The Admirably Fierce (and Bizarre) Morality of Children
If you want to see a highly nuanced moral compass at work, ask a child which way is "right." Tweet
Children have a very high-contrast view of morality...
...you're either good or you're dead — sometimes for an entire day!
As the red light turned green, a hand shot out of the passenger side window of the car ahead of us, and a yellow hamburger wrapper fluttered to the ground.
“Look at that,” observed my wife, as the offender pulled into traffic. “That’s just awful.”
There was a momentary silence.
“We should kill them,” intoned my six-year old daughter from the back seat.”
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, darling?”
“We should crash them with our car.”
“Hmm. That’s one possibility. Don’t you think it’s a little extreme, though?”
It can be a bit unsettling to discover that a bright-eyed child has a fair bit in common with Madame Defarge.
“But they broke the law.”
“That’s true,” allowed my wife, knowing the exalted place environmental activism occupies these days on the first grade curriculum. “Still, does a person that litters really deserve the same punishment as a person who robs a bank or murders someone.”
“Maybe not.” She paused, considering. “A person who litters deserves to be a servant for the king and queen, and covered in dirt like Cinderella.”
“That sounds a little more reasonable…”
“…And to sleep in a room where there are mice and rats to nibble on your toes, and all they’ll get to eat is bread and water.”
“Okay…And how long would you say this punishment ought to last?”
“One whole day and one whole night…”
“…until they die.”
Which oddly enough, seems to be an okay reaction. Entire volumes, thick ones, have been written on how the sense that good will be rewarded and wrongdoing punished fosters in a small child both security and a functioning conscience. That was the whole idea behind fairy tales, where punishment was generally delivered with satisfying, if only gruesome, finality.
On the other hand, it can be a bit unsettling to discover that a child otherwise bright-eyed and full of wonder also has a fair bit in common with the ladies who used to sit knitting alongside the guillotine.
Just a few evenings before, having wrapped up “The Three Little Pigs”–a tale which, I like to think, repeated often enough, will help nudge the kid the kids toward terrific work habits and long and lucrative careers – I was called upon to read another, and confidently picked up another old standby, “Rumpelstiltskin.”
“But it isn’t right!” exclaimed my daughter indignantly, when I was through. “Why did she lie?”
“The young woman! She lied to Rumpelstiltskin. She promised to give him the baby if he spun the straw into gold, and then she wouldn’t do it.”
“I know. But, see, she had to say that. Otherwise she’d have been in big trouble herself. And, anyway, what would Rumpelstiltskin have done with that baby?”
“Maybe he liked children. Maybe he wanted a child more than anything, but his wife couldn’t have one.”
“No, no, no,” I protested. “It doesn’t say that anywhere in the story.”
“And then Rumpelstiltskin gave her all those extra chances to guess his name. And when she still couldn’t guess, she cheated, and sent the guy to spy on him!”
Her three-year old brother had been listening in silence. “She’s bad,” he declared now. “Rumpelstiltskin’s good.”
“It’s not so simple,” pleaded their father, a veteran of decades in the scuzzy, morally deficient present, “she was under a lot of pressure, she had to bend the rules a little.”
“What does that mean?”
I sighed. “All right, all right, it means she lied.”
So there we were, a few days later in the car, heading home, and talking retribution.
“Darling,” I pointed out. “You really shouldn’t talk so casually about killing people. Do you really know what that means?”
“That they die for the rest of their life.”
“I don’t think it’s very nice when someone dies,” she allowed. “Except when they’re bad.”
But – wonder of wonders – at that very instant, easing to a stop at another light, we found ourselves alongside the perpetrators themselves: a pleasant looking young couple and a sleeping infant in a car seat. Catching us staring, the woman offered a bright smile and waved at my daughter.
In our car, no one spoke for a full 30 seconds. “Well,” I asked finally, “what do you think now?”
“I think they should get eaten up by a wolf, like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.”
“They still die?”
“No, they’re good. A woodcutter comes, and he kills the wolf and lets them out.” She paused. “It’s only to teach them a little lesson.”
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