Talk With Your Kids: Conversations About Ethics -- Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality -- and 103 Other Things That Really Matter

Talk With Your Kids: Conversations About Ethics -- Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality -- and 103 Other Things That Really Matter

by Michael Parker


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781579129484
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 08/13/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael Parker is the author of seven works of fiction, most recently the critically acclaimed novel The Watery Part of the World. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and many other magazines. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and three lifetime achievement awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature. He teaches in the MFA writing program at UNC–Greensboro and lives in North Carolina and Texas.

Read an Excerpt

talk with your kids



Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

Copyright © 2012 Michael Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60376-336-3



Your child may be smart but is he or she good?

Many families and almost all schools spend a great deal of time academically developing their children. This is a good thing. Yet I think it is at least as important for us to all think consciously about how we ethically develop the next generation to be decent members of society. This development already bubbles under the surface in homes and schools, but we can make this development break through the surface and become explicit. This can be done with lots of complex problems, lots of the wisdom of the ages, and lots of independent thinking—all of which this book serves up.


Of course, I must start with the observation that if you don't own this book, your children are not necessarily destined to become unethical brutes. Children learn their ethics from all parts of the world around them: sometimes from school, their friends, their church, their sports team, or their ballet class. Children don't learn ethics by getting it in a handbook.

The main place that a child learns his or her system of ethics is from the home (no pressure, Mom and Dad.) This should come as no great surprise to anyone—home is where a child spends most of his or her formative years.

Children will learn consideration from how considerate their parents are. They will learn empathy from how much their parents care. They will learn generosity from watching how generous their parents are to others. It has always been so. In addition, basic ethics are still delivered by parents in everyday interactions. "Share that toy with your sister," "Wait your turn" are all ethical instructions, taught in an unremarkable way in most homes a dozen times a day.

Ethically strong parents still can have children who cheat, lie, and push old ladies over in the street—after all parents are not a child's only source of instruction. However, the positive example of parenting is invaluable.

While this basic, practical, moral education has remained the same, what has changed in the last generation or two is the way in which ethics has been transmitted explicitly. Several major shifts have occurred.

Firstly, outside organizations such as churches often no longer play such a strong role in a child's life. Many religions in particular preach about how to live and the ethical statements they make are fundamental, involving charity, generosity, care, and purposefulness, for example "do unto others as you would have done unto yourself." However, the ethical teachings of religion as a moral compass are something that many children don't get anymore. You don't have to subscribe to any of the major religion's theistic beliefs to appreciate the value of many of the moral statements they taught.

Secondly, some parents now feel they have lost their authority to "push" ethical concepts on their children. Expecting or imposing firm ethical standards can make you feel like an old fashioned authoritarian; not merely "copying" your own parents, but copying your great great grandparents. And this hardly gives you street cred with your child or their friends. For example, insisting that "responsibilities are as fundamental as rights in a functioning society (e.g. this house)" may sound like nineteenth century twaddle. However, insisting that "the responsibility to do some housework is the flip side of the right to live in a house that is not a cesspit" is important.

Also, saying that "all opinions are equally valid" is often a cheap way of getting parents and teachers off the hook when the ethical questions get tough. This started several decades ago when, in some quarters, whatever values the child developed were acceptable. For example a child might say "My values are to look after only number one and trample whoever else is down," and for authority figures to intervene in this would be indoctrination. However, I think it is clear that not all ethical positions are equally good and that some values are better than others. Again, to use an example, when a small new boy turns up at your daughter's school without food it is NOT ethically equivalent for your daughter to share her lunch or punch him in the face. One is kind and the other is mean. Very little your child may reason to the contrary will change this fact. How to deal with this in a nuanced way in conversations is something I raise later, under "conversations with the ethically challenged child."


In discussing the questions in this book with your children, you are no doubt hoping that they come to hold a "good" set of values. Sometimes though it can be tough to put your finger on exactly what some of those values might be. I have listed some values that you would probably want your children to keep developing as they get older (they also appear in Conversation 75).

It's unrealistic to expect someone to have all of these values. And you don't want to go over the top with some of them either—too much "assertiveness" for example can be a bad thing. Nonetheless it is a handy list to keep in mind.



Ethics and values should be spoken about regularly in homes. Often they already are. Every time your child comes home with an example of something "unfair" that happened at school, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics. When an issue comes up on television or in films, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics.

