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Showing posts with label moral courage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral courage. Show all posts

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Courage Book Review: Beautiful Souls

I've just finished reading Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).  This book shares the stories of several people in different times and different walks of life who demonstrated moral courage at great risk: a Swiss border officer who defied the law to help Jews flee from Nazi oppression; a Serb soldier who "identified" Croat prisoners as Serbian to save them from genocide; an Israeli soldier refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories; a financial adviser blowing the whistle on a Ponzi scheme that was bilking thousands of investors of their life savings; a U.S. military prosecutor questioning the treatment of Muslim POWs at Guantanamo Bay.  Press interviewed all of these people, trying to dig to the bottom of what causes "ordinary" people to make decisions that turn them into rebels, renegades or outliers.  It's fascinating reading, although somewhat disconcerting.   Although Hollywood would have us believe that the moral hero rides into the sunset to the sounds of a grand and inspiring soundtrack, none of these actual moral heroes obeyed their conscience without paying a heavy price.  

Press points out that at the very least,  refusing to conform stirs anger and resentment among those who are conforming.  If you and I are both members of Group A, and I announce that the activities of Group A are morally questionable or even evil, then by implication you accept their validity if you don't walk out with me.  What is striking about the people in these profiles is that they were almost all people who fervently upheld the values and principles of their group originally; it was that very conviction that led them to break ranks when those values became distorted or poisoned.  As the military prosecutor poignantly stated, his sworn duty to protect the U.S. Constitution made it impossible for him to accept what he saw without speaking out.  Yet the consequences for all these conscientious resistors were significant: social exclusion, financial ruin, loss of security, loss of faith in previously esteemed institutions.

It is difficult to read these stories without feeling some misgivings about moral courage and the price it exacts.  Does raising a child to be a good citizen of the world, who has conviction, integrity, and an audible conscience place that child at risk?  In my opinion it does, and yet I also hear my own conscience telling me it's the right thing for me to do.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Death of Edith Cavell

A number of years ago I encountered the story of Edith Cavell for the first time and was strongly tempted to write a book about her.  The book plan got sidelined, but the story has stayed with me.  Edith Cavell was an English nurse at the turn of the 20th century.  Professional nursing was still relatively new, and trained nurses and nursing schools were few and far between.  Because Cavell had spent time in Belgium in her younger days, she was invited to go there to help start that country's first professional nursing school.

It was while she was engaged in this project that World War I began, and it wasn't long before her nursing school was recruited as a full-fledged hospital for Allied soldiers.  Belgium, sitting between Germany and France, was the scene of heavy fighting as the German army advanced.  Cavell's hospital was soon filled with wounded English soldiers, and when they recovered sufficiently, Cavell smuggled them to neutral Netherlands so they could return safely to their units, or to England.  Over 200 soldiers evaded capture by the German army through her efforts.

For this "crime," Cavell was eventually arrested by the Germans and tried for treason - and executed by firing squad, despite frantic, international, diplomatic efforts to prevent her sentence from being carried out.

Before facing the firing squad, Cavell famously said, "Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." 

Looking back through 100 years, we can speculate about the types of courage that may have motivated Nurse Cavell in her choices.  Becoming a nurse at all in that day was a risky move - it wasn't something "nice girls" did.  But she did.   Then simultaneously running a hospital and a smuggling operation would have required a degree of fortitude and executive management that somewhat boggles the mind.  Intellectual courage would have enabled focus and adaptability.  We know that she was a devout member of the Anglican church, and it seems fair to say that spiritual courage - that which fortifies us with a sense of purpose and meaning and makes forgiveness possible - was a significant part of her makeup.  (She was the daughter of a vicar, and raised with an ethic of sharing). Moral courage was clearly there, as well as the physical courage that nursing requires, especially wartime nursing.  She must also have had a very strong internal locus of control to believe that she was capable of effecting change amid the chaos of war, and to act so purposefully in on that conviction.

Much beyond that is difficult to surmise.  She was known as a private woman, reserved and formal toward her students and patients.  During her court-martial she made no attempt to disavow her activities, and she reportedly went to the firing squad with composure.  She was clearly a woman of great courage.

It is important to us on Lion's Whiskers, however, to make it clear that courageous action is not limited to life-and-death risks such as the ones Edith Cavell took.  We have every reason to admire her courage, but we can't let it convince us that because we haven't done anything like this and faced a firing squad, we have not shown courage.  We are all capable of courage, because the risks we face are proportionate to our capacities and our circumstances.   If a teen speaks out against a popular bully and risks ostracism, it is no less courageous because there's no firing squad in the offing.  A social "firing squad" can be devastating, and the number of teens who commit suicide because of it are tragic evidence.  

