Children, Morality, Kindness…and racism.

November 11, 2015
A recent study  on morality in children has received some attention. For those looking to critique the major religions, it offers the handy finding that children in religious homes are less kind than others. And it’s been unpacked in lots of ways as a warning bell to christian culture, and probably rightly so.
Mind you, the methodology of this study couldn’t be more problematic.
Stickers (yes, I know, stickers!!!) were given to children, and they were given the task of allocating the stickers, knowing that there weren’t enough for everyone.
So, straight away, a moral framework of a very specific kind has been implied. One in which goodness is rewarded, and one in which a goodness  to be affirmed in everyone is impossible.
Children will typically do a task within the rules and framework set, but this may not directly corelate with their own convictions about how the world runs.
Thus, the results of the exercise conform to an explication of the implied outcomes of the moral framework given.
The discrepancy between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ background children reflects perhaps then, not the actual kindness or otherwise of the children, but their familiarity with the task. This doesn’t mean the survey shows us nothing, and all of its finding are completely void. But it does prompt us to ask why adults would set up such a task? The processes we set up, particulalry in relation to our aspirations and evaluations of our children reveal a great deal more about adult and societal anxieties, than they do about the inner life of the child.
Why would stickers and rewards be associated with, of all things, goodness? rightness?
Why are twenty-first century western adults so concerned that their children might be kind?
There is but a paper-thin veneer in this study over creating a pretext for racial suspicion of unkindness (subtext: violence). One commentator I saw called the study ‘Stupid’ – I think it is more sinister than that.
A western study that finds muslim and christian children are unkind and harsh in judgement paves the way for racist assertions against their culture’s moral fitness (remembering that most christians live now in the majority world, not the white west). Doing so under the pretext of the investigation of children creates a ‘soft edge’ lens obscuring the harder edge motivation of the study.
This is an unacceptable use of the study of children.
Children are widely used as the mask/externality of adult moral ideologies. That is, adults often both project a moral ideal and utopian capacity onto children, and also seek their righteousness vindicated by the outward behaviour of their children. In its worst incarnations this looks like trophy children.
The fantasy of children offering a clean slate (or perhaps at least a cleaner slate) has become a seductive path to an easy redemption for guilt-ridden adults. ‘A better life for our children’ is not only an economic and educational aspiration, but often a cry of the regret-filled heart. Who amongst us does not secretly hope that our children will not make the same mistakes we have made?
While adults find moral complexity and compromise inescapable, and their consciences constantly troubled, they (mis)perceive the world of the child as a simpler canvas on which a purer goodness can be drawn. We often insist that our children execute a moral rightness that eludes us, on the assumption that they work within a more straightforward life frame.
Thus, parenting typically aspires to the black and white absolutes for children and informs, corrects and interprets their behaviour in these terms. Adults also often underestimate the complexity of thought and sensibility children are capable of, and through a sense of needing ‘simplify’ things for children, end up using a crude reductionist moral grammar. Of course, sometimes, adults are also just plain lazy or, perhaps, more compassionately, exhausted, and so administer a quick-fix absolute, rather than doing the important work of living richly and ethically with their children.
Ironically, christian tradition would contend strongly against a different moral landscape for children than for adults. The ambiguity of simil justus et peccator is an anthropological unity of quality, not a ‘faith stage’ one might attain.
Additionally, much essential developmental behaviour in children is over-moralised: emerging autonomy and development of the awareness of the separate self (typicallly through the use of the new word ‘No!’) is interpreted as disobedience and rebellion – both theologically emotionally laden terms; experimentation with language and imagination is misread as lying. Our responses to these aspects of development theologically easily create a flow-on response in children that looks like intolerance and unkindness.
The question of our children’s morality, I think, is better located in relationship to our own. To understand the texture of our children’s moral world, we must frankly acknowledge the moral lives our children live by their enmeshment in family, intergenerationality and community with us. The morality our children live is more helpfully seen as a relative morality, not because there isn’t such a thing as cosmological right and wrong, but because the child is implicated in a series of moral decisions and conditions that they are not wilful protagonists of, nor yet in which they are merely passive victims. Anthropological moral complexity is not only an all-age affliction, but an intergenerational reality.
This is as true for the child of elite privilege studying at an inner eastern Melbourne private school, as it is for the child sold and trafficked into prostitution in urban Bangkok.
Churches who are concerned with the moral and ethical lives of their children have some work to do – and it definitely doesn’t involve stickers! Firstly, we should check the source of our moral expectations for children.
Sitting behind much practice in children’s ministry is the work of the stage theorists Fowler and Kohlberg.
Kohlberg, in particular developed a system of moral development stages which is often taught alongside faith development.
Since publishing his work it has been critiqued widely from many angles (gender orientation, cognitive behaviourism, biblical theology just to name a few) and is widely recognised as at best unhelpful. Nevertheless the overhang of this moral developmental process for children based on self-interest, emerging into a rewards system, before recognising cultural rules and conventions or social contracts oozes from many curriculum resources and parenting courses in christian culture.
As we consider the conversations, actions and resources our children will participate in through our families, communities and churches, where should we start?
Children develop a moral life, not according to principles recounted, but according to the life they are invited to live, facilitated to participated in and called to keep accountable.
The most interesting contribution of this study for me, was the way it illuminates adult conceptions of morality in terms of external rewards. The most troubling aspect was the attempt at a covert racial slur.
Constantly, the presence of children in our midst and the strange and abhorrent behaviours they elicit from adults provides a prophetic insight into our values, our prejudices,  our anxieties and our theology.

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