Volume:1, Issue: 2

Sep. 1, 2009

Teaching Ethics to children
Elizabeth Baird Saenger [about]

SYNOPSIS: The author is a former teacher of ethics who shares with the reader her unique experience in an independent Fieldston Ethical Culture School in New York. The definition of ethics as a school subject is given together with the description of two main teaching methods – discussion of children’s literature and child-created ethics plays.

There are few activities in life more fun than having a serious conversation about ethical issues with a group of eight year olds. I did just that as part of my regular full time job for 24 years, as ethics teacher at the Fieldston Lower part of Ethical Culture Fieldston School, in New York City. Children are intently engaged in the work of making moral sense of their lives. They are hungry for guidance and quick with indignation. All they really ask is to be taken seriously. Taking them seriously of course includes sharing laughs often. It also includes trying to avoid boredom. Otherwise, teaching ethics to children is both wonderful fun and strenuous intellectual challenge. I am convinced that anyone who would want to do it can do it well.

Ethics was a requirement at my school, which was one of the two primary schools feeding into the secondary one, all forming the whole. (I use the past tense because I retired two years ago and can only describe my own experience.) Everyone had to have one ethics class each week, starting at age seven and continuing through age eleven. Ethical Culture Fieldston School is for students, about 1700 total, of pre-Kindergarten through upper school (12th grade). It was founded some 130 years ago by the visionary secular humanist, Felix Adler, as a school for the children of poor working people. It quickly became so good that children of wealthy people paid to attend. It remains independent of government funds or rules, but keeps its tradition of commitment to diversity and social justice. The student body reflects that. However, I stress that the ethics I taught could be taught in just about any public school or sectarian school anywhere. The approximately 330 students at my school during the years I was there were predominantly Jewish and from upper-income families. But I had significant numbers of African-American, Latino, and Asian students, city-dwellers and suburban, Christian (including Catholic and various Protestant), Muslim, Hindu, and atheist. A significant number of my students were on partial or full scholarships, although of course I never knew exactly which. I taught twenty groups of about a dozen students per group, meeting for 45-minute sessions once a week. Since I had most of them for five years, I got to know them and their parents and siblings well.

(I need to explain that since I retired, there have been several changes. The 6th grade has been removed to the new middle school. Two part-time teachers share my job and have arranged the schedule in very different ways from the one I inherited and kept.)

When I began in 1983, I defined Ethics as the study of how people should treat one another. I declared the simple precept that everyone should be treated with respect. Previous ethics teachers had done things differently. Some had merged ethics with left-wing political activism; others had tried stricter philosophical reasoning models. Within the basic requirement of a class labeled ethics, we teachers have had great freedom each generation to determine our own curriculum and methods. My concept was to stress the simple idea that everyone should be treated with respect. How this works out in everyday life was our focus for discussion. I avoided lofty rules and never used theoretical dilemmas. To the best of my ability, I avoided finger wagging. Every discussion we had was as open and as challenging for me as for the kids. I listened to them and learned from them and was inspired and surprised by them daily. The mere fact of deliberate, regular focus on ethics gave us all a powerful message about the school’s priorities. Did the class make us angels? Of course, not. Can our effects be measured or assessed in any way beyond the anecdotal? Clearly, no. In surveys, many, even most parents cited the focus on ethics as the reason they chose our school. I always told the parents that they were the source for their children’s ethics. All I could do was offer a place for the children to think hard together about their best values, to be taken seriously, to discover that their peers had some of the same scruples and ideals as they did.

Other schools and teachers have used topic virtues or values, such as honesty, responsibility, compassion, courage, or obedience to organize their curricula of moral education or character education. I never did this. I don’t think such abstract concepts mean enough to children. And I don’t think ethics happens that way. Virtues and values are always entangled by context. They overlap and conflict with each other in messy and confusing ways all the time for us all. Perhaps some teachers could inspire children by starting with these virtue concepts, but I couldn’t. Similarly, pure dilemmas lack the “juice” of life. If one must create and ascribe various contexts to them in order to care about them, why bother?

