“I walked a mile with pleasure; She chatted all the way, But left me none the wiser, For what she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow, And ne’er a word said she; But oh, the things I learned from her, When sorrow walked with me.” – Robert Browning Hamilton
Modern philosophy tells us to avoid pain and hardship at all costs, and we are happy to oblige. However, a life devoid of difficulty has no power to transform us into a greater version of ourselves. True confidence comes in overcoming a challenge and standing bravely in face of hardship. Along with joy, parenthood brings adversity we may otherwise avoid, and with it many opportunities for change and growth. If we can be grateful for these wisdom-producing tribulations, and not just the love and joy our children bring, we can deepen our experience as a parent. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
“The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” Fyodor Dostoevsky
The quest for “more” may bring purpose and pleasure to some, but the desire is ultimately never satisfied. We are often left longing for a greater purpose – one which creates rather than demands. If instead of focusing our energy on material desires, we turn our attention to raising a righteous posterity, relieving the suffering of others, and the development of our own character, we may find true freedom. We will also give our children an example worth emulating, preventing the further moral disintegration Dostoevsky describes.
“A century ago, men were following, with bated breath, the march of Napoleon, and waiting with feverish impatience for the latest news of the wars. And all the while, in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles.
“In one year, lying midway between Trafalgar and Waterloo, there stole into the world a host of heroes! During that one year, 1809, Gladstone was born at Liverpool; Alfred Tennyson was born at the Somersby rectory, and Oliver Wendell Holmes made his first appearance at Massachusetts. On the very self-same day of that self same year Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury, and Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath at Old Kentucky. Music was enriched by the advent of Frederic Chopin at Warsaw, and of Felix Mendelssohn at Hamburg, Samuel Morley, Edwin Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Francis Kemple. But nobody thought of babies. Everybody was thinking of battles. Yet viewing that age in the truer perspective which the distance of a hundred years enables us to command, we may well ask ourselves, ‘Which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809?’
“We fancy that God can only manage His world by big battalions abroad, when all the while He is doing it by beautiful babies. When a wrong wants righting, or a work wants doing, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. That is why, long, long ago, a babe was born at Bethlehem.”
Many years ago, there lived a woman named Sally. She was a widow with three children. Life had been hard and she would have welcomed a change for the better if it came. She thought she saw it come when a man, who was a widower from her past, returned with a proposal of marriage, in his nice suit of clothes, with talk of a prosperous farm. The thoughts of a better life were inviting and she heard him mention servants and that he was a man of substance. She accepted and crossed the river with him to view her new possessions: What she found was a farm, overgrown with wild blackberry vines and sumac, a floorless, windowless hut. The only servants were two thinly clad barefoot children. Their father had borrowed the suit and the boots to go a-courting in. Her first thought was the obvious one: go back home! But she looked at the motherless children, especially the younger, a boy whose melancholy gaze met hers. For a moment she paused, then, rolling up her sleeves, she quietly spoke these words: “I’ll stay for the sake of this boy.” Oh, Sally Bush, what a treasure stood before your eyes that day. She didn’t know when she looked at that melancholy face of ten years, that her stepson would save this nation, and become the immortal Abraham Lincoln. He was speaking of her, when he later said, “All that I am, and all that I ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Every Mother’s Day my father would read this story. For me, it has come to symbolize the Heroic Mother and the influence she can have on the world. (It still makes me cry every time I hear it.)
In our modern age motherhood is often seen as demeaning and unrewarding work. Common expressions include, “Why do women have to be the ones to stay home with babies?” “I can be much more than just a mom.” These sentiments don’t offend me, they sadden me. The meaning and power of motherhood is increasingly being lost in younger generations. Mothers shape culture. The love and nurture children receive from their mothers can echo down the generations and throughout the world. Yes, women can do many important things outside motherhood, but no other work will be as meaningful as mothering a child in love and truth.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, and those who act as mothers, who, with their love and sacrifice, can transform the world.
