The Hero and the Villain. The good guy and the bad guy. A yin to a yang. Two sides of the same coin. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. It is tropes like these that we all love to watch and read; as a rule, people love watching the good guy defeat the bad guy and keep the evil at bay. We hate evil! Down with evil! EVIL, EVIL, EVIL!
All he wants is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads!
What do I mean when I say good and evil? How do you define what is considered good and what isn’t? Well when you ask someone, they may point to characters from books or movies who are traditionally considered “evil”, or maybe some mass murderer or terrorist. Hitler or Stalin usually top the list when people need to categorize evil quickly. However, if you try to explain exactly what makes someone evil, you may have some trouble. We like to think that evil is self-evident, but it’s not. Things that are considered ‘good’ or ‘evil’ to me may not be thought of that way by you. Any ideal about what we think of as right or wrong can be argued the opposite way by another. Just look at the practice of spanking. Some people think it’s fundamentally wrong and abusive, and some people think it is necessary and teaches obedience and self-control. Both of those are moral arguments. Both can be defended as good or bad. The ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are completely subjective. There are differences in ideas about good and evil throughout different countries, religions, political ideologies and cultures. Both sides of the debate are confident in their “rightness”, and we don’t have one definition that everyone follows.
How do our kids learn about good and evil, or know what behaviors and feelings constitute one or the other? Early in life parents and people close to them socialize, whether directly or indirectly. We try to teach our toddlers to share, our older kids not to cheat or lie, and our teenagers not to steal or bully others. We reinforce good behavior and correct unwanted behavior. Why? Morality is the answer for me. But what is underneath that? Why do we instill morals in our children? In my opinion, the idea of altruism and being “good for goodness sake” is an evolutionary trait. Sure, it may have been honed culturally, but the basis of it is biological. We live in a society, a subset of a civilization our ancestors built over thousands of years, and they formed that civilization because they learned that our species survives longer when we work with others. Helping each other and being less selfish and hedonistic is in the best interest of prolonging the human race. That trait is inborn in every single one of us. So to me, that’s where the ideas behind good and evil come from. We learned that being helpful, kind and loving to our fellow humans resulted in longer lives and more offspring. This trait then gets passed on to future generations through the process of evolution, and eventually becomes cemented in the minds of all of us living together. Some philosophers and religious leaders insist that good and evil are a product of culture, and to some extent, I agree. As our species has evolved, we are consistently presented with new ethical dilemmas that we must take a stance on. Things that are foreign to us. Income inequality, women’s rights and civil rights, and the fight for equality from the LGBT community are great examples of culture shaping morality.
By the same token, there are a lot of people and organizations out there who think that morals and the idea of good and evil come not from culture or evolution, but from the Bible. But in keeping with the subjectivity of good and evil, let us also include the Quran, sacred Hindu texts and any other religious text that is supposed to communicate the ideals of their god. For the sake of time, I will just focus on the bible and the Christian god for this post. Theologians and even some philosophers believe that morals are a cultural trait taken straight out of the bible. They think that the word of god and salvation through Jesus is what gives people their ideas of right and wrong, and nothing else. God has told us what is right and what is wrong, his word is infallible, and we must trust him, despite what our gut or judgment tells us. I have a problem with this for several reasons. First, the bible condones things like slavery (Exodus 21), children being mauled by bears for teasing (2 Kings 2:24), killing homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13), and nonbelievers (2 Chronicles 15:12-13) , selling your daughters off like cattle (Exodus 21:7-11), turning people into pillars of salt for looking behind them (Genesis 19:26), and the list goes on. It also condemns things like eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12), wearing fabrics made from mixed fibers (Deuteronomy 22:11), working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15) and growing different crops too close together, LEST YOUR LAND BECOME DEFILED (Deuteronomy 22:9). Those are all sins. The last time I checked, most modern day Christians do not honor those rules, but yet they are said to come from God, and as far as I’m aware, he hasn’t come down to tell us otherwise. Yes, it is true the bible includes the ten commandments with things like not stealing, not killing anyone, honoring your mother and father and other things that most people would consider traditionally “good” and not evil, but with everything else it says that is completely horrendous to me, I do not consider it a good source for developing a sense of morality. My children are not good because someone in a story told them what it means to be good, and because if they aren’t they will burn eternally in hellfire. My children will make their choices based on consequences and the type of person they want to be. They don’t need the threat of eternal torture or an all-seeing being looking over their shoulder all the time to make them be good people.
