C.S. Lewis said, “There are two odd things about the human race. First, that they are haunted by a sort of behavior they ought to practice, what you might call fair play or decency or morality. Second, that they do not in fact act that way”. As the previous post examined, we all seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, and the soul attempts to guide us in following these promptings of conscience. But there is still so much evil in the world, and in our own hearts. Why?
Almost weekly we see a viral video of teenagers ganging up on a defenseless victim while bystanders laugh, or refuse to intervene. It is a sad commentary on the state of our society. Where is morality? What has gone wrong in the inner lives of those capable of such behavior? How can we prevent this moral disintegration in our own children?
Sacrifice and Morality
Sacrifice is not a sexy thing to talk about; it also doesn’t sound very fun. But sacrifice is what makes societies flourish. Moral choices are decisions of sacrifice. Jordan Peterson explains it as, “giving up something in the present so you can improve the future.” When you have two competing impulses and your conscience tells you to choose the weaker of the two – you are sacrificing the realization of your stronger impulse, with the hope that your choice may eventually benefit you, or the world at large. As the previous post explained, returning Nutella required the sacrifice of my lazy nature, but it benefited society, my on-looking children, and my own sense of integrity. In order to get a handle on how to preserve Morality, when modern-times have enlarged the importance of Self, Jordan Peterson helps us understand that sacrifice is really for our own benefit.
Parental Duty: A parents’ example of sacrificing the “demands of flesh” for goodness, are influential in helping our children maintain their morality. The other day my sweet little toddler pointed out the window at a car and said, “Look at that Idiot!” I was shocked and said, “Sweety, Idiot is a mean word – we don’t say words like that in this family.” My older daughter said, “Mom, you say that all the time when you are driving.” Oops! We parents need to learn to temper our own emotionality and be examples of self-control. “You pass by a child, spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image – unseemly and ignoble – may remain in his defenseless heart. You don’t know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him and it may grow, and all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself a careful, actively benevolent love,” Fyoder Dostoyevsky.
What is Good Anyway?
Not only is sacrifice of immorality increasingly rare, but the very concept of good and evil is questioned in an increasingly relativist world. Ben Shapiro pointed out that a cultural shift has been occurring over the last several decades, “Where children had once learned from Pinocchio to ‘always let your conscience be your guide,’ now they are taught by Frozen, ‘no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free, Let it go!” Children are told from a young age that they should do whatever makes them happy. Often that statement is not qualified with restrictions or exceptions. The end justifies the means. This leaves children guideless and at the whim of instinct. When their moral voice warns them against an action – which may in fact make them happy – they become confused. ‘Free choice requires a real distinction between good and evil, without that you don’t have free choice,” Jordan Peterson. A generation of youth have been inundated with amoral messages such as the motto of Assassin’s Creed, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”.
As Scientific Materialism is elevated to a new religion, goodness itself is questioned and the Self becomes god. With the view that we are simply a product of evolutionary impulses with no eternal significance, we can justify the conscious disregard of conscience. The words of Hamlet seem more applicable today than ever, “There is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” With this mindset there is no alternative but the supremacy of the natural Self’s desires. As C.S. Lewis explains in his prophetic prediction of the destruction of the Moral Law, The Abolition of Man, “When all that says, ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” From our modern culture children can only expect justification for selfishness, moral guidance must come from us parents.
When We Age-out of Morality
When he was teaching a group of disciples Christ placed a small child before them in said, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Children have an innate humility and ability to recognize the promptings of conscience. My son scolds me quite often for my “small” lapses in morality. “Mom, that light was red!” “Mom, why did you say I missed school because I was sick; we went to the zoo!” His righteousness can get old at times, but since my conscience has apparently been dulled by neglect, he is a good stand-in.
However, the ability to consistently recognize the moral choice often fades with age. As time passes, the Self begins to dominate the Soul. When children become more socially aware, they seek the approval of friends, even if it means ignoring their internal morality. If parents emphasise the importance of friends, children feel pressure to conduct themselves in any way they must, to gain acceptance. Knowing this threat, every morning when my sister’s boys march out the door for school, she yells after them, “Be a Leader, not a Follower!”
When puberty hits, nature’s instincts become more powerful – the body can behave like a tyrant. Raging hormones combined with parents and peers chipping away at our natural morality, can lead to disaster. Parents counterproductive push of happiness-seeking rather than sacrifice, and peer pressure, are often at odds with “righteousness.” The loud demands of the natural Self can easily drown out the softer calls of a soul’s conscience. The soul may well lose this war. But there are steps parents can take to help our children fight back against the often selfish and immoral calls of the body. As part 1 mentioned, emphasising the reality of the soul and “Moral Law”, as well as providing a strong example of living in harmony with conscience, will give children the proper perspective to fight back. But how do we prevent the Self from becoming too powerful?