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 forLife, 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
In the last few weeks thirty-three parents, including a childhood idol, Lori Loughlin of Full House, have been accused of paying up to $500,000 to illegally get their child into prestigious universities. Many are horrified by the deep dishonesty required to perpetrate such a crime. But Americans can’t be surprised. The generalized view, on either side of the political aisle, is that America’s morality is slipping. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 81 percent view American morality as fair or poor and 77 percent said morals are getting worse.* If we look at honesty as an indicator of morality, the reality of current levels of dishonesty is staggering, “While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940’s, today between 75 and 98% of college students report having cheated in high school.”* There are many theories about why dishonesty and other immoralities are now commonplace, but I would like to examine the place of parents in this crisis. Am I, like my fellow mother Lori Loughlin, to blame for the degeneration of morality?
Whenever we go camping each of my five kids wants their own headlamp. I head to Walmart and get them each a $1 headlamp (Thank-you capitalism). The first few hours the kids play around in the dark with their bright lights, but then as the night goes on the light slowly dims. In the space of about four hours the light is too weak to be useful. Is this the same trend we see in modern day morality? In today’s age of political maneuverings and justification, honesty and ethics are a rare commodity. Ronald Reagan famously said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.” The morality of previous generations is fading; we are now straining to see by its light. Are we witnessing an extinction of morality? And if so, does the blame lie with parents who didn’t change the batteries?
The Morality of Nutella
A few years ago, I went with four of my kids to the store – not my favorite pastime. After receiving several of the standard “you have your hands full” comments, I succeeded in wheeling my groceries and kids out to the car. As I finished loading up the trunk and reached to unload my fussing baby, I noticed a stray jar of Nutella in the cart next to her (don’t judge me, Nutella is the nectar of the gods). “Darn it!” I said as my kids looked on, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this!” I looked back at the store; it looked 100 miles away. I did not want to pack up all the kids and take the jar back inside. As I held the Nutella in my hand I had a flash of realization, “It is important that I return this”. This was followed quickly by my well-developed practice of rationalization. “They overcharged me last week. Walmart makes billions of dollars a year, what is one jar of Nutella? The kids are tired, I will pay for it next time I am here.” I buckled my baby and drove away. On the drive home my eight-year-old, who is extremely observant, said “Mom, you didn’t pay for that jar!” He was quite upset. I explained to him that it was too hard to go back; I would pay for it next time. He didn’t seem quite satisfied but I changed the subject. As I drove, guilt weighed upon me. I heard my disappointed mother’s voice telling me to turn around.
My mother is a very spiritual and moral woman. I have absolutely no doubt she would have paid for the Nutella. She would have packed up all seven of us kids and made a lesson out of it. She would have said, “I’m not going to hell for a jar of Nutella!” Her sense of morality was much larger than her selfish and “natural” desire to stay in the car. I realized that if I kept driving, my children would never remember my excuses; they would only remember that I stole the jar of Nutella. What would that do to them? Perhaps, in twenty years, when they were with their kids and found an unpaid-for jar, they would skip the rationalization and take it without further thought. Why? Because the woman who taught them morality was herself a Nutella-stealer. I put my own selfish nature above morality. And as for my grandkids, witnessing the thieving of their forebears, they will just go ahead and rob the Nutella factory. I turned around.
I do think there was some truth in my excessive imaginings. If morality is not nurtured in children, then the voice of their conscience weakens, drowned out by the noise of their own desires. When there is no voice of conscience in a generation of children, great shall be the fall of our civilization, brought down by a storm of self-interest. Inculcating morality in our children is a big ask for parents. But what really is our duty? Are we the ones responsible for instilling morality in our children and keeping the voice of their conscience loud enough? If we look at science and theology, the answer is no and yes.
Conscience from Birth
When I held that jar of Nutella, my initial thought was that it was important to be honest. The thought was not my own voice, or even my mother’s (my mother’s voice came later in the guilt-stage). No, the initial thought was my conscience (or the Spirit). Although, “thought” doesn’t seem to be the right word. When we hear our conscience it often doesn’t come as a thought but more like a light or truth opened to us. But where does that come from? Is it my job as a mom to provide truth-revealing headlamps for each kid? That seems daunting. But I don’t want my kids to be psychopaths.