I also really dislike the idea of religion looking at good and evil as only black and white. They consider it a dichotomy, and to me it is a false dichotomy. Get ready, because it’s about to get real. I am going to drop some knowledge from the much revered Sirius Black from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” I completely agree. None of us are born as sinners; as bad people who need to pray and beg for forgiveness to become better. We are all born with a blank slate (unless you’re Voldemort because he was different from day one, like he couldn’t love, and some people think it’s because he was conceived using a love potion but that’s a discussion for another day) and we have the ability to do both good and bad things in our life. We all have thoughts that are good and bad. If someone forgets to ring up the big item you have at the bottom of your cart, have you ever just thought of not saying anything? I mean hey, it’s their mistake, right? Have you ever told someone you like their new haircut when you think it’s awful? Do you consider yourself a bad person for lying, or a good person for sparing their feelings? Any ethical dilemma gives you the opportunity to do the right thing or the wrong thing (subjective!), and what you choose to act on dictates your character. Maybe not even then! If you’ve ever done an ethical dilemma quiz, you will understand just how NOT black and white the idea of good and evil are. The man who steals bread to feed his starving family is breaking the law, but would you sentence him and throw him in jail if his family wouldn’t survive without him? There are tough situations we encounter every day that require us to make a decision based on our best guess or feeling about it. I don’t think it’s fair to use a single book like the bible to base your entire decision making process about what’s right and wrong. And I definitely don’t think it’s fair to condemn other people’s choices and slap that book down when passing judgment. You don’t have any right to do that. And to have a book that is thousands of years old and interpreted differently by pretty much every single person who reads it as your primary source does not instill confidence in your judgment, in my opinion.
I think the idea of good and evil is a continuum. When you’re teaching your kids about how Christianity judges it, in my opinion it is damaging to tell them they are inherently bad as soon as they’re born, and that they have to work to become good and accepted by your god. It’s not healthy for any child to be told they’re ‘bad’ at all, let alone as soon as they are born; something that is completely out of their control!
So my advice is to lay your cards on the table about good and bad, just as I did for you here. Tell them, first of all, that one person’s definition of “good” may not match someone else’s, and sometimes it’s difficult to determine who is actually correct. HOWEVER, do not misunderstand me: there are some exceptions to this rule. Rape, domestic or child abuse, drunk driving, and many types of violence and murder are absolutely unacceptable. You can’t tell your kid that you believe rape is wrong, but that some people don’t feel that way and we need to respect them. That’s not okay. And no one ever deserves to be raped. I just have to throw that in there. Don’t teach your children that any woman or man deserves to be raped based on clothing or behavior. It’s wrong and you are perpetuating violence and the brutalization of victims who truly do not deserve it, no matter what they do. I try to be unbiased on a lot of parenting topics, but some shit I just don’t abide by. Rape and abuse are wrong, as are any justifications of them.
That being said, a good way to talk to your kids about right and wrong is to make a list of family rules and ethics. You can come up with them together and talk them out. That is a great opportunity for everyone to talk about what behavior they feel is wrong, and why. You can usually get a great conversation going. One of your kids may think that it’s always right to share their toys, and another may think that if it’s a toy that belongs to them and is special, then they shouldn’t be required to share it. Many times those ethics and morals differ within each family, and that’s fantastic. You WANT people in your family to differ on their morals and values sometimes. That makes it so much easier to open your mind to other people’s insight and experiences, and that is one of the best ways to grow as a person.
