The Most Important Thing

We have five children in our family. Because of that, one of our chief preoccupations while raising them has been the problem of how to impart the ideas and attitudes of Freethought to them. Needless to say, we have had to blaze our own trail. While others can simply deliver their children into the care of priests or nuns or sit them in front of Bible-story videos, we have had to be a bit more imaginative.

I can't say we've never spanked our children, but we've relied mostly on "time-out" punishment. "Time out" — the old "sit on a chair or stand in the corner" — has the virtue of allowing both parent and child to think about what's happened before trying to come to grips with it. In my experience, this is to the advantage of the parent more than the child.

This has been key for us: that "time out" is not just a penalty box after which the child is released and nothing more is said. "Time out" is started when the problem — the broken article or the broken rule, the fight, the disrespect, or whatever it may be — happens. But, afterwards, the problem is discussed, beginning with the child explaining what the problem was, why it was serious enough to warrant the "time out," why it happened (the least useful element of the process as children usually don't know why they did what they did, or the "reasons" they offer are ad hoc inventions), and how it's going to be prevented in the future.

These discussions usually involve familiar themes having to do with privacy, sharing, respect for others, putting one's immediate desires into perspective — both that of others and that of the "big picture" of one's own desires — as well as forgiveness, patience, good sportsmanship, loss, anger, shame and many other things that are the stuff of everyday life. Although disciplining children is very trying, it's also true that these times can be among those that can hae the greatest impact on adults. It is often at these times that one may be reminded both of the importance of so many things that we tend to take for granted and the sad lot of all of us in having to figure out so many of them through difficult and painful personal experience.

So I have come to feel that the post-"timeout" lecture is very important in raising Freethinking children. For this is how children learn that when Mom and Dad say something is wrong, it's not just wrong just because Mom and Dad say it is. Rather, Mom and Dad have their reasons. And the child's participation in the after-the-fact process of understanding what happened is also a part both of their "punishment" and their moral education, just as being drilled in the multiplication table — cycling the information into and out of the brain over and over again — teaches proficiency in mathematics.

I won't say it always works perfectly, but it's the time and the repetition that are important and not how well each and every instance is resolved. That, too, is important for children to learn: that rarely is anything 100%, and that we all — even parents — must sometimes be content with settling for less.

We always conclude the post-"timeout" interview with the question: "What is the most important thing"? There's only one right answer, and our aim has been to see to it that our children have known the right answer since before they can remember: "To be good." And isn't this true, after all? Isn't the whole point of our existence to be good?

It's certainly fair to ask: "What is being good?" Although I don't think our children ever jumped to that question on their own, we could tell when they were ready to make the next step. And the next step, for us, was getting across the idea that being good means applied understanding. That is, it means both knowledge and action that fit the circumstances. So the right answer to the question "What is being good?" is, as we have taught our children: "To know what's right and do what's right.?

Now how do we do that? That's the easy part, or the difficult part, depending on how one looks at it. To know what's right it is necessary to think. It's necessary to see a given situation in light of those many considerations, both objective and subjective, that are bound to vary with the circumstances but which help us to decide on a course of action that is morally acceptable. To do what's right demands a similar effort to identify what is morally acceptable with what is personally necessary and satisfying. This is certainly the hardest part for children, whose self-esteem depends so much on external circumstances and the opinions of others. But none of us, in fact, are so grown up that we are free of such feelings and failings. Sometimes we must simply do what's right whether we want to do it or not.

Thomas Henry Huxley arrived at the same conclusion in his 1877 work Technical Education:

"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. It is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man's training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly."

There is a little song that our children know that helps us to remember these ideas: that being good is its own reward, that it's our honest effort to be good that counts — because practice makes better even if it does not make perfect — and that this is all we really need concern ourselves with so long as we are able to concern ourselves with anything at all. The song goes like this:

We do what's right because it's right,
We do it with all of our might,
Until we all go down for the night, night, night,
We do what's right because it's right.

Isn't that the most important thing?