Arming for the Battle of the Body
Often it can feel like there is a battle between our souls and our bodies; a battle between what is right and what is desired. Dr. Jordan Peterson has an entire chapter of his book, 12 Rules for Life, examining the idea of choice – and choosing the righteous call of conscience (meaning) over the selfish demands of the natural self (expedience). “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”. Each decision which leads us towards corruption, at the expense of conscience, is one step towards individual and societal decay. Unfortunately the body and soul are often at odds, “Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.” Galatians 5:15
The body is often driven by the desire to survive – our instincts. As a moral soul, we would correct Hamlet and say that these desires are “neither good or evil – it is in the doing that makes them so.” In the moment of choice morality is found. If we become a slave to our instincts, it is because we are following the call of “the flesh” at the expense of our moral self. The calls of pleasure, of popularity, and self-preservation are all driven by our natural and selfish desires.
Parental Duty: Here lies another responsibility of parents. We must be as my mother’s voice was (see Part 1) – a feeling of guilt accompanying an immoral choice. When the flash of conscience is not enough, values instilled by parents could well tip the scales. The knowledge of these values can stay with our children throughout their lives. Our children may not follow the path we desire, but the principles we teach will remain as the echo of truth. Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Role Play and the Development of Morality
Studies indicate that role-playing, or acting out moral dilemmas, help children develop empathy and integrity. If we use our children’s own body in the development of values, morality can be built into their very muscle memory. When examining the horrors of history, such as the Holocaust, Dr. Peterson speaks about the importance of imagining yourself not just as a victim, but as a perpetrator. Children do this all the time as they play, there has to be a bad guy. As they pretend, children learn the motivations of the bad guy and the attributes of a good hero. As we attempt to pass values onto our children, it is helpful to use the imagination and physicality of children to aid us. In our family we like to act out scriptures stories after reading them. A few nights ago we learned about the Good Samaritan. The kids all picked their characters and proceeded to play out the story. It is fascinating to watch as children are able to pick up on motivations and intent not conveyed in text. My four-year-old daughter played the first traveler to pass the poor beaten man. As she passed by my son, disheveled and laying in a heap, she looked down in disgust and said, Eww!
Teaching values means speaking honestly with your children about impulses, threats, and temptations they may face and helping them work out solutions in advance. When I was in high school, kids often offered me pot or cigarettes. They knew I was a “good girl” and so went out of their way to try and pressure me. I never felt tempted in the slightest, I had made my decisions years in advance that I would never do drugs or smoke. I knew, morally, that succumbing to such temptation was wrong; but I also knew drugs and cigarettes would negatively affect the plan I had for my life. When children decide in advance what they want out of life, they can go out with courage into real life and resist temptation. Having a clear vision of your future makes sacrifice of popularity, impulses, and happiness doable. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
A reader recently asked how I face awkward conversations with my children on difficult subjects such as sex, drugs, and suicide. I believe if we speak to our children from the very beginning (in an age appropriate way) about the realities of life, there is no need to fear any topic. The earlier children are introduced to life’s difficulties the more likely their innate and unsullied morality will guide them in the formation of their future decisions. An eight-year-old has no problem saying he will never do drugs, especially when he sees the realities of life for the addict we often pass on the way to school. This is not to shame or degrade the addict; on the contrary, it is to enable the child to see him as a child of God, who has been brought low by poor choices and circumstance. As we teach about the realities of drug addiction, we can also teach important lessons of respect and compassion for those who suffer. “One can tell a child everything, anything. I have often been struck by the fact that parents know their children so little. They should not conceal so much from them. How well even little children understand that their parents conceal things from them, because they consider them too young to understand! Children are capable of giving advice and the most important matters.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
When examining our own poor choices we cannot simply blame our upbringing, our culture, or generation; we must look to ourselves. We must likewise teach our children that their choices have consequences. By refusing to shield children from the reality of life’s consequences in others lives and their own, they will see the power of choice. A moment of choice is a moment of truth. It’s the testing point of our character and competence,” Stephen Covey. Those moments – where conscience tells us which way to act, and our body demands another course – shape our destiny.
Losing Free Will: The Death of Morality in a Mob
When I examine the behavior of teenagers beating up on a defenseless victim, I see no point of choice; I see no pause to consult morality. This is when the determinist view that there is, in fact, no free will, starts to seem more reasonable. These angry teenagers seem to have no control over their actions. Are we all just a product of our instincts after all? I believe in these instances the “moment of choice” has been compromised. Perhaps parents did not show a good example of sacrifice and proper behavior. Maybe these youth did not learn the principles of choice and consequence. Perhaps happiness was over emphasised. Peer Pressure and tribal instincts were allowed to grow out of control, stifling promptings of conscience or any feelings of guilt. JBP clip on Free Will
Guilt is an emotion we would well be rid of, right? Guilt is judgmental. As C.S. Lewis said, “All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt.” Rather than allow guilt to point us to our areas of corruption, we often would rather just drown it out. We give the Self the power to tyrannize the Soul. The causes of such nihilistic behavior are varied and complex, but having no “truth” and no “why” give ample reason.