And finally, one of my favorite ways to talk about ethics, morals and right and wrong is the inclusion of beloved fictional characters. It is so much easier to teach kids lessons or offer them some wisdom when it is coming through a story or character they already enjoy. I will always resort to wisdom from Harry Potter as my first resource. Kids Everyone loves Harry Potter, (and if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?) and there are some great examples of moral dilemmas and the introduction of what is known as ‘grey’ characters. It is a fantastic source. Dumbledore, Snape, James Potter, Draco Malfoy, any of those would make for a great discussion about their virtues and motivations, with no clear cut answer one way or another. Note: You will notice that younger kids are very quick to point out which characters are good and bad. Toddlers and small children are still developing a social conscience and trying to make sense of the world, so they like putting things in categories to make them easier to understand.
Anyway, for people who really love Harry Potter, or people who can be critical of a character’s development, they will tell you that it’s not so easy to deem someone as good or bad. What about Draco Malfoy? At first glance, many would say he’s evil. I mean, he becomes a death eater for crying out loud! His father was a death eater. He plays host Voldemort in his HOME! But a critical look at his upbringing will show a boy who was spoiled rotten with things and money, but was constantly searching for the approval of a father who would never give it to him. A boy who was socialized and raised to hate from the day he was born. A boy who tried in vain to befriend Harry Potter, but the humiliation from being rejected caused him to scorn and hate. Draco also has second thoughts about his alignments when he is ordered to murder Albus Dumbledore, and later regrets trying so hard to prove himself when faced with the grotesque tasks he is required to perform and witness under Voldemort’s regime.
Another fantastic character from Harry Potter, and probably one that is fought about the most is Severus Snape: a man who bullied children to tears, instilling fear and terror in those who are entrusted to him to learn. A man who has a deep resentment for Harry Potter, but is also charged with keeping him alive and protecting him until the very end. Why did he agree to this? Because of his love for Harry’s mother, Lily. At the end of the story Harry learns that Snape was on his side all along, and even ends up naming one of his children after Snape, deeming him the bravest man he ever knew, but was he brave? Was Snape doing it for all the right reasons? He despised Harry and his father, but only out of a childhood infatuation for Lily did he begrudgingly agree to protect Harry. We like that he protects Harry, and we romanticize his unhealthy attachment to Lily long after her death, but to many more of us, that is kind of a sick motive. There’s another moral issue with Snape, as well. He came from an impoverished, abusive family. He was unloved and became a loner, and was bullied terribly by people at school, most notably Harry’s father, James. It’s no wonder he grew up cold and bitter and hateful, given the background he had to overcome. Is it still his fault? Would you say that Snape was inherently evil to his core, or just a product of his circumstance? That is a great question, and one that many people disagree over even to this day.
The great thing about introducing fictional characters as a way to discuss morality is that you can show your kids that they can still love a character who is morally ambiguous. Some of the best characters are grey; it makes them more human and relatable. It is also a really great way to look at how someone’s past and upbringing has affected their character, whether that be in a positive way or negative.
You can find grey characters and ethical dilemmas in almost every movie you watch with your kids, every book you read and every television show. Sit down with them and watch a movie, and pause during the movie or while reading a book, and ask them to identify whether or not they think the character is good or bad, and why or why not. Pause at an ethical dilemma and ask them what they think is the right or wrong choice. Make sure that you ask them to elaborate on why, and tell them to put themselves in the other person’s position. Empathy is a great way to teach morals. With that in mind, try to avoid correcting them with your own opinions or judgments. If you are asking them to be intellectually honest with their own thoughts about it, then you owe it to them to give them your full attention, and listen without judging them, even if it doesn’t necessarily align with yours. If they think that the Lorax is a self-important jerk and needs to let business grow, (hey, our country adopted capitalism and it’s the richest in the world!) try not to criticize them; be thoughtful about their answers and encourage them to keep learning and asking questions. There’s no bigger discouragement to speaking your mind and being curious than if someone tells you you’re wrong after you confide in them. Especially if they are a child and that person is their parent. Even if they say something totally awful at 8 years old, (she was mean, she deserved to die!) you didn’t fail as a parent; they won’t grow into a heartless serial killer! They are still figuring it all out, and it is your job to encourage that without pushing them away.
What are your thoughts on good and evil, and teaching your kids about right vs. wrong? I am interested to hear how others teach their children about morality. Remember, there are no wrong answers. Sort of.