How Morality Grows
and how unschooling can help

December 31st there was a tussle on The Always Learning list about "ODD"—Oppositional Defiance Disorder. That can be read in the archives, here:
(group moved, but link working as of late 2021)

I told a story that seemed to merit its own page, and decided to gather links to previously written bits-and-bobs of questions about morality, virtue and integrity.

—Sandra Dodd, 1/1/11

When my kids were little and took something that wasn't theirs (Kirby, $20 once when he was six or seven; nothing more major), I approached it not from a legal standpoint, but from a moral standpoint. It wasn't wrong because there was a law against it--the law isn't what made it a bad thing to do. It was wrong because it didn't make Kirby a good person, and because it stood to destroy the relationship between him and the rightful owner of the $20. The owner was the mother of a child his age, two houses up, across the street. He was visiting, and she had a twenty dollar bill on the table. He picked it up to look at it, and had it in his hand when she told him he needed to go home, and couldn't figure out how to put it back, and he put it in his pocket and came home. He pulled it out and gazed at it in an odd way, and said "Look what I found."

Sometimes people do find money. My mom used to find bills in odd places, and I've twice bought used clothes with a bill in the pocket.

I asked where he found it, and he said "In the road." Also a possibility, but I knew him so well that I had seen the odd look he gave the bill, and the tone of voice of "in the road" was also telling. I asked if there was anyone out there it might have belonged to. I talked about my mom finding money, and sometimes people do. But he wasn't animated and excited about having that. AND he had shown it to me when he came in. He wasn't being sneaky.

Just a little while later the neighbor called and said she thought maybe Kirby had taken a $20 bill off the table. I said yes, he had it, and we'd be right over. I asked if it was Nick's mom's and he said yes, and told me about picking it up.

The whole thing took less than ten minutes. So we walked over and he said he was sorry, that he didn't mean to steal it.

I never talked about police or larceny. I talked about being trustworthy, and being the kind of person other people want to have over.

There were other times, in discussions about hitting, when other parents were involved, when I said to a kid (mine, usually) "The only reason it's not illegal is you're a little kid, but if you did that as an adult, the police would come and take you away." I've gotten criticism from unschoolers when I've told those stories. It might have happened three or four times, with three kids, over 20 years. But it's true. Justifying or accepting or covering over physical assault isn't a good thing.

But the poster of the ODD defense has spun the world up into a dangerous mirage. And on the other hand, standing right there, a child picked up a branch and hit another child. How was she not on the alert when the child picked the branch up? How was it that she couldn't cause her presence to be interesting enough to make picking a branch up uninteresting by comparison?

Earlier this year I told the story of Jefferson who killed himself in his early 20's (or died of a drug overdoes, anyway), who had hit his mother as a teen, whose mother told me 20 years ago that if I didn't hit Kirby, he would grow up to hit me.

I decided NOT to hit Kirby, though. He he has never hit another person in anger, though he grappled with Marty once when they were teens and Holly broke it up. No blows were thrown, I don't think. He's never hit another person in self defense, either. He has talked his way (joked and postured his way) out of a couple of potentially dangerous situations. The most memorable was some hockey players with sticks in hand, and Kirby with some friends in Denver he didn't know very well, who were all gothed up and one of the girls insulted the hockey players, while out to the mall with Kirby and another couple of teens. Had there been a fight, Kirby could have taken one of the hockey sticks away and defended his three friends, but he never even bristled up. He just talked. He's trained in bo staff, and he had done SCA combat (sword fighting with sticks), but he didn't call on the physical at all.

He became the kind of person others would like to have over, even in other states. 🙂
He didn't become the kind of person who would choose killing or assault, even though I never taught him that those things are against the law.

The problem with living by the law entirely is shown by strict religious upbringings. If children are told "God doesn't want you to talk back, God doesn't want you to hit your sister, God doesn't want you to drink or gamble or dance, and God wants you to render under Ceasar the things that are Ceasars (a verse used in Baptist world to tell people to pay taxes and follow laws)" then it sometimes happens that the child turns 18 or 20 and decides not to continue in that religion. So he's grown, maybe has a car and some money, and a car, and no longer feels God is waiting to smite him if he hits people or goes to honky tonks, and if he meets girls who seem to him to be totally sinful creatures, he might do some smiting himself. Without having grown up with morals, only rules without any reason other than the fear of hell or his parents' punishments, he's adrift in a fast-moving world without a compass.

I should put that on a page. Maybe this page: Huge Gambles (or small gambles)

Maybe not.

Here's a cool quote from that, though. Joyce Fetteroll:

"It's not a straight cut path to [the prevention of lying and stealing] ;-) Asking how to prevent kids from lying is sort of like asking how to get a steeple bell 50 feet into the air. The answer begins with building a foundation on the ground which hardly sounds like a way to get something into the air ;-) "
And while I'm quoting wise unschoolers, Pam Sorooshian:
"As we get older and our kids grow up, we eventually come to realize that all the big things in our lives are really the direct result of how we've handled all the little things."—Pam Sorooshian, June 4, 2007
If I find details of the story about Kirby (a different age, or a closer-to-the-time account) I'll post it. And there was a follow-up when he was ten or so (numbers fall out of my head; sorry), and I'll add that there too.


I have a "Kirby Diary"—a word file with notes. I have a "diary" on each child and one for me, and those are files I don't always write in, but have kept as safe as I could through many computer changes. I wrote this in 1991. It's about my half brother, whose name is Justin Eugene. He's the fetal alcohol kid. He was a teen at this point, out on his own, not doing well. He didn't have an Uncle Richard. This also has more story to it I'm just too ashamed to tell, and it wouldn't help. My point in quoting it is Kirby's reaction. In the winter of 1991, Kirby was four and a half:

[quote from 1991:]
DON'T KNOW THE EXACT DATE: early January? I got a call from Venessa saying the police had called her mom saying that Gene (Justin) wanted his "Uncle Richard" to come pick him up, that his car had broken down near the Continental Divide near Farmington. In calling around (Irene) I learned he had stolen $900 from Bill Prince in Bloomfield on Christmas Day. Kirby was overhearing all this and asked me what was up. I told him my brother had stolen money and told some lies. "Your brother's a bad guy? He changed his mind to be a bad guy and not a good guy?"

My children grew up. I shared stories of their successes and problems, always attempting to share ways to help children understand why things are the way they are, and how they can navigate other people's concerns and expectations.

There's an account of one of my children's "brush with the law" here, about which the child in question said it was good I had published it "because some unschoolers seem to think they're immune from the possibility of getting into trouble." Of course kids can get into trouble. But how might they and their parents react to that, and make peace, amends and reparation?

When Parents Have Issues Huge Gambles (or small gambles) The problem of "Unschool World"