I am not suggesting a return to the "good old days" when children were simply told how to behave and be respectful. Indeed, I am almost suggesting the reverse. I am suggesting that ethical issues are discussed and pulled apart by the whole family in conversation and that your children are a central part in these conversations. However, this is not permissive "values clarification" either. Instead, the important thing here is a belief that certain values are generally better—that courage is better than cowardice, that generosity is better than selfishness—and the rightness of these values is exposed by conversation and free thinking.

For example, you can tell a child "You have to be tolerant of other people" and he or she will hear "parent static" and probably filter you out. But if you use situations and examples to discuss tolerance and guide them to their own conclusions, your child will probably come to the view that tolerance is preferable to intolerance. The difference is that your child will have articulated the view themselves. The opinion will be his or hers and s/he will own it. So, in short, the better way to make a child tolerant is not to tell them to be, but to make him or her think it themselves. Of course, better than each of these is to get them to practice tolerance—but this book can't engineer that.

In having thoughtful, ethical discussions with your children (instead of ramming ideas down their throat or letting them get away with any view at all) you are becoming a small part of the great enlightened tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years. It is the same tradition that bought you democracy, freedom of speech, the emancipation of slaves, and Monty Python. For centuries being enlightened means valuing the received wisdom of the ages. It has been proud of producing in people the ability to think critically. And it has been proud of allowing people to form their own well-grounded views by combining these other two elements. It charts the middle way between authoritarianism and permissiveness. Being open-minded is a rare and precious triumph of the human species that I think we are obliged to hand on to our children. In using this book, with all of its ethical thinking skills, philosophies, and dilemmas, you are doing exactly that.

On the one hand the conversations in this book might be a little awkward at the start. Lets not pretend that they are the same type of conversation as "How was your day?" or "Didn't the Giants crush the Patriots?" Yet consistently discussing ethics with your children is one of the most important things you can do. And look at it this way—millions of parents are out there at the moment drilling their children in extra comprehension, grammar and math questions that come from joyless workbooks. I doubt that these are producing engaged, quality discussions between parents and children. As an educational project, this book and the conversations it promotes are a whole lot more interesting and worthwhile.


This book works the way you want it to work. You may choose to have a program of sitting at the dinner table one particular night every week and working from conversation to conversation. More likely you will dip in and out of conversations as they take your interest. You might choose a set time, or pull the book out occasionally. You may simply hand it to your children and say, "Which ones take your interest?" You may put it in the glove compartment of your car and pull it out when the road gets too long. You may keep this book in the background (in a drawer or by the bedside) and bring up the various dilemmas from memory when the times suit. You may take the ideas from the book and simply make up your own ethical dilemmas each time your child comes home from school with an issue. It is up to you.

Having said that, I do think it is important that your children get exposure to each of the three categories of conversations in the book.

Category 1—the ethical dilemmas and questions.

Category 2—the thinking-skills questions (10 of the conversations are like this: the ones ending in "0" i.e. 10, 20, 30).

Category 3—what famous ethicists and philosophers have thought in the past (11 of the conversations are like this: the ones ending in "5" i.e. 15, 25, 35).

The most important skill for parents to learn is how to fan the flames of the conversation so that the discussions catch fire instead of go out. There are many ways to do this and I have listed a few here.


Once your child has put forward a point of view, you can ask them why they believe this or you can ask them to give an example. You can ask them to give reasons for their opinion. You can ask how it links with other ideas they have had. You can ask them how it is different from something their brother or sister has just said. Just keep asking questions. By doing this, you are shepherding them along and getting them to think about their own thinking. (By the way, the single word "Why?" is more likely to fan the flames of a discussion than anything else.)

Asking more questions can be harder than it sounds. You might want to jump in with your own opinion, which could well be a conversation killer. Sometimes you will have to bite your tongue and use questions to explore the point of view with your children. The more they get to speak, the more they will feel that their point of view is being valued and the more they will be willing to speak.

Some specific questions:

• "What would the world look like if everyone did that?"

• "Can you think of an opposite example?"

• "How would you feel if you were on the other side of that?"

• "Have you got another reason for that?"

• "Who gets advantaged by that? Who gets disadvantaged? Is that fair?"

• "What do you think your football coach/priest/teacher/rabbi/ school principal would think about that?"

• "What harm does this decision create? Is it worth it?"

• "Even if no harm has been created, could it still be wrong?"

• "Why?"

• "Why?"


This means coming up with the opposite opinion (e.g. if everyone in the family quickly decides that it is okay to tell a white lie to your granny who has knitted you a horrible sweater, then you can be the person to say that granny would rather know the truth so that she stopped wasting her time knitting more sweaters that no one likes). However, it is vitally important that your children know you are playing devil's advocate to keep the discussion going, instead of just disagreeing with them. Flat out disagreements may throw water on the fire of the conversation instead of keeping it going.

