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    Volume 9 Issue 30| July 23, 2010|

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Food for Thought

Accidental Olives and Other Moral Quandaries

Farah Ghuznavi

"Secret identities? We know nothing…"

Through the ages, parents have tried to imbue their children with a particular set of moral standards -- whether that is based on values rooted in religion or contemporary society, or it reflects leanings towards more-than-averagely conservative or progressive tendencies. Invariably, there are cases where this kind of approach backfires, but that has never stopped parents from trying. Particularly those foolhardy individuals convinced that in bringing up their child they are dealing with a tabula rasa (or blank slate) that they are free to "write" their own opinions upon.

Not that I'm in any way attempting to deny that one of the most important tasks any parent faces is to act as moral compass for their child, particularly in the early years. I just don't believe that children come to us in a form that is completely malleable. At least, (occasionally bitter) experience has taught me that the degree of ease with which a child can be programmed to believe certain things varies considerably from one child to another. And it's not that easy to explain either; some children just seem more prone to questioning authority or thinking somewhat "creatively", no matter how orthodox or disciplinarian the parenting approach in use may be.

There are often unexpected pitfalls. A friend of mine described how he was out for a walk with his nephew, when he explained to the little boy (aged about four) that it was important not to leave rubbish lying around. So in the course of their walk, they collected some of the debris that had been left on the side of the road and eventually depositing it in a garbage bin. A few days later, his irate sister rang him to ask what on earth he had told his nephew -- the little boy was found at the end of the day to have collected all kinds of trash off the streets and put it in his pockets, presumably for subsequent safe disposal...

Every now and then, a troubling moral question invariably emerges for every parent. While the old adage "Do as I say, not as I do" was designed precisely for adults to avoid the inevitable contradictions unearthed by questioning young minds, it simply doesn't work as well with the current generation as it probably did with previous ones. They want answers! And let's face it, sometimes their questions are valid. Like my friend Nadiya's five-year-old daughter who wanted to know why, if being untruthful was so bad, all her favourite super heroes are allowed to lie in order to cover up their secret identities?

Then there are some children who have a natural sense of self-confidence that overrides the best adult efforts to promote good (in our culture, read: respectful to adults) behaviour. Like a friend of mine who took her precocious five-year-old along to a social function where several of the parents knew each other from various workplace connections and the children had been invited to attend the event alongside their parents on that particular occasion.

One of the guests decided to go to the room where the children were playing and introduce herself to her colleagues' kids. Upon meeting my friend's five-year-old, she said "Oh yes, I know who you are. You know, your mother and I travelled together to Africa once". In fact, they had been together on work travel, visiting a number of projects in African countries. But the child, clearly taking note of the glamorous outfit and jewellery this lady was wearing, looked her up and down and coolly replied, "Oh, I see. I had thought my mother had gone to Africa to work"!

There are children, however, who are easier to convince regarding the need to maintain social conventions. And for some, politeness seems to come naturally. Like my friend's two-year-old son Magnus, who was sitting at the dinner table and put an olive in his mouth. As the flavour hit his palate, he looked quite horrified and stopped in mid-chew. Clearly, the poor little boy had mistaken the olives for blackberries or cherries; in short, something altogether more pleasant-tasting. Despite that, Magnus made a game effort to swallow the vile object, before his mother took mercy on him and allowed him to gratefully spit it out into her palm. I have to give him credit, he kept smiling throughout.

"Are you sure those aren't olives?"

Another child who really impressed me with her sense of what constituted appropriate behaviour was two-year-old Thale. When I met her at her older cousin's birthday party, she was voluntarily collecting the tennis balls that were scattered all over the lawn as a result of the preceding game played by the older children which had involved knocking down plastic bottles with the balls.

Thale's sense of social responsibility was clearly quite highly developed, and not only in relation to tidying the occasional messes that she came across. When she saw that her older cousins were playing a raucous game by filling up balloons with water and throwing them around, she said in a gruff little voice, "Don't throw the balloons", seeming worried that they would hurt each other. When I commented on this, her father told me that during a re-enactment of some historical battle that the family had observed when they went to a Festival of the Middle Ages, Thale called out at the actors from her seat, "Don't fight! Don't fight!"

But my personal favourite from this concerned (future) citizen was her response to the rather large ox she met at the children's zoo that accidentally knocked her small self over. Unfazed, she spoke sternly to him after picking herself up, "You should be ashamed of yourself! Don't push!"

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