We have a light inside each of us. It goes by different names – our conscience, or the spirit, C.S. Lewis calls it the moral sense; I will use the term conscience. Science and theology teach us that children are born with an innate moral compass. They are able to recognize good from bad from the earliest months. Morality is not simply a generational issue, morality is found, and can be lost, inside each us.
In the article, “As Babies We Knew Morality”, it says, “It turns out that babies, who are too young to have learned about morality, have an innate moral sense. On top of that, they show a basic disposition to goodness.” They show as evidence such things as toddlers opening the door for a stranger they view as scary, or comforting someone who is hurt. I have certainly seen evidence of this “goodness” in my own children. Just yesterday my four-year old put down the tennis racket she was wielding long enough to comfort her bleeding brother.
C.S. Lewis does a brilliant job of explaining the reality of the Moral Law, or Conscience. He explains the fact that the Moral Law goes beyond the scientific belief that our conduct is simply a result of impulses. Rather morality, is found in the force (conscience) that guides us in our choices between impulses. I find it somewhat strange for a materialist scientist to claim that a toddler is “good” because she helps a stranger open a door. His ideology would argue she is merely obeying an environmental impulse for sociality. Impulses cannot be judged good or bad. It is not the act itself that demonstrates her morality (that could be explained away as an evolutionary instinct) – but her choice to follow the Moral Law. “Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think…of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”
For the purposes of this post, I recently did an experiment on my two-year-old daughter, Juliet. She is always famished after her afternoon nap, whining for a snack. Rather than feed her, I decided to make her wait. I wanted to get her so hungry that her “self-preservation” instinct was in full force. Great mom, right? Finally, I gave in to her demands and presented her with a bowl of ice cream. (Told you I was a good mom.) She sat down excitedly; I sat next to her and handed her the spoon. Before she had a chance to take her first bite I pleaded, “Juliet, I am so hungry!” and I really was, tormenting a child can make you hungry, “Can I have some please?” In that moment I saw it happen, I saw that brief moment of choice flash in her eyes; her conscience at work. She choose to give me a bite.
C.S. further explains, “Men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.” Juliet’s inner light told her that sharing with her hungry mother should take precedence, even over her grumbling stomach. This is the miracle of human nature.
Thus far, we mothers seem to be off the hook. It seems our babies are preloaded with morality software. No need to buy the headlamp; they have a light shining within them. But for all of us who have encountered a child, or an adult for that matter, we have discovered they can also be little devils. So why is that? It is important to understand the nature of our body’s demands (impulses) vs. our soul’s directions (conscience) to see where our job as parents truly lies.
The Reality of the Soul
We now live in a time where our childhood quintessential ideal of a “good woman”, Lori Loughlin, cheated her daughter into USC and up to 98% of youth have admitted to cheating in high school. Despite the powers of conscience, our collective selfish natures seem to be winning. How do we teach our kids to live directed by their moral soul in such a society?
The great British theologian George McDonald said, “Never tell a child, ‘you have a soul.’ Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body. The body is but the temporary clothing of the soul.” Our moral self, I will call it soul, while separate from our natural self, is not itself the “conscience” or morality. Our soul speaks and listens to the language of morality – the tune spoken of by C.S. Lewis. When asked about the “soul”, Dr. Peterson explained, “A soul is that aspect of human being that is akin to Divinity, that is made in the image of God. That is a very important concept, I don’t think a society can survive, I don’t think you can have a relationship with yourself…or another person, and I don’t think society can organize itself in a productive and sustainable and peaceful manner, without that idea as the core idea. The core idea is that there is something of irreducible value that characterizes each human being, and it is of the highest value…that is the soul.”
What is so wonderful about our soul is that it has unique spiritual capabilities that are unrestrained by the physical laws our body must obey, such as time and space. The truth urging me to return the Nutella was not heard by my physical ears, but by my soul. The body can simply see, but our soul can discern. When I was a child driving with my father, he had a sense he should change lanes, which he did. Immediately the semi-truck we had been following lost its load of concrete barriers, crashing down on the now-empty roadway.