I used two main methods: discussion of carefully chosen children’s literature and carefully managed child-created ethics plays. Stories, read aloud by me, provided characters with whom we could identify emotionally in situations that offered the safety of detachment and the immediacy of narrative. These stories were surprisingly hard to find. If they were tendentious like so many of the stories written for children, there was nothing much to discuss. Or the lessons they conveyed were more about guile or luck than ethics. And if they provided too much detail about motivation and situation, there was nothing much to discuss either. To be effective, they had to be well written but also to have an inherent openness of tension and ambivalence. Should this character temporarily mislead a trusted adult for the purpose of helping a friend who urgently needs help? Should another character tell a friend something that may end the friendship? Should a person apologize if the apology doesn’t feel sincere? Should a person try to help a friend who insists that help is unnecessary? How much of a sacrifice is anyone expected to make for the sake of moral convictions? Why is bragging hurtful and how do you distinguish it from merely sharing your excitement? When you know you’ve hurt someone, what’s the most respectful way to make amends? When someone has hurt you, how should you behave towards that person?

Please notice that in my examples here (and they could go on endlessly), I slide from third to second person. That’s the way it works in ethics class. We’re arguing about the choices of a character in a story and soon we’re arguing about our own choices. Of course I also use first person, sharing my own qualms and experiences. From a shared story, we can move to our personal ethical issues and back again. We can reflect on our moral lives and listen to the respectful opinions of others.

I should note that over the years, many people suggested or even assumed that I myself write the stories to use for ethics class. I think this is impossible, and not because I lack ideas or writing skill. A vehicle story is lifeless. For the purposes of good discussion, the writer needs to be innocent, as it were, of the lessons in his/her story that the reader may discover. The stories I chose needed to have a moral point of view, but that’s quite different from bearing a moral agenda. Children are as quick as adults to “smell a rat” in such a story and have no interest in it. Together, we needed to discover and be surprised by ethical issues from the context rather than have them force-fed to us. After all, this is how we encounter ethical problems as we live our lives.

Every situation sheds some light or is helpful to someone. Often the most powerful moral reflection is unspoken. Very occasionally, as teacher, I needed to help a child refrain from saying more than intended or appropriate. It’s important to stress to parents and children alike that ethics class is not psychotherapy. There may be some overlap in the topics considered, but mental health was not my goal. We wanted to figure out what was the right thing to do. Justification was probed for rather than motivation. Motives, including our own, are elusive to us all. Yet our goal was to link thought, words, and behavior.

I was explicit about ethical concepts as the need arose. For example, intentions matter. Children were fascinated by this and understood it well. For example, if I purposely made you fall because I was mad at you, but the result was that you noticed some money on the floor that you would not have seen otherwise, I was unethical even though it turned out well for you. My intention was harm. Conversely, if I worked to prepare breakfast for you, but accidentally spilled it all into your lap, I was ethical even though you weren’t at all happy. These situations arise from literature and from everyone’s experience and elucidate the concept of intention well. Benevolent intentions are always significant but they are never enough by themselves.

At the same time, I explained that ethics is about action (including spoken words) not pure thoughts. Our thoughts often just happen, and some would mortify us if they were shared. We all have evil thoughts from time to time. We can’t help it. But so long as these thoughts don’t “come out,” they aren’t unethical. (On this point of course, there is a distinction between ethics and some religious teachings. But the former was my focus.) This is reassuring to children. It also serves to clarify the nature of ethical behavior.

Additionally, I helped them learn to distinguish between ethical reasons for a decision or action and those that are simply reasons, neither ethical nor unethical. An ethical reason relies on some basic rule of ethics or is focused on the benefit for another person. For example, it might hurt her feelings if I don’t come to her party, even though it happens to be inconvenient for me, so my focus on not hurting her makes the choice an ethical one. An example of a non-ethical reason for a choice might be simple curiosity, or desire for fun. Neither reason is ethical or unethical by itself, although it’s not hard to imagine situations of very unethical curiosity or fun. Children understand this quite well.