So let Edith Cavell inspire, but not intimidate. 



You can read more about Edith Cavell here on the website dedicated to her memory.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Courage to Survive

This video of concentration camp survivor, Alie Herz-Sommer, is a marvelous example of human courage!   She is interviewed by Anthony Robbins on the eve of her 108th birthday. 


We particularly noted:
1. the role that parent-child attachment played in her ability to withstand this ordeal,
2. her attitude of gratitude ("everything is a present"),
3. her life-saving optimism.

All things we can teach and model for our children, or that they teach us, that help develop our courage and resilience in life! Enjoy!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Disobedience

One of the members of our church choir is a dedicated peace activist who has been arrested more than once for her protest work; from time to time she reports on the status of charges against her. When my daughter first understood that this woman had been put in jail because of her beliefs, she was intrigued. This led to a discussion about democracy and civil disobedience, and to the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. The stories about Rosa Parks and Dr. King have become part of American mythology, and I was proud to tell her some of those stories.

I quickly found myself in rather deep water, however, since explaining the background of the struggle required discussing racism and its destructive manifestation in our history of African slavery. Imagine the squirming I suffered inside as I (a white woman) explained to my newly-adopted Ethiopian daughter how white people went to Africa to steal black people and bring them here against their will, their heritage stripped from them. The growing look of baffled alarm on my daughter’s face finally resolved itself into a gut punch of a question. “Am I your slave?”

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.  To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable."
~Helen Keller


It’s New Year’s Day and I’m taking a different approach to planning my 2012 New Year’s Resolutions.  I’ve tried and failed many times in some of my previous vain attempts at perfectionism disguised as self-improvement.  In fact, when reading Gretchen Rubin’s bestseller, The Happiness Project, the only commandment for happiness (submitted by one of her readers) that resonated with me long after finishing the book was: “I am already enough.”  These days I prefer books that open my mind to possibility, rather than filling it with worry about all the ways I am not YET enough.  I'm trying to adopt a more relaxed, hands-in-the-air-less-white-knuckle-approach to riding this roller coaster called life.  I like books that are more bucket list than to-do list.  Though goal-setting is important and empowering, mining our dreams often requires getting fear out of the way first.  Diane Conway’s book What Would You Do if You Had No Fear?:  Living Your Dreams While Quakin’ in Your Boots, for example, is filled with stories of folks who mustered the courage to conquer their fears and follow their dreams. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

Always do right. That will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
-- Mark Twain.

Thursday, December 8, 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.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Courage Question of the Day


Here at Lion's Whiskers we are hoping to collect kids' definitions for some of the values most commonly associated with moral courage

We would appreciate your help! 

Could you ask your children to define, in their own words, one or more of the following?  Please send us their age, first name (if you are comfortable), country, and what they understand these words to mean.   

  • Loyalty
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Fairness
  • Impartiality
  • Justice
You may be impressed, surprised, or even shocked by what your child has already learned, or not, about what these powerful words mean to them in their life.  We hope the discussion prompts new insights and hope you will share with us your learning!  Thanks for your help!  Send your responses to: lisa@drlisaparentcoaching.com

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Surviving the Lion AND the Fox!

Travellers' Decorated CaravanI found a very interesting story the other day that highlights moral courage in an unusual way. Animal fables typically offer the lion and the fox as examples of physical courage and intellectual courage, brawn vs. brains. Here we have a story from the very old Gypsy tradition, a story which demonstrates a different way an outcast group manages to survive. I found The Lion, the Fox, and the Bird in The Fish Bride and Other Gypsy Tales, retold by Jean Russel Larson. This is book well worth reading if you can find it. I'll just summarize this story briefly.

In this story, a new bird arrives in a part of the forest that is home to a lion and a fox. Not being a fast flyer, the bird is warned by everyone to leave. "I'll have to get the lion and the fox to leave," the bird replies. "It's really too dangerous to have them here." While the lion and the fox are both contemplating the nice meal they'll make of the bird, the bird turns the tables on them both by appealing for help. The bird asks the lion to perform an act of physical strength (moving some fallen trees to reveal the berry bushes) and the fox to figure out how to get reeds from the pond for building a nest (he tells the herons that the fishing will be better if they pull out the reeds). Both lion and fox are stymied by this appeal to their generosity, as they cannot eat someone they've helped, and they must help when someone weaker asks for assistance. Once they have taken responsibility for the bird by helping, they must do the right thing and leave it be. Hungry, and rather baffled at having chosen not to eat the bird, the lion and the fox leave that part of the forest and search for somebody else to eat.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice.  "
 ~Confucius
To learn more about what we mean by "Moral Courage", click here!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Courage Quote of the Day

