I gave my 9th grade English students practice debates on values while we were reading Romeo and Juliet. They complained that I only gave them one-sided situations. “What do you mean?” I asked and read aloud the day’s prompt: “You should be friends with odd kids that your own friends make fun of.”
They insisted that statement had only one side. I said, “Come on. There’s the side that you say you believe and there’s the side that you actually do. That’s two sides.”
My students were sincere. In their minds the principle of being nice to the less fortunate is true. They’ve learned that at school, at church, and at home. In their minds, it is a truth with which they cannot argue. They believe they should be nice to others, but no one has given them permission to count the cost of acting upon this principle.
For most fourteen and fifteen-year-olds, the cost of befriending “odd” or “weird” classmates is more than they can handle. Kids are not hypocrites when they say they believe in befriending everyone. They simply avoid thinking about how their actions don’t measure up to their beliefs. Admitting they fail to live up to this principle would cast themselves as uncaring people.
When I gave my students permission to think about valid reasons they had for not wanting to befriend “losers,” they engaged in honest discussion. I was pleased to hear some strong negative arguments in that day’s debates. Maybe some of them were even freed to think of baby-steps of acceptance they could make toward rejected classmates.
There’s a problem with the way we teach values to children—and even to adults at church. Most of the time, we offer a moral or religious truth as an imperative—something everyone must do—usually in every situation. But, the world is not black and white. Different situations may call for alternative rules and regulations. Even “Thou shalt not kill,” is generally interpreted to allow taking life for self-defense or serving one’s country.
Believing social and moral issues have only one side, prevents us from considering alternatives. And when we can’t live up to a belief or value, we simply avoid thinking about it. If we don’t think about our behavior, we can’t change it.