When guilt and temptation cause us to “give up”, we begin to allow our body’s impulses to supersede the calls of conscience. We look cynically on morality and take the easier road to self-satisfaction. This adaptation, or desensitization to “sin”*, has been measured by scientists. “A robust finding in neuroscience over the past 20 years is that negative emotional responses to situations do not remain at the same intensity level if they are repeated. Instead they become less distressing over time, a biological process known as adaptation.”* This process is followed by all of us at some level or another, but for some children who are not raised with knowledge of the soul, or examples of sacrifice of Self for morality, desensitization can start early and dramatically. Despite our innate Moral Sense, the more often “sinful” behavior, (behavior which ignores the promptings of conscience), the weaker those promptings will become. The resultant cascade of bad choices often ends in addiction.
Our culture craves addiction. Video game advertising coaxes us with claims of being “the most addictive video game ever.” Opioid addiction, alcoholism, gambling, and many other forms of addiction are rising dramatically.* As parents we need to resist this culture of addiction. We need to protect our children from habits which compromise their freedom of choice. We want our children’s souls and bodies free of the chains of addiction, free to choose, and to feel guilt when they err.
Perhaps these teenagers have had so little direction and example that they have lost their morality. Perhaps they have been so desensitized that they no longer have fully functioning free will. Maybe they felt justified in some way and rationalize their behavior. But we know what happens when bystanders lack courage or conviction to stand up for morality. We know what happens when good and evil become indistinguishable. Mob mentality is allowed to rule. The question is what comes first, the mob or the mentality? In a mob we outsource our morality to the group, and are therefore no longer responsible for our actions. “In a mob there is distribution of responsibility because everyone is faceless. A lot of what keeps people sane is being held immediately responsible for their actions. One-on-one interactions remain peaceful but you can remain faceless in a mob…you have the opportunity to let the worst parts of yourself manifest themselves without fear of being called for your actions.”
Parental Duty: When my oldest son was two-and-a-half, we realized he was addicted to his pacifier. He couldn’t sleep without it and asked for it constantly; he begged for naps so he could use it again. We decided it was time to break him of his dependence. We told him that Santa needed his pacifiers so he could use them to make a fire truck for Christmas. Our son really loved firetrucks and loved Santa. He gathered up all his pacifiers and we put them on the front porch to be collected by an elf. He whined the first couple nights but within days his addiction was gone forever. Parents of young children have a unique power – they can take away sources of addiction. You can throw out the video game console – you can never buy Oreos again. The fault was ours, we never should have let our son’s need for the pacifier grow to that point. It was lazy and selfish parenting on our part, but raising little kids is tough and no parent is perfect. The ideal is to be aware enough to notice desensitization and not allow an addiction to form. However, parents may need to take drastic measures to stop bad habits and addictions while we still can. Our children may be angry with us, but our most important job is to raise moral, strong, and independent children.
Despite the prevalence of disturbing viral videos, as I have researched and pondered morality, I have found hope. Hope in the knowledge that my children do not get their sense of morality from me alone. In fact examining their behavior can help me regain my own moral compass. There is hope knowing they have the power to make correct choices.
However along with the hope is a knowledge of the great responsibility parents hold as guardians of morality. We must be examples of sacrificing our own “happiness”, selfish desires, and acceptance by others, for what is right. We must consistently pass values onto our children and prepare them for moral temptations they will face. We must be aware of areas where our children may be deadening to the calls of conscience and free them of sources of desensitization and addiction.
Because of our children’s unique personalities and individual strengths and weaknesses, the tension between body and soul will present itself differently in each child. It is difficult to predict or prevent the struggles our children will face. However, I hope that by applying some of the parental responsibilities presented in the last two posts, we will be able to keep our children’s souls light shining, and prevent the tyranny of an untamed Self.
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*In using the word “sin” I referring to those moments of choice where we disregard conscience and choose instead to satisfy Self. “Righteousness” would be the ability to choose morality, even at great personal sacrifice.
To Tell a Tale: The Use of Moral Dilemmas to Increase Empathy in the Elementary School Children
Interesting perspective on role-play https://themilitarywifeandmom.com/role-play-for-preschoolers/
Role Playing Helps Kids Learn Moral Complexity, Christian Science Monitor. https://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0706/p15s02-legn.html
Constant Cravings, Is Addiction on the Rise, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jan/09/constant-cravings-is-addiction-on-the-rise
Lies Breed Lies; Brain May Get Desensitized to Dishonesty, Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/56614-brain-may-get-desensitized-to-dishonesty.html