A seven year old raised her hand politely, was recognized, and announced, “I have a big ethical problem!” “What is it,” I asked. “Well!” she exclaimed, “Someone I don’t like came right up to me and asked, ‘do you like me?’” The rest of the class all murmured their agreement that this was, indeed, a big ethical problem. I asked why. Several explained that the girl would either have to tell a lie or hurt someone’s feelings, neither of which she wanted to do, both of which would be unethical. I asked for their suggestions. Some said that perhaps she could say, “I’d rather not answer that question right now.” Others felt this would make the true answer all too obvious and hurtful. No one seemed to have a good idea. I sure didn’t. I asked a boy who was clearly listening closely but hadn’t raised his hand what he would do. He responded, “I’d say, ‘there are some things I like about you and some things I don’t like about you,’ because I could say that honestly about every single person I know!” I consider this a brilliant answer, and so did all his classmates. It is noteworthy that this boy was never a stellar student. I followed his career through secondary school and doubt that he ever got particularly good grades in any academic subject. But he was kind and thoughtful, and was well respected by his peers. Ethics is not only for the most intelligent and articulate. Every year I would say to my students, “Not everyone can excel in sports or music or mathematics or writing. Ethics is the only subject in which everyone can be great!”

A most effective and popular way we linked words and behavior was through the use of ethics plays. Children drew straws to be in small groups of players and judges. Each group worked simultaneously, the players creating a short ethical situation and the judges creating their system of criteria, each group with some guidance from me but essentially independently. The only rules were that the plays had to be about something that really did or could happen in normal, everyday life of kids their own age, and that it involve only kids their own age (no babies, animals, or adults, because the task was to shed light on their own ethical experience and decisions). There was no need or time for props or costumes. The children quickly planned, then enacted their plays in turn, and then the children designated as judges led the discussion about these plays. Was this play realistic? Was its ethical topic handled well? Was it well acted? Did it use humor effectively? What alternatives might there be?

Topics for plays ranged the gamut of children’s experiences: A few children learn about a party to which they’re not invited. A skillful player hogs the ball, despite others’ complaints. Two kids disparage another who does poorly in a game or on a mathematics problem. Two competing birthday parties, one fancy and one plain, produce a hard choice for the child invited to both. Two kids plan a trick on a third which turns out to be harmful. One child betrays another’s painful secret to a third, who unwittingly reveals it. Affectionate teasing goes too far and hurts someone’s feelings. Someone’s disability or difference is treated unkindly. None of these matters is trivial. None is exclusive to children.

I also offered the names of four roles, perpetrator, bystander, target, and ally. We all shift between these roles. The bystander may want to become the ally for the target, but fears becoming the new target. The target may become the next perpetrator, and so on. These social situations are intensely fluid, which is why they’re so powerful and so scary. Every child recognizes the situation. With the role labels posted, many of the children’s plays used them and many discussions explored their relevance.

I would like to explain in more detail a discussion we had many times in third or fourth grade, using a classic children’s book, The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes. In it two girls who have joined in or led the teasing of a girl who is considered just different enough to warrant it realize that their teasing has forced her to move away from town with her family. The story is told from the perspective of the girl who was a fearful bystander in the teasing, the potential ally for the target who instead joins the perpetrator. (As a child succinctly observed in the context of a different story, “she’d like to be good but she wants to be ‘cool’!”) Children are very quick to say that the child who joins in the teasing is terrified of becoming the target herself. We discuss how to summon the courage to be an ally. And we identify with the wrongdoer or perpetrator as much as with the one wronged or the target.

But in this story another challenging question arises. The girls in the story decide to write a letter to the girl they’ve hurt so badly, hoping it will be forwarded to her. They decide to write just a friendly letter, without including an explicit apology. I would ask the children, “Do you agree with their decision? Which would be more respectful, an apology letter or a friendly one?” The response was always strong and varied. Several felt the girls absolutely owed an apology and that was that. Others argued that an apology would sound phony, as if an adult had forced it, thus making things worse. Still others thought an ordinary friendly letter allowed the targeted girl more dignity, that they were treating her “normally.” We never could decide. I remain as perplexed still. It’s important for children to understand that opposite actions could both be ethical, depending on the reasons for them. Life doesn’t come with a roadmap, waiting only to be discovered and made explicit.

