Teach the Whys

“I kept six honest serving-men (They taught me all I know);
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.”
– Rudyard Kipling –

As we teach morals, it’s best to tell children reasons for why the behavior or attitude is a poor moral choice or a wise one. When I was growing up, the “why” often came down to, “Because I’m the parent (or teacher) and I said so.” That sets up the parent or teacher as the reason to behave, which means that whenever the parent or teacher is not present, the child has no internal reason to make the wise moral choice. Daniel J. Siegel, writing about the teen brain, said, “Choosing not to get a tattoo at an unknown place because you value your health is very different from saying ‘I won’t do it because my mother told me not to.'”1 Do children a favor and give them concrete reasons to make wise choices.

On the other hand, avoid going into long lectures about why something is right or wrong. That’s what I tend to do, presenting all the reasons I can think of. I say, “In the first place . . . and in the second place . . .” One day when my younger son was about seven, and I had refused to allow him to do something (I don’t even remember now what it was), he looked up at me and asked, “What’s the first place?” He was bracing himself for the lecture. The thing is, lectures are not very effective. Children remember the first thing we say and the last thing. The information in between gets lost. It’s best to keep explanations short and simple.

One of the best reasons for making a wise choice is safety or health. In classrooms, I’ve often told children, “My job is to keep you safe and healthy, so I can’t allow you to do that, because it might hurt someone.” Or we can give a reason that focuses on the way life works best. We do that naturally in all sorts of situations from the time children are small. “Don’t touch the stove,” we say. Why? It’s often hot, and you might get burned. “Cover your mouth when you sneeze.” Why? So you won’t spread germs and make someone sick. “Don’t leave your toy trucks on the stairs.” Why? Because someone might trip over them and fall – and that someone might be you. On the surface, these may not seem like moral situations, but morality is operative when we are careful, caring whether others get sick or hurt. In addition, pointing out cause and effect in non-moral situations – like touching a hot stove – lays the groundwork for understanding the cause and effect principle of morality. Why should we make the wise moral choice? Because it’s the way life works best.

I find it helpful to look at Bible teachings the same way: less as “rules” and more as “this is the way life works best.” When we look at Jesus’s teachings from this viewpoint, we see that the “whys” are built in.

• “Blessed are the merciful . . .” Why? “. . . for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). This is not a rule; it’s just the way life usually works. If you’re a merciful person, others tend to treat you with mercy as well. It’s reciprocity at work. An eye for an eye.

• “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged” (Matthew 7:1, 2). This is not a rule and a corresponding threat of God’s punishment. It’s simply the way life usually works. If we judge others, they will judge us as well. Even if they don’t judge us, we think they are judging us (because we ourselves are judgmental). What’s more, we secretly judge ourselves in the same measure.

• “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you . . . For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37, 38). This has less to do with God forgiving us than with the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t forgive. To the degree that we hold onto bitterness and resentment, we hold onto what hurt us in the first place. In other words, it’s impossible to be free of the wound, because we’re clinging to it. We’re released as much as we release others. That’s not a divine mandate; it’s simply the way life works. Wishing someone else ill does nothing to make us feel whole. Forgiving is healthy.

The basic “why” of morality is as simple as “you reap what you plant” (Galatians 6:7).

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
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