Parental Duty: One of our roles as parents, hoping to create a moral generation, is to recognize our own conscience and follow it. We also must teach our children that they are a soul, and that the conscience can instruct their soul to do things, which their instincts and body may not and cannot. Christ explained to his disciples that physical abilities and spiritual abilities are not always in sync. “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” If our children only learn and understand through their physical self, they are not learning or understanding all they can. Theodore Roosevelt said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
We need to help our children recognize the difference between the emotional and urgent call of impulse and the “still small voice” of the spirit. We need to focus on what we can do to help our children recognize the voice of conscience, and when the time comes, make the right choice. Relating to our children our own experiences hearing and following our conscience can help them begin to label their own similar experiences. Jordan Peterson discusses the conscience’s potential influence in our lives if we simply live to obey it.
My son, Calvin, told me one day that during recess he was chosen to pick his team for basketball. He said he really wanted to win, but felt he should pick a certain short unathletic kid first. He said the kid seemed so happy to be chosen. Despite a loss, Calvin said he was glad he chose him. My son’s physical eyes examined the size and shape of the boys, but his spiritual eyes discerned who he should pick. John 16:13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth…”
Parental Duty: We need to teach our children to be rebels against our culture of degeneracy and to have the courage to choose the moral voice over the selfish voice. When I turned the car around to return the Nutella, I explained to my children my moral lapse and the remorse I was feeling. I explained the peace I felt in correcting my mistake. As we point out how the conscience feels compared to how selfishness feels, children are more likely to choose the good.
The Path to Lasting Morality
So how can we help our children choose the better of two voices? We have to choose the path of conscience ourselves. We also have to allow them to take the wrong path, and feel the sorrow of yielding to selfishness.
During Holy Week, we remember the story of the ultimate example of a life lived in perfect morality and truth, Jesus Christ. We also have the example of Peter, who, despite having deep faith in the Savior, ignored the promptings of conscience and instead yielded to the fears of his nature. Christ knew of Peter’s faith, but also knew of his selfish nature, saying, “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Christ warned Peter, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou has denied me thrice.” When Peter was faced with the impulse of self-preservation, despite his knowledge of the soul and moral truth, he fulfilled Christ’s prophecy and denied Him three times. As the rooster crowed, “Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him…And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Just as the voice of my mother revealed to me the unrighteousness of my Nutella-thieving, the rooster came as morality’s final attempt at rescuing Peter from the weakness of the flesh. Peter had the perfect example before him, Christ, the creator of the world. Christ accepted degradation and death rather than yield to temptation. Christ knew Peter would betray his conscience, but he also gave him the opportunity to redeem himself. See John 21:15-17 Peter never again strayed from the truth, and with the courage of his convictions, was martyred for it.
As parents, we are not responsible for implanting morality into our children, but for nourishing it. We are charged with helping our children recognize that they are a soul, and that they should obey the voice of conscience over the demands of the flesh. However, as Lori Loughlin and myself demonstrate, the calls of the natural self are hard to ignore and they can overpower the soul’s best efforts. As parents we need to be prepared for the opposition to morality and the increasing demands of selfishness in today’s world.
Part 2 next week will be: “Morality: When Nature Fights Back”
Postscript: The primary purpose of this blog is to get deep about the philosophical issues facing society, and mothers particularly. My greatest frustration in attempting to produce a valuable piece, is the inevitable discovery of more depth and tangents on the chosen issue than I can include in a reader-friendly post. There are many aspects to the topic of Morality which I did not include (free will, evolutionary theory, culture). I will hope to write more at a future date.
I typically attempt to write in a way that is useful to Atheist and Religious alike. I have come to a better understanding of how morality works in the lives of an atheist. However, I became frustrated in my attempts to make this applicable to those who don’t believe in the reality of a soul. I could not come up with the proper formula for teaching children morality, while at the same time, denying the reality of any kind of order or truth beyond that of our instincts and biology.
