As a parent, one of the hardest things to do well is to transfer values into free-thinking individuals. Raising children requires establishing boundaries and helping them understand why it is important to think and behave in particular ways. The boundaries are enforced regularly when they are small, and they grow to believe, for a period of time, that this is the way life will always be. And then something scary for all parents kicks in—the notion of choice.
Sometimes it happens early, but most often it happens as children enter adolescence and watch others make choices against their parents’ wishes. Sometimes as parents we tighten the screws to make sure that our kids comply with our standards. This is often important in preventing harm. But at some point, the transition has to be made to our children making their own choices.
For our first four kids, this has largely taken place when they left for college, with high school serving as a transition period. They received progressive freedom over their last four years at home, and since all four went away to college, they were then launched to fend largely for themselves on a day-to-day basis. We have been available, and we have been praying, but they have been making the decisions.
Our fourth is a freshman in college, and I don’t like the process much better with her than I did with the first. But I know that it is necessary. We have had people tell us that we have “good children” during the years they were living at home. But children who have their decisions made for them are not really “good.” They are obedient, or well behaved, or compliant, all descriptions that are mostly positive in my mind while they live at home. But they can only truly be good when they are free to choose.
Since I teach ethics, I am aware that there are a wide variety of classroom approaches to the subject. In teaching auditing and accounting ethics, I need to explain the constraints on professionals’ behavior that are important because of the trust placed in them by others. I teach them rules that they must follow or expect sanctions from the profession or the public. I teach them compliance.
But what is interesting is that I have observed much more progress in ethical thinking since I started giving my students significant freedom in what they choose as outside reading for my course. They have to summarize for others’ review what they are learning from the material, and I have found that they take the material much more seriously, including trying to apply what they have learned. In fact, at least one group of students is continuing to meet weekly, six months after the course was over.
In the end, I ask them to develop ten or fewer principles to guide their professional lives. I have made plaques of their principles for a few of them because I want them to know how important their self-chosen principles are to living out the kind of life they envision. I hope that each of them will choose, freely, to be good and to do good.
What do I mean by good? I mean they will choose to value others the way they do themselves, and sometimes even more. I mean they will not violate a trust for their convenience or their gain. I mean they will speak truth when they speak, but they will not simply speak it to be hurtful. I mean they will help those less fortunate, not because they get a t-shirt or others command it, but because they value individual lives.
In many ways, I see this as a national conversation. There are well-intentioned people who want us to be good, and there are others who want us to be free. Those who want people to be good do not always define it the way I do, but they often picture those who want to be free as selfish, and rational self-interest as evil. Those who value freedom see their counterparts as “do gooders” who only want compliant behavior and are willing to enforce it, usually through the law or government intervention.
There are laws and rules that must be complied with for the common good. But I am convinced, from my experience as a parent and a professor, that in the end people must be free to choose how to live, especially when the choice does not cause harm.
After all, in the end, the goal is not compliance, but a life well lived. The end in mind is that someone will be good and will do good.
And you cannot be good unless you are free.