Monthly Archives: December 2011

Is There Only One Right Answer?

Here on the Lion’s Whiskers blog we have had much to say, recently, on the topic of moral courage and morality – how it is learned, how we can help our children develop it and how we can support it in them and ourselves. In its simplest terms, we can say that being guided by a moral conscience means being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, good or bad. And although there are certainly cultural differences that shade those words, “right” , “wrong”, “good” and “bad” in slightly different tones, I suspect most people would agree that if they saw a child bite another child and grab the toy away, they would discourage that behavior; and if they saw a child helping another one to stand up after a fall, I suspect they would mostly all want to encourage that. A deeper appreciation will also involve understanding why something is right or wrong, good or bad, understanding what values may be involved and why we might want to promote them. Our justice system recognizes a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and a robust conscience will always, I hope, seek to follow the spirit behind the letter rather than rigidly adhering to the letter and allowing the spirit be distorted. Children can be adroit litigators, triumphantly reminding us of our exact words when we suspect they knew full well what we meant to imply when we said them. This is definitely good training for a parent or teacher in being really really really crystal clear, but it also leaves behind the uneasy feeling that some moral quicksand may be nearby, that queasy sensation that my child just “got away with” something right in front of my eyes, and we both know it. We want our children to consider our explicit words and their implicit meaning, taking account of what our family’s lived ethics are.

This capacity for seeking, questioning,  interpreting and choosing is moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is a process that can easily produce two or more “right” responses to a situation just as it may discover more than one “wrong” response. What I wonder about is an education system that places so much emphasis on high stakes standardized testing, and whether children are internalizing the message that when it really counts, there is only one right answer.   The stress and anxiety associated with these tests is bad enough, but I wonder about other possible effects as well. There may be only one right answer to the algebra problem, but if that postulate – that there is but one right answer – is carried over into other parts of our children’s lives, what then? 

I don’t know if this is happening or not. I can share an anecdote from my teaching experience, however. For many years I have visited schools around the U.S. as a guest author, often giving writing and researching workshops as part of my visit. On one such trip to a Texas middle school I tried to demonstrate to the students how I interpret historical photographs, extrapolating information from the observable details. What met this lesson was an almost complete inability – or unwillingness – to hazard a guess, to propose a possible interpretation, to reason from the evidence. Repeated urging got me nowhere. “Do you see leaves on the trees in the photograph? No? So do you think this picture was taken in the summer? Do the people appear to you to be warmly dressed? Are they engaged in leisurely activities or do they appear to be under any stress?” Later, over lunch with the librarian who had invited me, I asked her about the students’ stifled response. “They won’t guess,” she said. “They don’t like to make inferences. They won’t draw conclusions in case they are wrong.” I have shared this anecdote with other librarians and teachers around the country, and been told it did not surprise them.

Does that necessarily tell us anything about these kids’ ability to engage in moral reasoning? I don’t know. But I do know that the world is full of nuance and subtle differences in interpretation, and I’m not sure that lots and lots of practice filling in bubbles on test forms under stress is likely to be good preparation for that. Moreover, it seems more likely to result in people who follow the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. All the more reason to engage our kids in lively ethical debate at home, giving them room and time to find their way, reason their way, to a response that makes sense to them, that feels ‘right.

Dear reader, if you have a strong rebuttal to my proposition, please share. I’d like to be proven wrong.

As an aside, here is an article from the Washington Post about what happened when a school board member took the standardized tests his state requires of 10th graders.


Candles are magical. The Lovely K. and I light candles at dinner most nights, and try to bring someone into our circle of flickering light as we do so – grandma and grandpa, friends far away, soldiers fighting in wars, someone who is sick or facing a difficult challenge. Making the candle’s flame part of a ritual enhances our reverence and our awareness and our gratitude for our meal. It always seemed to me that having this special fire available on a nightly basis made sense, that it would be a way to make fire a familiar member of our family instead of an exotic and dangerous stranger.

I taught K. how to light matches and how to blow out candles without spraying wax on the table.

Her school has a number of traditions that involve the children lighting and carrying candles. These events are beautiful and spiritual, and tell the kids, “We trust you with this special gift.” The children are always careful and make themselves worthy of our trust. When I was a child, we had special candle holders from Germany for the Christmas tree. Each year on Christmas Eve we would turn off the lamps, light these candles and then sit, almost breathless, watching them fill the living room with candle light. This would last ten minutes or so until my parents reached the limit of their nerves and we blew them out. Beauty with danger added magic to the expectation of the night.

Now, in my adult life, I am privileged to know a good and generous woman of Swedish descent who hosts a Santa Lucia party each December at dawn on the saint’s day. The grown-up guests rouse their children from sleep at 5:30, and bundle them into the car in their pajamas. We reach our friend’s house, where the walkway is lined by blocks of ice with candles glowing inside. We are ushered into a darkened living room and given unlit candles. The sleepy children squirm and whisper and are shushed; adults fumble in the dark for seats and give surprised greetings when they discover who is sitting beside them. When everyone is assembled, our hostess waits for quiet and then lights one candle to hold before her. She tells the story of Santa Lucia, who came in a time of famine and darkness and cold in Sweden, with candles on her head to light the way, and her arms filled with food for the hungry people.

The children listen to the legend, hushed. When the story is over, all faces turn to the dark staircase where a faint glow is now visible. Down comes Santa Lucia, in a white dress and red sash, with a beautiful crown of flowers and burning candles balanced on her head.She walks in a circle of golden light. The moment brings goosebumps. The beauty and danger of the fire lights us all to a peak of awareness; we feel gratitude that there is goodness and generosity in the world. We sing the beautiful Santa Lucia song as the flame is passed from candle to candle, filling the room with light. We know the sun will rise in a few more minutes, and we’ll have a Swedish breakfast and sing Christmas carols. In an excited huddle the girls speculate which of them will be chosen next year to wear the white dress and the crown of fire. “I would be too scared!” the younger ones say, or, “I hope I get to do it!” the older ones whisper. Soon we’ll leave the party while the morning is still fresh, our hearts full of courage to face the darkest part of the year.

Please go here for our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Playing With Fire