How To Cultivate a Culture of Conversation with Children

by michael on July 22, 2015

I wrote this article a few days ago for my friend and colleague, Michael J. Kerrigan, a pioneer in studying issues of character, heroism and raising moral children. My article will be published on Michael’s valuable website Please visit his website.

The inspiration for this article developed when Michael and I were discussing skills and techniques for building moral character and motivating children to value moral character as a laudable goal.

Michael includes the following quotation on his emails:

Sow a thought and you reap an act; Sow an act and reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap character. Sow character and you reap a destiny.   William Thackeray


How To Cultivate a Culture of Conversation with Children

The Drunk Friend

By Michael G. Sabbeth

          The challenge is as great or greater today than when faced by the cavemen: how do we raise children to do ‘good’ and instill values that will inspire them to be good their entire lives? Here’s how thoughtful adults can affirmatively influence the moral development, strength and behavior of children.

Several years ago I spoke to a men’s club at a local temple about how to cultivate a culture of conversation with children. Children want to talk with their parents, I emphasized. They look to parents for guidance, for learning values, hopefully good values, and for affirmation about what is virtuous. Two weeks before my talk an elderly woman driving on icy Santa Fe Drive lost control and slid into the South Platte River. A few people stopped to help; most ignored the disaster. I described to my audience how I used that event to talk to my young students about moral character.

A dad approached me after my talk. He was aware of the incident, he said, but it had not occurred to him to use it to talk with his children about larger moral issues. I hoped he was inspired by my talk, I said. He said he was.

This article shows how to use events, personal and otherwise, to engage children and cultivate a culture of conversation about themes that matter: honor, character, valuing life and moral duty. I show how I used an unpleasant personal experience to create one of my most effective classroom discussions.

As I wrote in Chapter 5 of The Good, The Bad & The Difference, at the end of a dinner party at my home a friend wanted to drive home but was drunk. I began to stop him. He became nasty, verbally abusive and increasingly resistant. I tried to grab his keys. He pushed me. I was shaken. Although I was determined he would not drive, I confess I began to think a perverse devil’s arithmetic: he doesn’t have far to drive; what’s the likelihood of an accident or the likelihood of someone getting hurt? I was looking for a justification to do nothing. I felt ashamed of such thoughts. I forced the keys from his hand and, I am pleased to write that without much difficulty, I persuaded a friend to drive him home. I was angry and unsettled and felt miserable. Being right and moral seemed a small reward.

I use a template such as the following to organize my classroom discussions:

  1. State the facts
  2. Discuss values and how different values lead to different consequences
  3. Pose questions
  4. Discuss options and their costs
  5. Ask what a morally strong person would do?

Establishing the facts is vital. You want the truth, for truth is the basis for all morality, and contrary to the signature outburst by Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, children can handle the truth. Borrowing from the words of defense lawyer Lieutenant Kaffee, children deserve the truth. Indeed, children feel a lack of respect when adults withhold or distort important information. But truth is not an end in itself; truth is a jumping off point for taking moral action.

Actions are based on values; not values one says one believes or wishes to believe or hopes to believe, but what actually causes people to act. Every value has a cost and a consequence, and a person is morally responsible for the consequences of his or her values and actions.

The values of those that stopped my drunk friend were different from those who ignored the issue or downplayed it. I believed I had a moral duty to intervene, based on ethical principles such as Sanctity of Life, Beneficence and Justice. Some were not so motivated. I wanted to eliminate the possibility of certain consequences; some were not as concerned.

Friendship is a key value discussed in every class. We all want friends; we all want to be liked; few of us are immune to rejection or indifference. The value of friendship or, more specifically, of a particular friend, is a vital element of this ‘drunk friend’ anecdote. I try to show the youngsters a method to analyze their values and then measure the value of their values. Are the values virtuous or not? Some values are more ethical and courageous than others.

In this discussion I always ask: What was the nature of my friend? My young students—third, fourth and fifth graders—consistently gave astute answers:

“My friend was willing to risk hurting or killing himself and or innocent people. That’s not a good person.”

“It’s not a friend worth having.”

It is difficult, sometimes impossible, to stand up to people who want to do ‘bad’ or evil. Not everyone can stand up to aggressive embarrassment and verbal abuse. It’s difficult to swim against the tide of opposition and to do it for any distance, the swimmer must be strong. Tides ebb and flow, and it’s easier just to go with it. It is easier to do nothing.

A second grader told me how he tried to stop classmates throwing rocks at a harmless bull snake slithering through the playground. His classmates turned on him, berated him and shoved him. “Why is it so difficult to do what’s right?” the little fellow asked me. I promptly answered with confidence, “I don’t know.” The topic is for another essay. The lesson, however, is that we should teach and train our youngsters to stand up to life’s difficulties and address them as forcefully and competently as possible.

Ask questions. Questions engage audiences. Questions can be an indicator of value. One fifth grader said, “I feel most respected when my parents ask me what I think about something.” Powerful message there. Ask tough questions. Don’t pull your punches. Children are not fragile porcelain dolls. They are resilient. They want to know how to handle life and they respect those people that help them do so. Life is unfair. Children know that. They want adults to prepare them to deal with life’s unfairness. Any parent that teaches a child that doing ‘good’ is easy weakens that child.

