneak one myself. My two-year-old neice definitely sees it and calls me out. Fortunately, I am a big rule-follower, so I will never be caught cheating on a test, running a stop sign, or stealing something from a shop. But I sometimes tell a white lie, or gossip. How can I explain this to my child? Any ideas?