Helen Keller said, “Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within.” We all know the woman living a life of ease and stability who remains unhappy. We also may know a woman living in poverty and hardship, who radiates joy and contentment. The difference can’t be just about circumstances; instead it must be what’s going on in their minds. Our mental outlook determines much of our happiness. Marcus Aurelius said, “Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all within yourself in your way of thinking” (easy for a Roman Emperor to say). So next we must ask how these two women’s thinking differ, and how we can adopt the second woman’s perspective. But also, we may ask an even deeper question: is the second woman missing something the first understands? In the next few posts, we hope to answer these question. We’ll start with the burden of improper expectations.
Starting in childhood and continuing throughout our lives, we build an ‘ideal picture” of what we want from life, using what we observe or are told to expect. We want a marriage like our parents, or exactly the opposite. We imagine a rewarding and lucrative career, a handsome and successful husband, and obedient and intelligent children, who magically take care of themselves. William Glasser described this ideal picture, “It is the ‘world’ that I want right now – it could even be called my ‘ideal world.’ but it is more than ideal; it is the world I believe I must have, or my needs will not be satisfied.” But eventually, the storms of life’s reality arrive, and the idealized world of our imagining comes crashing down like the foolish man’s house built upon sand, “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Matt 7:27 When expectations don’t come to fruition we are left envying the imaginary.
A Tale of Two Sons
My husband and I have been blessed with two sons. Our first son, Calvin, now 10, has honestly exceeded our wildest imaginings. My husband wanted a son who liked sports; Calvin has been passionately obsessed with sports since he could crawl. I wanted an intelligent and confident son; he excels academically, is respectful, and is serious-minded. If this is parenthood, then what is everyone complaining about? I found out with our second son, Cameron. I had high expectations for him because, why wouldn’t I? They had been met before. He was our easiest baby by a long shot. Cameron was extremely fat, docile, and observant. We realize now that he was simply using his immobility as a planning stage for destruction. Once he started walking, we awoke from our dream. If there was a garbage can, he would dump it out. If there was an unflushed toilet, he would play in it. If there was a permanent marker, he would draw on the walls. His demands were endless: watch another show, have a sucker, go to the zoo. He was always either at my knees whining or quietly causing property damage. Going out in public was worse. He would cry, or run away, or create some nightmarish scene. It doesn’t help that he has the build of an NFL lineman so lugging him around was no easy task. And all his bad deeds were done in the least malicious way possible, leaving me feeling perpetually guilty for my disappointment and anger. I wish I could say this was a short phase, he is now six, and although easier, is still our toughest kid. I went through a time of mourning – grieving for my perfect imaginary child who would never be. Mourning for the stress-free mother I could have been. At night I couldn’t sleep, distraught at the state of my life and worrying about the future of this unruly child. All my expectations had come crashing down. So let’s examine expectations, and their contribution to happiness or misery.
The Highs of Expectations and the Lows of Happiness
When expectations are high, buy stock in unhappiness. Disappointment is inevitable. It seems to logically follow that the lower our expectations, the greater our potential for happiness. With no dreams, we have no hopes dashed. As Alexander Pope said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed”. Our children, and spouse might appreciate the lowered expectations. There will be much less pressure on them to perform. (23 sec clip)
Life looks so much brighter if you wake up expecting hell. I generally find this tactic helpful in feeling content with life. Instead of predicting the mechanic will say “it was a simple fix, no charge ma’am”, I convince myself it will cost $2,000 and the part will take 4 weeks to arrive. When reality lies somewhere in between, I am ecstatic! It isn’t hard to convince ourselves bad news is coming because it is so often the case. “Life is suffering”, remember? If I set my expectations low enough, I see myself as blessed when I am proved wrong. My dad was a master teacher of this. In the 65 years he has been watching his favorite college football team, he has never predicted a win. About half the time he is pleasantly surprised; the other half he simply gets what he expected.
The foundation of Buddhist doctrine are the Four Noble Truths.
Suffering, pain, and misery exist in life
Suffering arises from attachment to desire
Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
Freedom from Suffering is possible by practicing the Path
When we release our desires, and the “ideal picture” we create in our head, we begin to see the world in a different light. Jeremy Sherman, wrote an interesting piece in Psychology Today about how lowering our expectations also increases our compassion for others. If we are convinced that others’ troubles are simply a result of their own incapacity, we are driven to compassion for their helplessness. (As we build our case for low expectations, let’s put aside the obvious problem with such compassion; the ‘devouring mother’ who makes victims of the potentially competent.)