"We don't conquer this world's mischief and wrongdoing and malice once and for all, and then forever after enjoy the moral harvest of that victory.  Rather, we struggle along, even stumble along, from day to day, in need of taking stock yet again, with the help of a story, a movie, not to mention the experiences that, inevitably and not so rarely, come into our daily lives."
~ Robert Coles, The Moral Intelligence of Children
For more about moral courage,  click here!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Truth to Power

On this blog we've been discussing moral courage quite a lot lately.  One sign of a lack of moral courage is hypocrisy.  A story the Lovely K. has enjoyed hearing is from the Jewish tradition of midrash, or tales that fill in some of the sketched outlines of Bible stories with more detail. This is one of the more famous of the traditional midrashim, Abraham the Idol Smasher. 

In his youth, Abraham lived in Babylon, in Iraq, and his father was among the elite favored by the king.  Abraham had the habit of turning a studious gaze on power, and he had plenty of opportunity for doing just that. His father was a prominent idol merchant, who manufactured statues of this god, that god, any god his wealthy customers asked for. "How old are you?" Abraham might ask a customer, over his father's protests. "Sixty," might be the reply. "Strange, how a man of sixty will bow before a stone statue carved yesterday," Abraham would point out. (This was not so good for business!) One day, Abraham's father reluctantly left his son to watch the store while he made an out-of-town delivery, and woman came in with an offering of grain to leave before one of the statues. "I'll take care of it," Abraham assured her as she left.

When she had gone, he put the grain before one of the statues. And nothing happened. Then he put it in front of a different statue, and again, nothing happened. Certainly there was no argument from the first god who'd been offered it! Abraham then picked up a hammer and methodically smashed all the statues except one, and left the hammer in front of that idol.

Upon his return, Abraham's father was horrified to see the mess in the shop. "What in all gods' names have you done!" he cried out to his son. "Me?" said Abraham. "This idol here did it," he continued, pointing to the one unbroken statue. "What are you talking about, that stone has no power!" the father roared. Abraham nodded. "Exactly my point."


My daughter laughs at this story (okay, I use funny gestures and expressions as I tell it; it's not especially hilarious on its own). This one is always food for conversation about how often we see people say one thing but then turn around and say or do the opposite. We sometimes discuss why that might happen, and I try to keep the speculation compassionate - I don't want either of us to become sanctimonious or self-righteous about it, after all. From people with no power, saying one thing and doing another may be a matter of survival. But it is important to know what speaking truth to power requires, and it's always worth shining a spotlight of attention on doublespeak and hypocrisy from people in authority. I do include parents in that group, in the context of the family. Our children are always watching us, and noticing if our deeds and our words are in alignment. So I tell my daughter this story, and I ask myself privately, what idols am I paying lip service to that she may one day smash?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Flourishing or Withering on the Vine

Lisa's recent post describing how moral courage has its roots in empathy had me thinking. What about those times when empathy is blighted or stunted? What becomes of moral courage then? We can look back into history to find periods of what we might call “low empathy” – times when public torture and execution were carnival attractions, when heavy-handed corporal punishment of children or slaves/serfs/servants was commonplace, when mockery and abuse of the disabled was the stuff of fun and games, when might made right, life was cheap, and persecution of selected out-groups was sanctioned by law. Under these conditions, how did “moral action” occur? How did the “family” of humanity uphold mostly positive behavior and tend toward care and flourishing rather than harm? In other words, how did the family make enough “right” or “good” decisions to survive in these times? We are born hard-wired for empathy, but someone has to teach us how to turn it on. As a gardener, I think of it in gardening terms, and so I see empathy as a seedling that must be nurtured and cultivated, or the flower can wither on the vine. How did this plant stay alive under some of the harsh conditions history has witnessed?

We might infer at least two things about this from a quick glance back at history. First, it is clear that there were often eras when civilizations did not flourish, but declined into darkness or anarchy. Historically, periods of chaos were often precipitated by environmental assaults (famines, plagues, extreme climate events such as prolonged droughts) or social upheavals (invasions, wars, and revolutions political, ideological, or technological). Often the social catastrophes followed hard on the heels of the environmental ones, magnifying the disruptive effect of both, and the chaos prompted by these crises sometimes took many generations to recover from. Scarcity of resources can narrow the scope of our empathy from concern for all others, to concern just for those most like us, to those closest to us, and finally, to ourselves alone.
 