Another very important part of my ethics program focused on the urgent topic of respectful helping. How best to help another person without hurting his or her dignity? This is a topic dear to children’s hearts because they have ample experience of well-intended but hurtful helping. Starting in fourth grade (nine year olds), my students participated in Ethics in Action. This mostly meant their keeping a commitment, usually giving up a designated free half-hour once a week, to help younger children in the school. Careful time was spent preparing for this. We would talk about how hurtful it is to refer to the younger children as “cute,” or to condescend to them in any way. Whatever work they may be doing in younger classes, whether it’s building with blocks or learning letter sounds, is just as challenging for them as anything in a higher class. The helpers took this all very seriously. For the most part, they kept track of their own schedules and enjoyed their roles, thrilling to the appreciation they got from the younger children. It was always interesting that often it was the children otherwise considered “wild” who turned out to be the most patient, gentle, and faithful helpers in the younger classes. They had perhaps discovered new aspects of themselves, new ways to “shine” that no one could have predicted. And it made for a lovely “cross-knitting” of the school community to see little kids rushing across the playground to hug their special Ethics-in-Action helper. Occasionally, of course, it didn’t work out. The older kids would revert to their much younger selves, playing happily and forgetting the purpose of their being there. Sometimes this could be fixed with my counseling. Other times, our group discussions in ethics class were helpful because kids could give each other suggestions or commiserate about obstacles to ideal helping. But the whole experience of respectful helping was very important to almost all the children. They, and their parents, would often cite it as such, even years later.

As for helping and responsibility in the wider world, I worked in several ways. I used the UNICEF collection in the fall to open awareness about life in other parts of the world. But I was careful to be very specific about the kind of help they were accomplishing: clean water, schools for girls, immunization, vitamin A, and oral dehydration therapy. This was an education itself in respectful helping for all of us. We raised as much money as we could, although of course no one had to participate and every contribution was received equally. I allowed absolutely no competition in the fund-raising. But it was urgent for me to help the children understand that other children needed some of the basic things we take for granted and that we should seek effective ways to learn about their lives and participate in some small way in the wider world.

In later years, wonderful books and films about lives in other parts of the world became available and I used them too, quite independent of UNICEF. This brought all kinds of surprises. I’ll never forget the time a nine-year-old child, from a very wealthy and adoring family, who said (with passionate sincerity) after studying the life of a child in Mali who had no running water, no school, no medical care, “Wow, this kid is so lucky! He gets to see his parents almost every night!” The trade-offs are always there, and we need be aware of them and try always to be aware of the child’s perspective.

I also endeavored to help children get a wider perspective on social class in our own country, particularly through the use of anthropological tools. For example, we discussed terms like “status signifier” to get over-fancy parties and clothes into their place in contemporary American culture. We used message boards to initiate and further conversation about these very delicate issues. Children could respond in writing to each other’s responses to pertinent questions about disparities of family wealth.

And we used historical perspective too. I was always passionate about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his incredibly courageous struggle to help us all become free. I described my personal history, growing up in a world of ugly Jim Crow laws. As I would tell the children, everything was arranged to give us all, black and white, the same terrible message: It doesn’t matter how hard-working or smart or ethical you are. The only thing that’s supposed to matter is the color of your skin. I also explained that I wished I could tell them I’d been one of the brave ones who risked jail and worse with Dr. King. But I was too scared. Like many others, I could only cheer from the sidelines. We had many intense discussions, year after year, about race in America. We did individual and group research projects about such heroes as Ella Baker, Walter White, Ida Wells, W.E. B. Du Bois and many others as well. The children were fascinated.

