I looked her in the eyes. “Is there a girl named Mary** in your swim class?”
“Yeah,” she innocently nodded.
I cocked my eyebrows and held her gaze.
“Stay away from her.” I was stern and serious. “She’s trouble. Do not do what she does.”
She didn’t respond or agree; she only studied the expression on my face, mulling over what I’d said.
She’s not even three years old yet, and I’ve already turned into the parent who forbids his child from hanging out with unsavory peers. That Mary’s a bad influence! She’s spoiling my beautiful child! At her last swim lesson, my little Curly Fries had to leave early because she couldn’t follow directions and was horsing around. And it was Mary’s fault! Mary is the one causing trouble, running around and goofing off and ignoring the swim instructor, and Curly Fries just joins right in. Do Mary’s parents care that their child is instigating such trouble? No, they let her do whatever she wants! Now this wanton disregard for authority is infecting my child! That Mary is bad news!
This is, I believe, a perennial parental dilemma. Parents have been warning their child about the harmful influence of delinquent peers forever. That Huck Finn is no good! Plato, you stay away from that hoodlum Jim Stark! Come on, Israelites, choose life instead of doing what those no-good Canaanites do! We want to perfectly control our child’s environment, and we manage to do this pretty well at home, and maybe find a good school and church setting. But the peer pressure! God help us, there’s nothing we can do about that. Bad seed kids are everywhere!
It seems obvious that the presence of this Mary (I hate her so much!) is the corrupting element in Curly Fries’ recent downturn into misbehavior. After all, she was the model student in her last swim class in which there was no Mary leading her astray. But now that there’s another girl Curly Fries’ age, she’ll do whatever Mary does, and that includes running around the pool and ignoring the instructor’s directions. Damn you, Mary!
Of course, Mary is only three; what can she help it? It’s her parents’ fault! Why are they tolerating this terrible behavior? If they would get in there and correct this ridiculous mischief, then my daughter could see the appropriate course of action and we wouldn’t have to step in and discipline her. But no, these lazy parents let their child do whatever she wants, and now I have to deal with my child acting up! Damn you, Mary’s parents!
Clearly, my child has no agency in this scenario. She is helplessly in the sway of this Mary who is, apparently, a much stronger force. Curly Fries has no control over her own behavior, it seems. As her parents, we must actively control every single external force in the world because we don’t trust that our child has the power to make good decisions for herself. Do we really see our child as a hapless automaton that has no capacity for making her own choices? I know she’s still a long way away from the age of accountability, but do we have no trust in our child’s ability for restraint and self-control? Does she not, even at the age of three, have the power to make her own choices? Damn you, free will!
A wise supervisor once told me that her inspiration for supervising students and employees comes from the natural world. In nature, she explained, there is no moral judgment; there are only consequences. A squirrel who does not gather nuts for the winter is not shamed for being a “bad” squirrel. The squirrel just dies. Likewise, this supervisor refrained from shaming, scolding, or passing judgment on the behavior of those in her supervision. At times, this supervisor could be remarkably empathetic, understanding and identifying with the poor decisions her supervisees made. Yet consequences always held. Consequence, she contended, was not judgment; any judgment felt by the supervisee was a result of the supervisee’s interpersonal experience and not imposed by the supervisor.
This sounds like a wonderful stance to take. I’ve utilized it many times in my own work. It’s flawed, though, particularly as a parent. For one thing, there is just no way to not moralize with my own child. Because that Mary is terrible! Of course, I don’t know Mary; perhaps she’s normally a great kid. Or would be if she had decent parents. But I don’t know Mary’s parents, either; maybe they’re as good as they can be and swim lessons is the closest they can get to having a break from being fulltime parents. I can understand that. In fact, swim lessons are a break for us: we don’t even take her! Curly Fries’ grandparents are dealing with the swim lessons! Damn you, complicated moral culpability!
Secondly, even if I take a strictly consequential stance, the experience of judgment is the primary motivator. Perhaps as a supervisor I truly don’t pass moral judgment when my students fail. But can you honestly name a time in your life when you experienced the consequences of a poor decision and didn’t feel some kind of moral judgment? There’s no moral judgment in nature because animals lack the capacity for ethical decision-making. (Lucky them.) When a squirrel dies of starvation for not gathering nuts, it isn’t thinking to itself, “Gosh, I’m such a terrible squirrel, nobody likes me and all the other squirrels are pointing at me and laughing.” The squirrel just dies and that’s that.
My little discourse on squirrels and consequences without moral judgment is to make this point: in dealing with Curly Fries and her delinquent behavior with Mary, I realize that simply trying to institute consequences – if you act up and do what Mary does, you will have to leave swim lessons – implies its own judgment. But I don’t want to judge my own daughter! So instead I judge Mary and her parents. Stay away from them! They’re no good!
Which is why the best way to send your child off with the wrong crowd has always been to tell them to avoid that crowd. Every teenager knows this firsthand. My girlfriend in high school was emotionally crippling and manipulative. My mother knew it; she saw it; she tried to tell me that the relationship was unhealthy and I deserved better. And did that work? Of course not! It made me love my girlfriend even more! The anger and resistance I felt to the moral judgment – which my mother may or may not have intended or even felt – made me overlook the consequences.
So how do I hold my child responsible for her decisions without causing her to feel judged? I continue loving her, of course. I keep holding the environment of support and curiosity and safety. But I probably should refrain from judging other people, too. If she sees me judging Mary – stupid Mary, dammit, I hate that she’s making me feel so guilty! – then it won’t be long before she starts feeling judged herself, even if I’m not really judging her. Except that I probably am. Damn you, moral judgment!
Deep breath. She’s only three. She still lacks the developmental capabilities of understanding cause-and-effect. It’s probably not at all a bad idea to limit a toddler’s exposure to poor decision-making opportunities. We don’t leave knives lying around for her to grab. (Mary is a knife! My child cannot be responsible for cutting herself on Mary’s terrible delinquency!) I’m overreacting. But hey, that’s what parents do. I’d be a terrible, awful parent if I didn’t worry about these things; every parent should morally judge themselves a little too harshly from time to time. It will hopefully prepare me for the day when this really does become an issue with that one friend or group of friends that holds an unhealthy influence over a child who is still attempting to develop her own agency in the world. Keeping consequences to poor decisions is a great way to learn (assuming that the consequences don’t result in bodily harm or death). But maybe a little moral judgment from time to time is helpful, too. After all, we can’t help it. Ethical decision-making is a unique gift to humanity. It certainly has its burdens, but it’s what helps us to grow and develop the kind of agency and autonomy that help us actualize our best selves in the world.
I just wish Curly Fries could have gotten a little older without a stupid Mary ruining everything.
** Given my tendency to protect names with initials and nicknames, it might be safe for you to assume that I have changed names in this post.