         Secondly, we can see that extremely domineering law/justice systems (autocratic kingly dynasties, strict or wrathful theologies and political dogmas) can enforce good or "moral" behavior, or at least constrain immoral behavior, but primarily by threat of punishment (in this life or after), rather than by promoting empathy.  This suggests a tendency to rigidly adhere to the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit behind it.  Just as toddlers obey rules because they fear punishment, rather than because they have internalized the "spirit of the law" or the values behind the rules (fairness, accountability, cooperative flourishing, etc.), societies held in check by a totalitarian or despotic state or ideology can easily devolve into anarchy when that system collapses. (Remember Yugoslavia, to cite just one example from recent history?) A breakdown in empathy, or concern for others, which is prompted by disruption, upheaval and fear (on the family level or the societal level) may thus compel the parent or the state to lay down stricter and stronger rules/laws and punishments. This is a downward spiral that takes significant moral courage to reverse.

        Yet it is out of scenarios such as this that great moral heroes can emerge, from some hidden garden where the seeds of empathy were kept watered and sheltered. Because the norm in these scenarios is low empathy, these moral heroes almost seem to appear by superhuman agency, giving rise to mythologies and heroic legends. Yet we all have the capacity for empathy, and thus for moral courage. When times get tough we can run for cover and let the Devil take the hindmost, or we can stand our ground and focus on raising good citizens of the world. How does your garden grow?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Raising a Good Citizen of the World

"I've learned that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin, and that every warrior, every humanitarian, every citizen is built to live with both.  In fact, to win a war, to create peace, to save a life, or just to live a good life requires of usevery one of usthat we be both good and strong." 


Eric Greitens, Author of The Heart and The Fist:  The Education of a Humanitarian, The Making of a Navy Seal (2011)


So, what’s a parent to do to help raise a good citizen in this world? 
Let's face it our kids need to be equipped to be able handle increasingly complex moral issues involving a multitude of cultures participating together in a global economy (stacked precariously on  questionable foundations), with exponential population growth, and environmental concerns that don't leave any corner of our globe unaffected.  The ripple effect of our daily decisions from how treat our neighbor, to whether to vote or not, to where we spend our money, to how we deal with our garbage now send ripples farther and wider than ever before in history.  Learning to solve our planet's problems in sustainable, cooperative ways is more important than ever!

Here are Dr. Lisa's suggestions to consider:
  • Nurture a strong, secure, and loving bond with your child from infancy through adolescence.  Through this bond, you can become a powerful mentor for your child—especially during tough times. 
  • Show empathy and compassion for others.  Share out loud your curiosity about how others feel, think, believe, and live.  Make it okay to discuss differences and notice all the similarities the human family shares.
  • Offer lots of opportunities through family time and socialization opportunities for your child to develop care and concern for others, their community, and the environment.
  • Model the values you wish your child to embrace: honesty, kindness, etc.
  • Define the values that matter to you as a family, notice them in your everyday life,  discuss why they are important to you?  Pick a value a week, like those Lion's Whiskers  associates most with moral courage
    ·         Loyalty
    ·         Trust
    ·         Honesty
    ·         Integrity
    ·         Accountability
    ·         Responsibility
    ·         Fairness
    ·         Impartiality
    ·         Justice.
  • Show self-discipline in creating the kind of life you wish them to emulate.
  • Teach goal-setting and decision-making skills.
  • Discuss and weigh the pros and cons associated with simple and complex moral dilemmas involving not only “right vs. wrong,” but also even more complicated “right vs. right” or “wrong vs. wrong” scenarios. 
  • Show respect for yourself and others, especially your children.
  • Put the Six Types of Courage into action—let your child witness you walking your talk, taking personal responsibility, and having the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
  • Embrace a multicultural perspective for what is good and right in this world—you don’t have to eat, marry, or pray like others, but you can still model respect and tolerance for differences.  You can venture to be curious about, seek to understand, and even embrace different cultural beliefs as appropriate.
  • Model what a good citizen is for your child, and work together to make your family, community, and the world-at-large a better place to live.  Seek out lots of opportunities to do good and be charitable in the world together.
  • Pick a cause you believe in to contribute your time, money, signatures, and care to as a family.
  • Praise your child when they act in ways that are moral, good, and in sync with your family values.
  • Provide a community of like-minded friends, family members, teachers, religious and/or civic leaders for your child to learn from.
  • Read traditional moral tales (this is a link to Jennifer's bookshelf) and discuss the life lessons they understand imbedded within the story.  Jennifer regularly provides tales to choose from in her previous posts, too!  Just click on this link to find a treasure trove of moral courage stories to share.  Help them put into their own words the moral of the story, see if they can offer an example from their own life when they’ve had to “never give up,” “do the right thing,” “tell the truth,” or “be loyal to a friend”.  Highlight future opportunities for them to put into practice the particular value you wish them to emulate.  Narvaez, Gleason, Mitchell, and Bentley (1999) caution parents and teachers that simply reading moral stories to children does not guarantee their understanding of the core moral message.  In the imagination of a five year-old, a story like The Little Engine That Could (1930), the “Little Engine” could be faced with the nonmoral theme (one highly related to courage) of simply never giving up.   A nine year-old reader, on the other hand, may relate to the underlying moral lesson pertaining to importance of perseverance in order to help others. As children mature, and their prefrontal cortex continues to develop into young adulthood, they are capable of increasingly complex interpretations and better able to identify complex moral dilemmas and a story’s underlying moral message. 
For more guidance about how to help your child become a responsible citizen, Navaraez (2005) helped develop this downloadable book, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. 

