February 7, 2010    Education

Why I Would Not Teach My Values to My Kid

The people who know me well would probably exclaim, “That’s a good idea!” Well, sorry to disappoint, but this isn’t about the fact that my values are questionable. I would not teach my own values to my child even if I thought my values were immaculate. This brings us to the question: What do I mean by “values”? The simplest way to put it is: To deem one thing to be superior to its counter part. For instance, in the last presidential election, many parents involved their kids into politics by teaching them that Obama is better than McCain. So, we had preschool kids campaigning for Obama.

Teaching our own values to our kids comes naturally because when we strongly believe something to be good or right, it’s hard to imagine the world where the opposite is true. Because it feels so natural that when we see the opposite scenario, it feels very unnatural. A good example is seeing small kids participating in a Ku Klux Klan parade. Many people feel outraged and say, “Oh my God, how could they involve kids into this?!” The same is true for Pro-life versus Pro-choice; both parties watch the kids parading on the other side and get outraged. It’s rather ironic if you think about it. For some reason, neither party realizes that they themselves are committing the same crime that they are accusing of the other. If you want to criticize the other for involving their kids, you should first follow your own rule and leave your own kids out of your own values. That is only fair; otherwise you are being hypocritical.

It’s only natural that we want our kids to believe in the same things we do, because we want to get along with them. It’s also true that when our kids say the “right” thing, our egos get a boost, because we feel that we taught them well. Personally, I feel disturbed when kids say the “right” thing and when it is clear that it is not coming from their own heart. When somebody does not really own what they are saying, it’s pretty obvious. In most cases, small kids are just quoting their parents. Kids are smart enough to know what their parents or teachers consider “right”, so they would pick and choose the right opportunities to repeat those “right” things. And, many adults eat them up like candies.

I believe that the mechanism that creates this phenomenon we call “value” exists in us all from the day we are born. And, even though they create values that are similar for the most part, there is a certain degree of variance. If it were possible to graph the variance of personal values, I would imagine that it would form a bell curve where most people’s values are at or around the center. It’s like our height; we have a lot of people around the average height, and we see fewer people who are very tall or very short. Overall, it forms a graph shaped like a bell. In the American politics, we conveniently have a two-party system, so plotting our political values would probably form a bell curve too, with most people around the center, and fewer people as we move towards far right or far left.

This distribution is what makes some people believe that values are absolute; because so many of them overlap. It’s hard to argue against extreme examples like “Killing a person is wrong.” But some outliers would disagree. Some of them might say, the reason why we feel it’s wrong to kill a person, but not a cow, is because we are genetically programmed to protect our own species. It’s not about right or wrong; we are just acting according to how we are programmed by nature. Another might argue that killing people is ultimately better for all the living things on earth, because we humans are selfishly destroying the earth. It’s like a Nazi trying to kill Hitler to prevent further calamity and suffering. And so on... It’s not impossible to formulate an argument for killing people.

Living a life of an outlier wouldn’t be easy because you would become a lightening rod of criticism, but if you feel that values are somewhere between relative and absolute (bell curve), like I do, you must admit that a personal value cannot be proven to be superior or inferior to another. Being closer to the center does not automatically make your value superior. Value is not a popularity contest. It’s just another sample on the bell curve of values. The question of superiority, in this sense, is not productive. A more relevant question is: How did our values end up where they are? Many parents assume that it’s a result of what the parents teach their kids. The assumption implies that if we did not teach our kids that racism is bad, they would grow up to be racists. I simply cannot buy this argument. Part of me wishes that I could buy it; I think my life would be much simpler. I would certainly have much less inner conflicts.

My parents and I do share similar values, but in many critical areas, they differ. Now that I am in my 40s, I feel that even the values that I share with my parents are my own values. That is, we happen to share the same values, not because they taught them to me, but because these values have become meaningful to me through my own experiences in life. Some values they taught me were harmful to me because they created much confusion, which in turn caused much pain. They interfered with the development of my own values, and I would have been better off if they didn’t teach them to me. But, I must admit that some of the values they taught me were ultimately pointed in the right direction, and so they provided quicker ways for me to get there. But at the end of the day, the cost and the benefit cancelled each other out. So, their efforts to teach me their values were a complete waste. If I were a baby now, I would tell them, “So, don’t bother teaching me any of your values. Thank you, but no thank you.”

We all have inner gods that tell us we did something right or wrong. By “gods”, I don’t mean anything religious. I’m basically speaking of our own conscience. No matter how we rationalize our actions, if we are in tune with our own conscience, our gods always win in the end. What I want my daughter to be able to do is to be in tune with her own conscience. Hers is probably different from mine, so I do not want to interfere. Only she can listen to her own god inside her, and I want her to be able to stand up for her own god even if it tells her something that contradicts what I believe, or what the majority of the world believes, because her god will always win in the end.

In fact, the interference comes not only from our parents but also from our society and culture in general. Even as adults, we are all susceptible to it. The media is filled with moral messages, and we are constantly being swayed by them. Some are quite deceptive and we only realize how wrong they are much later (when we begin to feel that something is amiss). If we are not in tune with our own conscience, we are mislead into the wrong path and sooner or later we face the consequences of it. If learning values from our parents and teachers would lead to inner peace, life would be so much simpler. If we rewarded our children for learning the values we teach them, it would interfere with the process of listening to their own conscience. And, they would be discouraged from standing up for how they feel inside. If such a child were to grow up in a Nazi community, she would surely support its anti-Semitic values. I want my daughter to stand up for her own values even if I were a Nazi. I would then be a proud Nazi father.