In summary, our case for low expectations is strong. In lowering our expectations, not only do we avoid disappointment, but we immediately become more compassionate for all the victims of circumstance and ability that we see around us.
Unmet expectations produce anxiety
“Expectations are the root of all heartache.” Shakespeare.
It’s interesting to consider that improper expectations could be a contributor to the anxiety crisis in our society. Are we giving ourselves anxiety by expecting too much from life? Perhaps, in part. In the following clip, Dr. Peterson explains that the psychological effect of unmet expectation is anxiety. When our predictions do not bear out, suddenly the irrelevant becomes relevant. Life isn’t what we thought it would be. Dr. Peterson said, “The violation of an expectation produces anxiety, You don’t just get anxious if something goes wrong, you get anxious, you get angry, you get curious, you get frustrated, you get depressed – it’s a bursting forward of emotional states.” When your imagined reality turns out to be false, you have to question all your assumptions, as I did. I had been lulled into a false state of security with my first son. I believed my idealized life was coming to fruition. I felt secure in my perceptions. My second son forced me into a state of anxiety as I re-imagined my life. Is motherhood just work and stress after all? Is there something seriously wrong with my son? What have I done to make him this way? (Understanding Anxiety Clip 5:10)
So it seems we have an open and shut case: happiness is to be found in low expectations….finally a short post. But, wait….I can hear those Existentialists mocking us, “Those fools think they’ve cracked it. When will they learn? These vain attempts to make life happy are futile; that’s not what life’s for! Living in a world of no disappointment, no expectation, and no apprehension is not only not possible, it misses the point of mortality.” We need to strive, we need to push beyond comfort, to the life of meaning and purpose.
The Picture in our Head
Oftentimes, our imaginings of what a good son, or good life, or marriage looks like is built from the perception of the ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’. What can ‘normal’ three-year-olds do? Can other kids sit still? We become anxious when our child doesn’t fit into the ‘normal’ box. My son is many things, but ‘normal’ is not one of them.
I had a powerful experience one night which woke me up to the damage the ‘ideal picture’ was doing to my relationship with my son. I prayed in frustration about my ‘naughty son’ and the difficulty of my life. I laid awake, self-pity surrounding me like a cloud, hoping to receive a feeling of comfort and understanding from above. Instead I was surprised by an undeniable feeling of rebuke. I suddenly became aware of the selfish and uncaring way I was treating my son. I was reminded of his value as a son of God, and that I had been entrusted with his care and nurture. That night, and over the next weeks and months, I began to let go of my imagined son. I started to appreciate my actual son. I realized all the joy I had been missing. I had missed out on glorying in who he was, opting for the envy of the imagined. I had been so worried he would never talk, or catch a football, or sit still, I had forgotten to laugh at his cute lisp, or glory in his large personality and determination. My expectations were about me, not about my son. As my previous post stated, I needed to allow him to grow into his unique self, supported by my respect and love.
How Low Is Too Low?
Once I realized my son should not be compared to some imagined dream-child, I had to determine what to expect, and how to act. I no longer cared that he wasn’t ‘normal’, I wanted him to become the best version of himself. So what next? Should I just set expectations to zero? The problem with setting expectations too low is we don’t get enough out of life to justify its difficulty. Our lives may be devoid of disappointment and responsibility but there is no hope of progress because there is no attempt to strive upward. If we have no confidence in our children’s ability to achieve, they notice, and act accordingly. They stop believing in themselves. We will also use our ‘compassion’ to further inhibit their progression. I remember well the allure of lowering the bar to avoid pain; “I’m not even gonna try potty training that kid till he’s four”, “Lets just never go to a restaurant again and avoid the embarrassment”- laying the foundations for a life of dependency. Children who are not pushed beyond their comfort zones are left with nothing to strive for, and no respect. The lows of expectations result in the highs of mediocrity.