How are you raising your child to be a good citizen?  We'd love to hear your ideas, too! 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Sea of Stories


Haroun and the Sea of Stories“Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.” Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

I confess to being a huge Rushdie fan, not so much because of his work (although Midnight’s Children is arguably one of the greatest novels of world literature), but because I have heard him speak – about stories, and about the experience of being in fear for his life because of storytelling. For those of you too young to recall, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, brought down the wrath of the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran with a fatwa, a sentence of death, in 1989. In short, the Ayatollah said that his followers had an obligation to execute Rushdie. There was a huge international outcry that continued for years; nevertheless, Rushdie was forced into hiding for several years, truly in mortal danger while violence and book burnings erupted around the world. It was appalling.
WWII poster protesting Nazi book burnings
His first book after this experience was Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a fantastical riff on the 1,001 Arabian Nights which he wrote, he said, partly to explain to his son what had happened to him. The control of stories and storytelling is one of the first things on every dictator’s to-do list; can there be any better evidence about the power that stories have? As the tyrant in Haroun complains, inside every story is a world that he can’t control.
Authoritarian regimes fear the independence of thought and action that stories encourage. In my role as the Lovely K.’s personal bard, I must always be on the lookout for my own motives in choosing or not choosing a story for her. If I pass over a story because I’m afraid it will “give her ideas,” then I probably should go back and tell that story without delay! As a parent I am a one-person authoritarian regime, but if I must be a dictator then I can at least strive to be an enlightened and benevolent one. After all, independence of thought and action is what I’m trying to teach my daughter. Isn’t that what we mean by courage?


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hard-wired to Care: You Matter in the Moral Life of your Child!

Current moral psychology research indicates that as parents we are our child’s first and most important teacher of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.  The good  news is that from birth, humans (and other primates for that matter) are hard-wired to care.  According to psychologist and primatologist Franz De Waal (2010), empathy, or being able to feel/care/think on another’s behalf, is an instinctual, adaptive capacity that helps us all survive. 

Empathy is at the root of being a good person, or ape, whatever the case may be.  Infants as young as six months old can differentiate kindness from meanness.  By 12 months, infants begin to express care for others in distress. And by 14-18 months, these children show signs of altruistic (unrewarded) helping behaviors towards others (Decety, Michalska, and Kinzler, 2011).  Moral reasoning develops as children learn to integrate their inborn empathy with more complex social-reasoning abilities.  As parents, we have the responsibility to help our children learn how to connect and activate, through practice, that wiring through our care for them.

Developing a moral conscience is no longer understood to be a logical or even stage-by-stage process as proposed by the grandfather of moral development theory, Lawrence Kohlberg (1984).  Social Intuitionist theorists like Jonathan Haidt (2001) conclude that human beings are much less logical and much more intuitive, emotional, and automatic in their moral decision-making and responsiveness.  Moral psychologists like Darcia Narvaez, have developed several integrative theories, weaving together current neurobiology with more traditional cognitive and developmental psychology theories concerning the nature of moral development.  Her research explores questions of moral cognition, moral development and moral character education.  She is, in essence, trying to show that moral behavior in humans is driven  by both bottom-up (reptilian brain instincts and limbic system responses) and top-down processes (higher brain metacognition and executive function linked with the development of our prefrontal cortex).

What does all this have to do with parenting and moral courage?

