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April 06, 2005

Modern Parenting and Moral Illiteracy

Posted by Digby Anderson

Digby Anderson observes three family rows - and does not like what he sees. It causes him to ask, has much of the population become morally illiterate?

I have recently overheard three family rows. In each the parents shouted at the children, the children being aged 8 to 13. What had the children done to enrage their parents? Perhaps they had been late or less than courteous or eaten with their mouths open. No, unpunctuality, discourtesy and rudeness are no longer sufficient to enrage parents. As a rule they go unrebuked. Indeed not a few parents practice them themselves enthusiastically.

In all three cases the children had stolen money from their mothers' handbags. They were on holiday. The holiday is a period of days punctuated by a succession of children's activities and demands. On beaches, in parks, amusement centres and shopping centres, the children do this for an hour then say they are bored and want to do that. They cannot stick at anything. The easiest shift of activities usually involves money:

it's boring in the water, can we go on the bouncy castle?.
This will soon be followed by the children pronouncing:
we've done bouncing, can we go and get some chips?

Eventually the indulgence or patience of the parents runs out. Denied their "right" to endless subsidised self-expression, the children steal the money from Mummy's handbag. In two cases a child stole a few pounds. In the third case, I overheard a group of children - of different parents - form a conspiracy:

I'll get some money from my Mum's bag if you get…
The conspirators wanted to buy something - I could not catch what it was - to use in common.

In every case the children were found out. The parents' anger was noisy. It sounded genuine. But it did not sound surprised. Nor did it contain any argument. They huffed and puffed:

Lillian, where did you get that? Have you been..? Well, I must say, that's too much, how dare you, what do you think you are up to? Give it back to me, now, I say, now…
Both children and parent seemed to know that what had been done was wrong but neither seemed able to explain why and neither seemed to think it very wrong. There was no punishment. I suppose you could say both exhibited a residual moral intuition but no moral literacy or sensibility.

If that is true of this grave offence, then it is even more true of the countless daily acts of rudeness, bad manners, showing off and exhibitionism committed by young people and adults and routinely unrebuked in public spaces today. The general populace is morally illiterate.

Under traditional moral codes stealing from Mother's handbag was a grave offence. And the traditional codes could explain why. It broke at least three Commandments. The children had not only committed theft. They had stolen from someone whom they were commanded to honour - their mother. They had been idolatrous in their pursuit of material goods and they had possibly coveted something not theirs. The children were above the age of moral discretion (seven). They knew what they were doing and that it was wrong (though not why) and no-one forced them to do it.

Thus, so the teaching went, if they had subsequently fallen off the bouncy castle and died, drowned in the sea with their newly purchased blow-up dinghy or suffocated on their gobbled chips (with ketchup), they would have died in a state of mortal sin and have been doomed to fire, possibly for eternity. Less catholic versions of the old morality would have only differed in their more robust certainty about the eternity.

So very different from the moral inarticulacy of the general population today. But what about the progressive intelligentsia? They are no strangers to wrong-doing in the family. Indeed they welcome such wrong-doing because they hate the traditional family. Every case of father abusing his child or battering his wife shows just how oppressive men and the family are. Every such statistic has them polishing their mantra that:

the abuser is not a stranger but someone you know very well.

I'm not sure that my particular crime in the family adds much to their ideological arsenal. No doubt they could blame the handbag theft on poverty - everything can be blamed on poverty or better still child poverty. If they had to say something they might ask whether it was all that wrong for a mere child to steal a few pounds form an adult who had so much, and then contrast it with real wrongs such as Iraq. They could mock the use of a handbag. They could blame not the children but the sellers of bouncy castles and chips for tempting children unfairly. They could question whether the children had been affirmed enough by their Mummies. After all no well-affirmed child would want to raid handbags. In the progressive lexicon children are always innocent.

What we can be sure of is that they would, as have I, studiously referred throughout to young people as old and older than 13 as children. For the progressive rule is this: if you want to remove any responsibility from a young person so as to attack and ban smackers and advertisers of toys and crisps, always call him a child. I heard a progressive prison, or rather anti-prison lobbyist on the wireless last week talking of 18 and 17 year olds as "children". Fancy! Locking mere children in jails. On the other hand when you want to lower the age these same children can legally copulate or vote, then call them young adults. For these people there is no age of moral discretion. It is a toy to be adjusted according to whatever ideological game is in play.

So the intellectuals would convert a serious moral matter into politics or therapy. The general populace would just shout. Both would deny young people their identity as moral beings. If the word were not now so thoroughly corrupted by overuse, one might complain that both were denying them their "rights".

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit in 2004.


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It seams that many parents appear to think that shouting at a child is a punishment. Saying that was really bad, you are naughty, how dare you do that to your mother, don't you ever do that again. Promise me you wont! Say sorry. Then the child apologises and this makes it all ok again.

There needs to be a clear message for parents today. For every action there should be an equal and opposite reaction. That is, every action that is undesirable should have an appropriate punishment. you dont need to hit children to do this. You do have to take away a privilege, toy, pocket money, go home straight away, you have to stick to your guns, and back down at your peril! you do have to make an effort to have a relationship of trust, and work at being a good parent. At the end of the day my children will be judge of our parenting skills when they are in their 30's.
jayne (health visiting background)

Posted by: jayne willingham at July 4, 2007 11:03 PM
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