Re-creating Ethics with My Daughter

My two-year-old is now in the stage where my wife and I are torn between encouraging our daughter’s independence and our need to, say, get out the door in less than four hours.

What’s been fascinating to watch has been how her moral code is developing. If she’s running away from us at bath time, for example, one  of us will often go, “Where’d our good listener go? She was just here. She’s missing!” She’ll then stop in her tracks, and run back to the bathtub and will beam when we say, “There she is! Oh, good!”

Morality and ethics are designed to keep society running smoothly, to stop us from doing whatever we please. But morality involves rules, and rules can quash creativity. Telling someone, “No, you can’t do that,” is often in direct opposition to a desire to express creative impulses.

So is there a way we can integrate creative independence with ethical behavior?

Adam Grant, a business professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a recent piece in the New York Times entitled “How To Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.” In it, he brings up a rather counter-intuitive fact — many of the children who were prodigies at a young age ended up not doing much as adults. In fact, the children who had lots of rules and structures and schedules ended up not doing as well as those who had more freedom.

Interestingly, the same principle applied to morality as it did in art or music. As he explains,

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”

Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.

Ethical actions can arise in the same way — from the joy of knowing that we are doing the right thing. Yes, my wife and I are still trying to figure out which battles need to be fought and which ones we can give in on, and our guess is that this dynamic tension will change and evolve as she grows up. But our hope is that she will continue to rise on Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

Judaism certainly offers rules and structures, and offers an ethical code to live by. Yet it’s crucial that we feel internally motivated to embrace the parts that add value to our lives. If Judaism is imposed from the outside, it easily creates rebellion — how many people talk about how much they hated Hebrew school because their parents forced them to go? But Jewish identity — like ethical behavior — has the deepest impact when it’s continually re-created and internally driven.

In other words, if we want our kids to be ethical, and if we want our kids to feel connected to their Judaism, then we might need to use the same strategy we use to encourage creativity — namely, to back off.

Even if it means it takes a lot longer to get to day care in the mornings.


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