Help me out with this one.
My kids have been showing a pattern of behavior lately. Well, truthfully, it’s nothing new. They’ve been this way for years. But it’s only lately that I’ve come to recognize it as a pattern, and I just can’t figure out where it comes from.
My worldview is completely nontheistic, so as you know I choose my morals at random every Monday morning and teach my kids to do the same. Connor chooses his each week from a fancy wheel-of-fortune gizmo. Erin uses a dartboard. I guess I’m old-fashioned: I draw my morals out of a hat.
Which is why this pattern of behavior in my kids has me scratching my head.
Let me start with my oldest. Connor, 11, can’t stand to see an animal hurt, even spiders, even insects. When a bat got into his grandmother’s house, evangelical Grandma wanted to get a tennis racket and whack it straight to Jesus. But Connor (then eight) insisted on catch-and-release — and, to our astonishment, managed it himself.
This was easy enough to explain. “Be kind to other living things” must have come up when he’d spun the wheel that week. It’s right there between “trip blind people” and “pee in the lemonade when nobody’s looking.”
He has three jars for his money. No, not JOY (Jesus, Others, Yourself), but SOY (Savings, Others, Yourself). But here’s the weird thing: He splits his allowance evenly among the jars. I first noticed this shortly after we’d seen a homeless man under a bridge on Regent’s Canal in London. Connor was deeply affected by this. He wrote a poem about that man and we talked at length about how fortunate we are. The very next week I noticed that the money in the jar for “others” was even with the one for himself. I just can’t figure out why. Even when his spending jar is tapped out, it never occurs to him to go into the one reserved for others. To date, he has saved several acres of rainforest and sent food to hurricane victims with that jar.
It gets weirder. He wanted a MySpace page. We looked into it a bit and decided, ah, no — especially when we learned that he would have to lie about his age to register. I had chosen “don’t lie” from the hat that week, so the MySpace page was out of the question. He agreed, grudgingly, so I’m guessing “don’t lie” had come up on his wheel that week as well. A funny coincidence.
When we offered instead to allow Connor to set up his own website, he leapt at the chance. I thought he might include game links, photos of himself, maybe a blog about football or Green Day, and some sketches of his inventions. But no. Instead, he immediately hit on the idea of a website that would feature one worthy cause per month, with articles and links about that cause. Connor will write to celebrities each month, encouraging them to donate money through the site to that cause. The top donor each month will be interviewed by Connor for the site.
“How much of the money will you keep for yourself?” I asked.
He looked at me, puzzled. “None. Why?”
“Why? Jeez, I dunno,” I said sheepishly. “I can’t remember where I put my list.”
See the pattern? Don’t kill, don’t lie, take care of others — it seems, in some odd way I can’t place, to be a non-random list.
I consulted friends of various worldviews — a Buddhist, a Jew, a Humanist, a Utilitarian, a Christian, a Jain — and learned that there is a name for this pattern. They all called it “goodness.” Somehow, inexplicably, even in the absence of belief in a god, my son happens to have selected values that add up to something known as “goodness.”
I just can’t figure why that would be.
He doesn’t go to church or Sunday School and does not believe God is watching him. He thinks The Ten Commandments is a thrash metal group. Yet he gravitates toward behaviors that are undeniably — lemme see, what would the adjective be? — “goodnessful.”
His sisters seem headed down the same path — showing “kindness,” expressing “empathy” for those less fortunate, hating “injustice,” planning a life of “service to others.” Stuff like that. One begins to suspect that our family’s random, blind process of moral selection is in fact…non-random.
Now I must admit, they aren’t consistent in this pattern. Last Saturday, Connor lay in wait for his sisters at the edge of the porch roof with cold water balloons and pelted them mercilessly, even when they asked him to stop. We called him inside and asked how he would feel if someone did that to him. Later he apologized to the girls. Grudgingly. We insisted on it. Not sure why, but we did.
Yesterday was Monday morning, and my curiosity about the pattern began to overwhelm me. I tiptoed to Connor’s door and quietly peeked into the room while he was spinning the wheel for the week. It slowed to a stop on “Steal and cheat.” He looked around — fortunately he didn’t see me — and then did something I simply can’t explain. He shook his head and spun the wheel again and again, until it landed on “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”
That one he wrote on his list for the week.
Any ideas for how to restore moral chaos to our home will be gratefully received.