Questions, properly framed, can lead to moral clarity, which is accurately identifying a person’s core beliefs. Moral clarity allows for meaningful comparison of options and choices and their consequences. It also can motivate ethical action by enhancing the awareness of actions and their consequences. For example, the person that refuses to intervene values appeasing a friend willing to kill or injure himself and or others more than valuing the lives of the friend or the innocent victims. Once a student can compare these values with clarity, the student is more likely to act virtuously. Teaching how to ascertain moral clarity is one of the highest achievements.

Some of the questions I pose in my classes include the following:

  1. What kind of friend do you want?
  2. How does a good friend act?
  3. What kind of friend treated me the way I was treated?
  4. Is a friend that risks killing or injuring innocent people worth having?
  5. If my friendship ends because I stood up to my friend, what have I truly lost?

From the Mouths of Babes

Here are some of the answers my young students gave to these questions. I confide my eyes often did get watery listening to these little people.

“Maybe I’d lose a friend, but at least he would be alive and might become my friend again.”

“If he died, I know for sure I’d never have him as a friend again.”

“I’d rather have a person that was alive and didn’t like me than have a dead friend.”

“You have to do the right thing even if he won’t like you.”

Being disliked is painful; being yelled at is painful; being cursed is painful. But as one fifth grader said, “There are worse things than having pain.” Her comment included a concept of relativity: that the pain from losing a friend is less than the pain felt when a friend’s life is lost.

In my discussions about my drunk friend I include the concept of measuring ‘good’ and the concept of false measurements. ‘Good’ is determined by assessing the facts and the consequences of an action through the lens of moral reasoning and moral principles. Preventing a drunk person from driving is good; allowing a drunk person to drive when you could have prevented it, not so much.

But often children—indeed, any of us—use false measures to judge good and bad; right and wrong. One false measure is popularity or numbers. Right and wrong are not determined by popularity contests. It’s not a numbers game. Whether one person disagrees with you or whether one hundred million people disagree with you has nothing to do with the morality of your act, your opinion or the consequences you create. Either you are right or you are wrong; either you have the better moral argument or you do not.

Ask a child how she knows something is good and more than likely her answer will include “It just feels right.” Feelings are a false measure.

One youngster commented:  “A criminal feels good when he gets what he wants, but that’s not good.”

Another said, “I feel good when I get something even when I don’t deserve it.”

I felt terrible dealing with my drunk friend. I felt uncertain, under attack and miserable. But I knew I was doing the right thing. Bad feelings did not indicate a bad action.

Often a child will answer, “In your heart you know it’s good.”

This false measure of following one’s heart gets quickly ground to shreds as if put in a Cuisinart. “Some hearts are evil,” one young lady said. “You shouldn’t follow them,” she added.

“If your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, before you do anything, you should first decide whether you have a better head or heart.”  Marilyn Vos Savant

By discussing events such as my drunk friend episode, my goal is to impart strength and wisdom, and wisdom, Denis Prager wrote, “Is the domain of the mind, not the heart.”

Anger is another false measure. Anger can be controlling and manipulating. “Back off or I will be angry with you!” It is a regrettable human tendency that people feel and think that they did something wrong if someone is angry at them.

“What did I do wrong?” “Why do they hate me?” “How can I change so he won’t be angry anymore?” In response to a student’s comment that my friend would be angry with me if I didn’t let him drive, a young lady defiantly challenged: “So what if he’s angry!” Indeed, so what? My friend’s anger should not trump prohibiting dangerous behavior.

In every class year I reference Aristotle’s keen insight into anger stated in his Nicomachean Ethics:

“Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person,

to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not easy.”

In Closing

“Morality, like art, means drawing a line somewhere.”  Oscar Wilde

 I am a big fan of having chicken soup for the soul, with a matzo ball, of course, but humans need more. They need tempered steel for the mind; something that can hold an edge; something they can count on. They need moral guidance and character development.

The world is saturated with disasters caused often by sloppy thinking combined with moral confusion or moral cowardice. How many times have you seen, in the aftermath of a tragedy, family and friends at a gravesite or highway marker of a death placing flowers and teddy bears and cards and photos, holding candlelight vigils and pleading, “How could this happen?” “How can we prevent this from happening again?”

Letting drunk friends drive is one way these horrors happen. I don’t want my children or my students to be bystanders in their own fate and I don’t want them hurting of killing people. Thus, we need to raise stronger children; morally, mentally and intellectually. Morally strong people can be better people; better able to stand up for good and virtue; to triumph of life’s unfairness and difficult challenges. Morally strong children can better act with clarity and confidence. Not only can they be ‘good,’ but they are more likely to have the fortitude and strength to commit to being good.

Not talking with children is one reason why these tragedies happen; developing a culture of conversation is one way to reduce the likelihood such tragedies will happen again. Just start talking.

More later

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