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5 questions about teaching ethics to kids

Rushworth Kidder, author of "Good Kids, Tough Choices," talks about the vital challenge of helping children develop moral fiber.

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The very fact he's come back to you and said, “What am I supposed to do,” opens up an opportunity for right vs. right conversation. It's perfectly right to take a stand. It's perfectly right also to be polite and respectful. Truth is coming up against respect. He's in the middle of a right vs. right dilemma. He can make a moral case for both sides.

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The best resolution from the parent's point of view is actually not to resolve the dilemma for the child, but to get into a conversation that allows the child to discover how he can apply these moral ideas and come to a resolution. The son has been confronted with right vs. wrong situation, but he himself has a right vs. right dilemma as a result of somebody else doing something wrong.

Your task as a parent is not to correct the other parent. Your task is to say, “Here is my son raising a very interesting question that is troubling him. How can I help him think that through?”

One way of doing that is helping him understand that he is now beginning to get into a broad range of dilemmas that are right vs. right. We call them the four paradigms: There are dilemmas of truth versus loyalty, which is what this one is. There are dilemmas of the needs of the individual versus the needs of community (us vs. them); there are questions of short-term versus long-term that come up again and again. Finally, as every parent of a teenager knows, there are cases of justice versus mercy.

3. You talk about the fact that teens and tweens are so saturated with media that they're logging more than 12 screen hours a day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. What are the biggest dangers inherent in those numbers? How can parents help their children unplug, at least somewhat?

Isn't that an amazing number? The danger is that this is coming at us very fast, and the research community isn't quite sure what they're looking at and how to assess it. It appears that when kids get really saturated with media, that has a significant effect, not only on their grades – and that is demonstrative – but on their own sense of self-satisfaction, their own comfort with who they are. The challenge there is a chicken and egg one: Are kids who are inherently unsatisfied finding recourse overdosing on media, or is it the overdosing on media that leads to the lack of self-contentment?

One thing that does appear to be clear. To the extent parents can limit – we're not talking a total blackout or media fast – to the extent that they can be “media firm” rather than “media lenient,” they can really help kids understand there is a lot more going on out there than simply philosophy described in 140 letters. There are bigger ideas than that. There are bigger things going on than constant visual stimulation.

The other thing I find very interesting is the concept I talk about in the book of continuous partial attention. We pay full attention to nothing, but are constantly paying partial attention to all kinds of things. You see that in the 15-year-old sitting down to do her homework on the computer with her ear buds in listening to music. At the same time she's texting her friends, and there's a TV going off in the corner. All the media inputs are there. She doesn't want to miss anything. If something comes up, she wants to be the first to know. If a message comes in, of course she's going to answer that right now, rather than wait until her homework is done.

The problem is that kids come out of it genuinely believing that they're becoming good multitaskers and that they're capable of doing all these things at once.

The research is still young, but it suggests that, in fact, they're not very good at doing anything. They're not very good at doing their homework, they're not very good at messaging, they're not really paying attention to the TV, and they're not really listening to the music.

When parents say, “You're not paying attention,” that's not the problem. The problem is quite the reverse. They're paying far too much attention to far too many things at once. As a result, nothing is getting your real concern. That's a real challenge. It's a world where we're conspiring to dilute every instinct for going deep. We're making sure that whatever happens stays on the shallow level.

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