Narvaez’s Triune Ethics Theory (TET) (2007), concludes that a “fully functional moral brain” is an evolutionary adaptation dependent upon modern childrearing practices that support healthy attachment.  Such secure parent/caregiver-child attachment leads to the kind of neurobiological development necessary for moral behavior.  Which in normal speak means, with regards to the moral development of your child, YOU MATTER BIG TIME in helping to wire your child’s brain in ways that are both adaptive and moral!  Read my post from last week, for an example of how much parents do matter!

Moral conscience, therefore, is now understood to be an instinctual and learned skill best passed on from parent to child through loving communication, care, and consistency.  It all starts in the chemical soup called LOVE and with the way we hold our babes!

It is the heart with which you bring to parenting that will help define your child’s orientation towards prosocial behavior (which is loosely defined as: empathic caring about the welfare and rights of others and acting in ways that benefit humanity).

However, Narvaez and Vaydich (2008) caution that modern parenting practices, particularly in America, either do not afford or underestimate the importance of spending the kind of time ensuring secure parent-child attachment.  They and others, like De Waal, voice concerns that we must not drop the ball on being the kind of attentive mentors our kids need to develop a healthy moral conscience.  It can be hard these days with so many different technologies, extracurricular activities, and financial realities competing for our attention.  Especially as our children enter adolescence, when their moral compass increasingly shifts towards the magnetic appeal of peer and mainstream media influence.  It takes moral courage to be the parent who shuts down the party where alcohol is served to minors.  To demand better workplace hours, benefits, or childcare policies so your children are made a priority.  Or to advocate for your child in a school where bullying may be the elephant in the lunchroom cafeteria.

When we are engaged in consistent, loving parenting—which is at the basis of secure parent-child bonds—everyday teachable moments with our children abound.  Teachable moments that can facilitate the transmission of moral values through moral instruction, modeling, supervision, and even the kind of story-telling associated with helping children to become good people. 

Narvaez and Vaydich (2008) urge educators, too, to become the kind of safe, caring mentors children need.  They believe school teachers are placed with an increasingly heavy burden of responsibility in helping to shape the future leaders of our world, in lieu of parental involvement and supervision.   In fact, these researchers encourage teachers to establish the same kind of secure attachments with their students, through attention and emotional awareness, in order to help ensure children will learn and follow the moral guidelines with which classrooms best function.  Moral guidelines like: be kind, wait your turn, share, pick up your garbage, tell the truth, and don't poke your classmate!



For a list of ways to help support your child's moral development, be sure to read my post next Sunday!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Good News and Bad News

The good news: here is a delightful story I was reminded of recently, the story of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, a tale of moral courage, physical courage, emotional courage, the story that gives us the popular image of beating back disaster by the narrowest margin: the finger in the dike. I loved this story when I was young. It was so inspiring!

In the old city of Haarlem, the sea was held back by strong dikes, great walls of earth which protected the low-lying coastal lands. From atop the dykes one had beautiful views of the sea on one side, and the rich green farms on the other. For a little boy named Hendrik, walking along the tops of the dikes was a great pleasure, and one evening, coming home from his grandmother's house, he was enjoying the view of the wintry sea when he heard a small, watery trickle. The light was fading, but he peered around, wondering where the sound was coming from. He cocked an ear, and following the noise he made his way down the back side of the dike, where shadows were already gathering. To his dismay, he saw water spurting through a tiny hole. Now, Hendrik was very young, but even young children in that country knew that the dikes were what protected their farms and homes and livestock. A small leak could quickly become a larger leak, and when the tide turned and pressed with all its might the dike could give way completely, flooding the entire city! In growing alarm, Hendrik looked around for something to plug the hole with. Nothing. Without giving it further thought, Hendrik stuck his finger into the dike. "Help!" he cried, looking out across the twilit fields. "Help!" Night fell, and the cold, damp air wrapped around the shivering, frightened boy. Visions of his warm supper and fireside filled his imagination, only to be chased away by visions of raging floodwaters. He dared not leave, for he knew it could spell disaster. "Help!" he called again, his voice hoarse. "Someone help me!" At last, he saw a lantern bobbing in the darkness, coming closer and closer. A search party had been sent to find him, his father in the lead. "My brave boy!" Hendrik's father cried. While the strong men of Haarlem set to work repairing the dike, the young hero was carried home, given his supper, and tucked into bed.

Delightful story! Beloved by millions! But here's the bad news. I'm sorry to say that this story is not a traditional Dutch story at all, but 19th Century American product of "Holland-Mania." Careful consideration of the story along with even the slightest experience with wet soil will make it clear that the story cannot represent any sort of real scenario. The Dutch, with centuries of experience of using dikes to keep the sea out of their low-lying country, would never have invented such an improbable tale. If an earthen dike is saturated enough with water to start leaking, one finger will never hold back the tide.  I reckon the inventor of the tale was picturing something more like a brick wall with a bit of loose mortar, not a real levee or dike.