Taking the perspective of the other, emotionally as well as intellectually, is ever vital. One of my proudest moments was when children politely scolded me, as they were about to graduate. We’d spent time two years earlier reading a moving story about a girl’s friendship with a Down’s syndrome child, whom my students grew to love. Reading the story aloud, I would affect a different voice for this character than for the protagonist. My students gently told me that, although they knew I was trying just to use different voices, it could have seemed as if I were making fun of the child with Down’s syndrome, that I wasn’t fully respecting her. They were bothered by that and wanted to tell me. I thanked them wholeheartedly!

Another example of “the other” was the occasional use of “gay” by even the youngest children as a denigrating term. I explained that using the word that way badly hurt my feelings because I had gay friends whom I loved and cared a lot about. We had thorough discussions, and an “out” gay colleague even came to my classes to talk to the children about her life. Of course we never reached a perfect world, but I do believe that were much fewer ugly epithets used at my school.

Many times I’ve been asked, “How do you start with ethics for children?” I started with, first, my simple definition, and then with their moral outrage. I would read a rich but spare story in which the characters make serious ethical mistakes. By the clarity of their indignation, the children would gain self-confidence in their own abilities as independent ethical decision makers. They could see that they were worthy of standing with an adult and exploring the ethical issues they are so passionate about. This grew year by year, until they respectfully pointed out my ethical mistakes, as in the incident with the different voice.

I must also mention the method of ethics pictures made by the children. These were used with the younger classes, and the rules were the same as for plays: depict only children your own age in ethical situations of normal everyday life. Their pictures were vivid and thoughtful. My all-time favorite was done by two eight-year-old boys working together. It shows a simultaneously bird’s eye and regular view of a basketball game, with this caption: “This is about two people playing basketball, and one got pushed and he said ‘foul.’ But the other one said ‘no foul.’ It was unethical to push, but if he didn’t mean to push, it wouldn’t be unethical – but it would still be a foul.” Quite sharp thinking emerged from these pictures!

One year a new boy joined the fifth grade. The whole idea of ethics class was an intriguing novelty to him. But he asked an excellent question on his first day: “Why should I be ethical to someone I hate? I mean, I hate the person. Why be ethical to him?” I asked the group to respond. They had several ideas. One was prudential: “it’s better to be ethical, because you never know when you might need that person in the future. Things could change.” Another student was close to tears when she advised, “It's better to treat the person ethically because you’re the one who has to live with your actions. You’re the one who knows what you did or said. Believe me, I know!” The power of their listening was palpable.

As I hope these several quotations from children illustrate, they see ethics as much more than “nice” or sweetly sentimental. In fact, we talked a lot about the fact that “ethical” is not the same as “nice.” The two may or may not coincide. Seeming nice may well mean telling a social lie, for example, which is unethical and even unwise. Being ethical often involves the grit of discomfort and doubt. Our decisions are as unpredictable as our experiences. One year a nine year old girl said something so eloquent that her classmates insisted I write it down and display it for all to be reminded every day: “You don’t realize how bad you’re being until you realize how good you can be.” I shared their appreciation.

Since the world of children’s ethics isn’t really different from that of adults’ ethics, it is as fraught with values, agendas, emotions, hopes, and grievances as any of our own. It isn’t cute or sentimental or shallow any more than we feel our own to be. Thinking our own values through is hard and requires a lifetime. Sharing all this with children is fun, as I began by saying in this article. It is also, I must emphasize again, inspiring. Parents know this. Most teachers do. One day a ten-year-old boy walked into my class, raised his hand, and announced, “I’ve been thinking. When you get hurt physically, even badly, like last year when I broke my arm, you can’t remember how it felt after you get well. You can remember that you were hurt, but you can’t feel the same feeling. Somehow ours brains just aren’t hooked up that way. But when you get hurt emotionally, and you remember it later, even much later, you feel that same feeling all over again. That’s why I think ethics is important, so we can try not to hurt people.” I can’t improve on his words.

Elizabeth Baird Saenger is a former teacher of ethics at Fieldston Lower part of Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, NY, USA. She is an author of books and articles on teaching ethics.

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