Curriculum, Engagement, Teaching

Ethical Parenting: “Doing Right Takes Work”

A review of Good Kids, Tough Choices: How Parents Can Help Their Children Do the Right Thing by Rushworth M. Kidder, Jossey-Bass, 2010. ISBN-13: 9780470547625

“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” – Thomas Jefferson

This book applies the lenses of core values, ethical decision-making, and moral courage to assist the “… many parents [who], facing ethical issues with their children and not knowing what to say, either come at their kids with moral sledgehammers or tiptoe past on eggshells” (p. ix). Kidder presents an approach to “ethical fitness” that will prepare parents to seize on such issues as opportunities to develop their children’s moral sensibilities and skills “with sure-footed immediacy and unlabored grace” (p. 56).

He assures them that “[y]ou can develop your ethical fitness by thinking through every situation that makes you morally uncomfortable, even if you never talk to your child about it” (p. 70). Of course, this is not easy. “Like many other things in life, doing right takes work. Ethics is often inconvenient and sometimes tough” (p. 42). However, the effort is worthwhile, not only for your own children but for the greater good. “Ethical parenting takes moral courage, persistence, and commitment. But it brings with it a lasting fulfillment: the moral nurturing of children who know what’s right, make tough choices, and stand for conscience. If parents truly help the next generation learn those qualities – not as ornaments but as practical, productive talents – there isn’t a single problem facing the world that they won’t find the way to address and the confidence to master” (p. 218).

The book consists largely of commentaries on a series of extended anecdotes gleaned from Kidder’s discussions with parents over many years of work with The Institute for Global Ethics. Through these commentaries, he introduces principles for developmentally appropriate approaches to ethical parenting for kids in five age clusters running from birth through age 23. While the anecdotes are sometimes slightly saccharine and the commentary occasionally a bit credulous, the method is effective, the overall message sound, and the impact encouraging.

The foundation for Kidder’s ethical parenting framework is “the five shared moral values that are common to cultures around the world: honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness and compassion” (p. 1). For young children, he advocates overt instruction in the meaning and importance of these values, but as children mature he moves beyond obedience and introduces more sophisticated methods for resolving moral dilemmas that arise when it is not clear how, or even if, these values can be applied – particularly in the face of what Kidder calls “right-versus-right” dilemmas. As children become youth, Kidder adds a discussion of the challenge of developing their moral courage and a family culture of integrity.

The most useful and powerful aspect of this book, aside from the reassurance it provides about the possibility of ethical parenting for moral development, are the three “resolution principles” that Kidder has distilled from normative ethical philosophy, which he claims “appear to account for a great majority of decisions that parents describe as ethical” (p. 100). He calls these popularized forms the ends-based principle, the rule-based principle, and the care-based principle. It is by employing these principles that parents strengthen their children’s ability to apply the values that have been inculcated in their early years to the vexing issues of teenage and later life. In most cases, these principles do not help one to resolve an ethical issue. In fact, they often reveal its complexity; but by providing a shared logical framework for discussion, they enable ethical reasoning, and it is this reasoning that helps children to learn, and parents to teach them, to live according to their values.

Kidder asserts that “if, as you correct the behavior, you carry the discussion far enough to expose the child’s fundamental misconception about right and wrong [rather than simply demanding compliance], he may have to rethink his notion that the only wrong thing is getting caught” (p. 122). Moreover, this shifts the discussion from mere moralizing to inquiry-based learning about ethical issues. “What kids need as they move forward aren’t multilayered rationalities but clear frameworks. They don’t need advice on what to do so much as coaching on how to think … The task of good parenting … is to subject the vast, roiling tempest of the teen universe to a few simple, enabling ideas” (p. 136).

Although this book is written for parents it would also be useful for teachers, coaches, and others who stand in loco parentis. One may not agree with everything that it says, but it would be hard to imagine anyone not benefitting from the significant but simply stated insight and thoughtful advice that it provides.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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