And yet, what is interesting (to me) is how popular the story became, and how enduring the image of the boy with his finger in the dike is. We like to imagine the lone, small, heroic figure struggling against a mighty force to do the right thing. Perhaps what comforts us is thinking that we can be saved by the efforts of a few individuals while we are comfortably eating our dinners, and that our courage can be kept warm and dry while someone else braves the rising tide. Sorry to say, I don't think that's true. Neither do the Dutch, by the way. In 2007 that country prepared a 200-year plan to deal with the effects of global climate change and rising sea levels on their low-lying nation. Talk about the intellectual courage to tackle uncomfortable facts!

Just because this story isn't a traditional folk tale doesn't mean I won't tell it to my daughter.  Helping her develop courage is part of my plan for preparing for the future.  It's not a 200-year plan, more of a 20-year plan.  We all need the courage of the Brave Little Dutch Boy, even if he was fabricated as an unrealistic, romantic fantasy.  So really, this is more a Bad News/Good News essay than a Good News/Bad News one.  The bad news is we are all going to need a lot of courage; the good news is, we all have that potential, especially our kids. 




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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Using Moral Courage to Navigate Facebook and other Social Jungles!

On the eve of my son’s adolescence, he begged me to let him have a facebook account. At the time, there was a loosely followed guideline that only those 13 years and older could log on and join.  Since I didn’t really understand yet how best to navigate my first born’s adolescence anymore than facebook’s social jungle, I was stalling for time. 

I was also, it turns out, arbitrarily setting his adolescence entrance at age 13 and at facebook’s front door.   I could have opted for the more traditional Native American vision quest to mark his transition from childhood to adulthood.  But with no Native American ancestry whatsoever, such a quest would not only be totally out of integrity, but likely to involve a lot more preparation and trouble.  What wilderness could he wander alone in anyway to complete the sometimes weeks long journey from boy-to-manhood?  A place devoid of traffic, people, and other modern day distractions where he could survive with little water or food, where I wouldn't go nuts with worry? How long could I put off his school’s attendance officer calling every morning wondering whether or not he had yet achieved the necessary spiritual insight and maturity sufficient to return a more mature young man to middle school?  The East African male circumcision was out of the question, too, for obvious reasons.  So, facebook became intertwined with my son’s quest for more independence and offered a secret passageway to a parallel universe far, far away from anything mom or dad could even remotely understand. 

Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of facebook.  I am, however, shamelessly using it to help promote Lion's WhiskersI also didn’t know yet the kind of evils we would encounter together in this particular social networking jungle. 

The arbitrary age limit thing didn’t stop him from pestering me a lot.  I half-listened to his complaints about how EVERYONE else and their mother has a facebook page.  Even when he said “Mom, someone at school has made a facebook account with my name.” I absentmindedly responded, “Well, just tell them to delete it!” 

A few months passed.  Little did I know the scope of my son’s classmate’s moral indiscretion.  Or the impact that someone hacking into our family’s life could have!  Because I did not take the time to understand my son’s pleas, or facebook for that matter,  I was ill-equipped and too distracted to help him navigate this moral morass.  Big mistake!  He eventually took matters into his own hands, with the help of an older friend, and created his own facebook account with a pseudonym. Since  his classmate wouldn’t stop impersonating him, he reasoned he should alert his friends that though they thought they were “friending” him on facebook, they were actually communicating with an imposter.

We are pretty connected, my son and I.  He also breaks pretty easily when I kick my training in therapy/interrogation techniques into high gear.  I could tell he was hiding something.  Something was heavy on his heart.  It took about a day for me to discover that he had just joined the facebook generation, albeit as a dude by the name of  “Ferbmeister.” He faced the consequences from us.  He was lectured pretty heavily about the ills associated with lying, unsupervised computer access, and the fact that two wrongs don't make a right. 

As his parents, we spent an entire weekend trying to understand who and how this other child had managed to “friend” people we knew all over North America.  Not one parent of any of the other children alerted us to the fact that this impersonator was “friending” them on behalf of our son, despite having their suspicions and knowing that our kids weren't allowed on facebook.  Thankfully, one was willing to share who the impersonating child was.  If we don't stick together as parents, with a common vision to help guide our children towards moral, right, or otherwise kind behavior, our children are at risk for not developing the kind of moral courage we are proposing through Lion's Whiskers.