We want our children, and ourselves, to rise to a challenge. Studies suggest children do better academically and athletically if they are driven by parents expectations* They are motivated by dreams and goals. As parents, one of our primary purposes is assisting our children to find purpose and reach their potential (link to article). For Cameron, I wanted to make sure he could read once he started school, and I believed he was capable. It took a full year, every day, sitting down with an often-unwilling child, practicing reading. It was not fun, but it worked. Now he can read, and read well! He even enjoys it and glories in his hard-fought skill. The joy I feel in my son’s accomplishment is only exceeded by his unbounding confidence. Dr. Peterson has said,“Why have a goal? That’s easy, no goal, no positive emotion. You experience positive emotion by noticing you are moving toward a goal.” (Understanding Emotions Clip 7:27)
We often have high expectations of the life we will lead, but low expectations of the amount of work it will take to achieve success. If we really want that ‘dream’ child, it won’t come easy, and pushing to achieve it may in fact harm your ‘real’ child’s well-being. As parents, we need to ensure that the ‘ideal picture’ of our children’s potential is truly what is best for them. We also need to accept the struggle and effort required to help our children achieve that potential. Fortunately there is happiness to be found in the proper perspective, and great fulfillment as parents in assisting our children to achieve their goals.
The Performance Lie
A few years ago I read the book, Nurture Shock. It describes how improper expectations can cause us to praise children in destructive ways. If we praise only for good performance, they will begin to fear failure. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control, they see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence (or ability) takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure,” said Dr. Carol Dweck. An emphasis on performance will cause children to place their of worth on their outward characteristics, rather than on their character or intrinsic worth. Instead we must focus on praising the things that we most want our children to value. Dr. Chris Thurman said in his book, The Lies we Believe, “Somehow we’ve gotten character and integrity mixed up with externals. While this attitude may be an inescapable part of our competitive living, it has created a feeling in many that we are only as good as our last ‘performance’.”
When our sense of worth and value are tied up with performance, we are subject to crisis when existential reality hits and tragedy befalls us. (If we women place our worth on our beauty, age will inevitably produce a crisis.) My son, Calvin’s, expectation is that he will play college basketball. If he blows out his knee, there will be a long, hard fall. Despite our best attempts to focus praise on effort, he increasingly seems to connect his “worth” to outcomes. We see an increase in anxiety in him as he strives for perfection. Being labeled ‘talented’ or ‘athletic’ by coaches and friends may seem positive, but such labels can make children afraid of failure. He doesn’t want to let anyone down. Our younger son achievements often come as a surprise, so Cameron takes risks without fear. Calvin has always excelled, so now he fears falling short, so he is less likely to try new things. However, if we can help Calvin base his sense of worth on the character he has built through hard work and sacrifice, rather than output and labels imposed on him, I am hopeful his anxiety will lessen.
Redefining our Expectations
Going back to the beginning of our post – the unhappy woman with a stable life may need to lower her expectations. The happy woman living in poverty may need to strive for more. But the truly fulfilled mother lives in the moment, and finds joy in the journey. She attempts to reshape expectations to match the potential of each unique child, push them towards it, and glory in their efforts.
Although it may seem difficult to determine the “proper expectations” it is actually quite simple. On the Sermon on the Mount the Lord tells us, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Living moment to moment unburdened by ‘toil’ and disappointment is possible. The truly profound clip of Jordan Peterson below, points to the Lord’s answer a few verses later, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” In seeking the greater good, we can let go of expectation. JBP says, “If you can figure your life so what you are genuinely doing is aiming at the highest possible good, then the things you need will deliver themselves to you.” (clip 7:30)
I have found this to be accurate. As I honestly seek the good for each of my sons, unburdened by my own “ideal picture”, I am guided moment to moment. I know when to push Cameron to try harder and when to encourage Calvin to lighten up. Aiming at their good allows me reduce my own anxiety in letting go of my imaginings; while also striving towards the highest possible good.
As I look at my two sons today, I see how weak and uninspired my ‘ideal picture’ was. I am so grateful I have been able to appreciate the gift they are. Their contrasting natures have brought depth and variety into our home that has made for a more satisfying and refining life. The reality of my love and admiration for my sons exceeds every expectation.
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