Excerpted from talk with your kids by MICHAEL PARKER. Copyright © 2012 Michael Parker. Excerpted by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 8

1 Music Downloads and Stealing 22

2 Stealing??? 24

3 Stuck On A Lifeboat 26

4 Is Stealing Ever Okay? 28

5 Ethical Thinker-Plato 30

6 What Is Cheating At School? 32

7 Sports 34

8 Killing A Madman 36

9 (G-Rated) Parties 38

10 Being Reciprocal 40

11 Gender Relations 42

12 World of Liars 44

13 What Makes a Lie? 46

14 Is It Ever Okay to Lie? 48

15 Ethical Thinker-Aristotle 50

16 More Lies!! 52

17 Money, Money, Money, and Inheritance 54

18 Alcohol 56

19 Smoking 58

20 Using Criteria 60

21 Death and Taxes 61

22 Rank the Criminals 63

23 Our Grandchildren and the Planet 66

24 Rights of Animals 68

25 Ethical Thinkers-Hobbes And Locke 70

26 Should We Eat Meat? 72

27 Should We Use Animal Products? 74

28 Killing Animals 76

29 Should We Cage Animals? 78

30 What Is a Fact? What Is an Opinion? 80

31 Should We Accept Asylum Seekers? 82

32 Bad Consequences, Right Act? 84

33 What Is Torture? 86

34 Is Torture Ever Okay? 88

35 Ethical Thinkers-Rousseau and Hobbes 90

36 Torture Continued 93

37 Donating to Earthquake Relief 95

38 Prejudice 97

39 Looting After Disasters 100

40 Ethical Potholes at Dudgeon High 102

41 Saving Survivors and Reconstructing After An Earthquake 112

42 Fate-Are People Morally Responsible? 114

43 Free Will and Life Factors 116

44 Is The Old Man Evil? 118

45 Ethical Thinker-Immanuel Kant 120

46 Friendship (Part One) 122

47 Killing People On a Railway Line 124

48 Accepting Differences 126

49 What Is Bullying? 128

50 Generalizations 130

51 Bullying Continued 133

52 What Should Be Done to Bullies? 134

53 Make Up Your Own School Rules 135

54 What Is Cyberbullying? 137

55 Ethical Thinker- Jeremy Bentham 139

56 Why Cyberbullying is Bad 141

57 Capital Punishment (The Death Penalty) 143

58 Making Promises 145

59 Medical Ethics And the Government 147

60 Being Consistent 149

61 Medical Ethics-Testing Drugs on Prisoners 151

62 Medical Ethics and Kidney Transplants 152

63 Discrimination 154

64 The Good Life Pie 156

65 Ethical Thinker-John Stuart Mill 157

66 Duty 159

67 The Cure For AIDS 161

68 Sex 162

69 Relationships, Social Standing, and Body Image 164

70 Twelve Lousy Arguments 167

71 Parents, Children, and Rules 178

72 Declaring War on Canada 180

73 Acting Ethically In The Middle of a War 183

74 Who Are We Responsible To for Climate Change? 184

75 Ethical Thinker-Elizabeth Anscombe (and Aristotle) 185

76 What To Do About Climate Change 187

77 Changing Lanes on the Road 189

78 Justice at the Cafeteria 191

79 How To Treat Your Brothers and Sisters 193

80 Being Comprehensive 195

81 Road Ethics: Letting People In 196

82 Speed Limits on the Road 197

83 Drugs 199

84 Health, Drugs, and Young People 201

85 Ethical Thinker-John Rawls and the Mind Game 203

86 A Teenager's Car 206

87 When Is A 'New Life' a Human? 208

88 Online Etiquette and Age Restrictions 210

89 Housework 211

90 Universalizing 213

91 The Terrorist Attack 215

92 Euthanasia 216

93 Ethics In Business-Zen Bracelets 219

94 Business Ethics-Competition 221

95 Ethical Thinker-Lawrence Kohlberg and Heinz's Dilemma 223

96 Business Ethics-Staff 228

97 Secrets 230

98 Fighting 232

99 Sharing 234

100 Friendship (Part Two) 236

101 How To Spread Stuff Around (Part One) 237

102 How To Spread Stuff Around (Part Two) 238

103 Pets (Part One) 240

104 Pets (Part Two) 241

105 Martin Luther King. Jr. and Non-Violence 242

106 Rights and Responsibilities 246

107 Violent Computer Games 248

108 Designer Babies (Part One) 249

109 Designer Babies (Part Two) 251

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