Next, I mustered the moral and social courage to confront, albeit diplomatically and without accusation, the parents of the child who we knew was impersonating our son.  Their response was defensive and they minimized the impact of their child's actions.  “It’s just kids being kids.  Besides, our child isn't really ever on the computer and wouldn't know how to do such a thing even if they were.” WHAT?!  I mean I’ve heard of putting your head in the sand, but this parent had theirs deep in the Sahara!

ostrich head in sand

Whether out of embarrassment, denial, or a lack of comfort with the kind of authority we have the privilege to hold as parents, it is, in my opinion, unacceptable to shelter our children from the consequences of their actions. 

We never received an apology from the child or the family, nor were any of our friends notified that who they thought they were communicating with for all those months was not, in fact, our child.  It took weeks for us to undo the child's handiwork and for the child to finally delete the account, after we alerted the powers that be at facebook.  It saddened my heart that this child would not receive the benefit of a consequence to help them correct their moral compass in the direction of ethical, kind behavior.  And it really angered my kids. 

Kids, for the most part, have a pretty good sense of the difference between right and wrong on the playground, so this wasn’t much different.  Research now shows that from birth, humans are hard-wired to care.  As parents, we have the responsibility to help them learn how to connect and activate, through practice, that wiring through our care for them.  Developing a moral conscience is no longer understood to be a logical or even stage-by-stage process.  Rather, it is a learned skill best passed from parent to child through loving communication, care, and in my case, finally listening to my child’s pleas for help  and asking others to be accountable for their actions—even if they aren’t willing to be.

My kids demanded justice.  “Mom, how come you give us consequences and so-and-so has none?  That just doesn't seem fair!

I, in turn, asked them, “How do you think we would have handled this situation if you had been the one impersonating a classmate?” 

Their answer: “You would make us apologize, delete the account, and probably even make some other kind of amends to make things right again.”  “You bet I would,”  was my emphatic response. 

Unfortunately, morality is sometimes a double-edged sword.  Even when we show care for others, they may not care about us.   Even when we do the right thing, it can often be hard.  We may risk our own safety, welfare, social acceptance, or even imprisonment for the causes we believe in.   How then do we teach our children to do the right thing?  Especially when life doesn't seem fair.  Well, we can be the kind of people we hope they will someday become.  We can model for our children how to react in ways that are life-affirming and not to be victims of our circumstances.  We can advocate for them when they need help.  We can dig our heads out of the sand!

Gratefully, many months after the facebook fiasco, my son's teacher not only arranged a ritual in the woods whereby each child had the opportunity to cross over a metaphorical threshold into adolescence.  She also tried to intervene with my son and his imposter.  She could see the distrust and distance the incident had created between them.  She asked the offending child to apologize.  My son was forgiving, but remained unimpressed.  Kids are like that.  They remember who pushed them off the swing, bit them in playgroup, or stole their identity. 

A few months later I ran into the child on the playground.  The child clearly wanted to avoid me, looking embarrassed and ashamed.  I said, with kindness and compassion in my heart, “You never need to avoid or be ashamed around me.  I care about you and I care about my son.  We all make mistakes.  I just wanted you to know the impact of your actions.  I wish you well.”  I turned the other cheek, so to speak. 

Never underestimate the impact of your real or virtual moral footprint, especially in the lives of your children!


For more on the moral development of children, and how important YOU are as your child's first and most important teacher...be sure to read my post "Hard-wired to Care: You Matter in the Moral Life of Your Child!"

Friday, September 30, 2011

Courage Challenge of the Day

Lion's Whiskers offers this courage challenge: As an opportunity to put your moral courage muscles to work, take a pet peeve and trace its origins.  If you find yourself complaining about hiked gas prices, consider the choices in your life that have made you dependent on your automobile.  When you are annoyed by another's behavior, consider how that behavior may mirror something that you deny, don't accept, or don't like in yourself.  For example, if you find yourself complaining about how long your child takes to get ready in the morning, is it possible that you, too, are not a morning person?  Is it possible that you might need to wake up a little earlier and/or help your child the night before to ease the morning routine?  Perhaps you find yourself complaining about people who ignore local bylaws and don't pick up their dogs' poop, forgetting the times you, too, were caught without a poop bag? 

Tracing your own responsibility for what goes on in the world will help you teach your child to do the same.  None of us lives in a bubble - our lives are connected in an intricate web of decisions and choices.  For a humbling example of how our kids offer us daily opportunities to put this moral courage challenge into practice, read Lisa's post What Goes Around, Comes Around!

Care to share one of your pet peeves and what its origins might have to do with you?