Raising Moral Children (in the Era of Katniss, Ender and King Joffrey)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TheatersI’m fascinated by the popularity of a series of recent films and TV dramas, based on phenomenally successful books, that depict fictional children living in morally corrupt societies that force them to do morally objectionable things. I’m referring to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.[1] I understand the popularity: the story-telling is excellent. What fascinates me is the question of what it means: what it suggests about our society’s view of children, and whether or not it has anything to teach us about how (or how not) to raise moral children. In referring to us I mean those of us who are parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors of children. I also mean us as the adult members and friends of this multigenerational Unitarian Universalist congregation whose stated vision for religious education is to “provide a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists.”

The treatment of children’s moral lives in these books and films is different than what we find in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the teenage characters encounter difficult, even traumatic situations, but they maintain their moral center in part because good and evil are crystal-clear in these stories, but also because they have the support of morally-grounded adults. They have role models. This also isn’t the dynamic we find in William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies, where a group of plane-wrecked boys attempts to govern itself on a tropical island, but descends into savagery in the total absence of adult moral guidance. Rather, in these stories powerful adults design systems that intentionally obstruct children’s moral reasoning. I assume these books are not the first to treat children’s moral lives in this way, though I’m fairly confident this treatment has never been as wildly popular as it has been over the last year or so. Some of you may not be familiar with these books, so I’ll say a little about each.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

The Hunger Games is young adult literature, though tens of millions of adults have read it and seen the films. Some children read it by third or fourth grade. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, governed by a corrupt, oppressive capitol that requires each of 12 districts to send two children every year to fight to the death in an elaborate arena. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, an older teenager who volunteers for the arena to prevent her younger sister from having to go, cobbles together a moral center, but the adults in her life who would normally support her moral development are damaged in some way and are of very little help to her in this regard as she enters the custody of the morally depraved capitol. That is, she’s largely self-guided in her moral growth, and spends much of her time lost, confused, and searching for a moral anchor that matches her instincts. More than providing her moral clarity, her ordeal in the arena hones her survival skills and draws out her resilience and courage. She learns how to play and win the adults’ game; and she learns how to play it against the adults. But fighting fire with fire doesn’t make fire right. She recognizes this and she suffers psychologically and emotionally.

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Ender’s Game, published in 1985 but released as a feature film this past November, is typically read by adults but is occasionally assigned in high school English classes. Ender, a gifted child, is being groomed as a starship fleet commander. His training is psychologically and emotionally abusive. He successfully learns military strategy, tactics, politics and leadership, but struggles to discern right and wrong beyond mere obedience to his teachers. He also struggles to find a warm and human sense of self as opposed to the cold, calculating person he observes himself becoming. As with Katniss, there is no adult he can turn to for authentic moral guidance. He masters all the educational games his teachers present to him; but then, without him realizing it, his teachers deploy him as a weapon of mass destruction. When he finally understands the enormity of his crimes, his emotional and psychological suffering are correspondingly enormous.

 

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Game of Thrones, published in 1996, is the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series; it’s also a hit HBO series based on the books. Not for children. Its gratuitous violence, sex and violent sex makes The Hunger Games look like what we normally imagine when we use the term child’s play, except that some of Game of Thrones’ more heinous violence is child’s play, ordered by the child king, Joffrey. Joffery has been raised by cunning and brutal adults whose only motivation is the acquisition of power by any means necessary. Joffrey displays no longing to know the difference between right and wrong, or to experience himself as good and decent. He doesn’t know he’s missing a moral core. In essence, he has been nurtured to be a psychopath, and he’s too far gone to recognize the suffering this causes him.

In reviewing a recent episode, New York Times critic Jeremy Egner sums up the main conflict in Game of Thrones. “It’s not right versus wrong, but a many-faceted quarrel over whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even exist.”[2] All three of these series explore this conflict in some form. In Game of Thrones, if right and wrong exist, right is power and wrong is weakness. Any more elaborate moral system is largely absent, or falls apart in the face of violence. In Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, the child characters know something is horribly wrong about their world, yet an authentic right answer remains elusive. As far as they can tell, the games are rigged to benefit the authorities regardless of who wins. Winning doesn’t assure the end of evil. In fact, winning may just create more evil. In terms of what it takes to raise moral children, I think these books and films get it right: If you teach a child only to be cruel, and then make him king, there’s a good chance he’ll be a cruel king, as Joffrey is. And if you put children in situations where they are forced to do morally objectionable things, and you provide them with no moral guidance beyond “obey the rules” or “just survive,” in the very least they will become confused, angry, and wary of adults in authority, as Katniss and Ender are.

We can draw an obvious lesson about raising moral children fom Game of Thrones: don’t teach children to be cruel. In the The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, the lesson is less clear. Readers and viewers love Katniss and Ender, suffer with them when they suffer, want them to succeed, enjoy their creativity, intelligence, skills, endurance and courage. There’s a risk here: we can confuse their victories with moral vindication. That is, they win, so they’re right. And if we do this, we miss their deeper struggle: they don’t trust they are right because they’ve had very little opportunity for moral reasoning. They aren’t sure what right is.

Of course, all this is irrelevant fiction. Real life doesn’t work this way. Real life is more like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, where right and wrong are always crystal-clear. The good inevitably triumph; the bad inevitably falter. Children learn this by watching television and playing video games. Yeah, right.

Jeffrey Lockwood

Jeffrey Lockwood

I found a provocative real-life reflection on raising moral children in the midst of morally ambiguous systems in an essay entitled “Like Father, Like Son,” by the entomologist Jeffery Lockwood. He compares his father’s work during the Cold War testing nuclear weapons to his own work developing powerful insecticides to fight grasshopper infestations. He says, “perhaps there are more similarities between my father’s employer and my institution, nuclear bombs and pesticides, nation states and multinational corporations, and his enemy and mine than I could have imagined when I was [first] hired…. Certainly we both struggle with how to tell our stories to our children and ourselves. It’s tempting to turn them into a screenplay for a James Bond movie. The unambiguously bad guys are blown to bits, but the gory results are not graphically portrayed. This sanitized version of reality creates the illusion that we can drop bombs and spray poisons without immense suffering. But in the end, our children will know otherwise.”[3]

If I’m reading him accurately, children may not detect moral contradictions in adult society when they’re young—contradictions like the production of enough Cold War nuclear weapons to destroy the world thousands of times, or like his own participation in the corporate agricultural system which, he says, ultimately “destroys land and people”[4]—but they’ll see it eventually. They’ll recognize we live in a society that asks us to accept half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice; a society that takes risks with our health, our lives, our future. We don’t raise moral children by pretending these things don’t exist, or by offering them black and white appraisals of the world, especially as they get older. We must figure out how to talk to children, as best we can, about the contradictions and about how we struggle with them. And when we find ourselves upholding a morally debatable position, say through our work or our politics, we need to own it. We may even need to question the value of our victories.

More importantly, we need to demonstrate with our own decisions and actions how to move these contradictions towards resolution. An Aprl 13th New York Times op-ed entitled “Raising a Moral Child,”[5] highlights the importance of role modeling. Its author, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, cites research confirming that across cultures and nations, a majority of parents, when asked to report their guiding principles in life, consistently rate caring, compassion, helpfulness and kindness above achievement.[6] However, “despite the significance that it holds in our lives,” says Grant, “teaching children to care about others is no simple task. Inan Israeli studyof nearly 600 families, parents who valued kindness and compassion frequently failed to raise children who shared those values.”[7]

Father SonHe covers some familiar territory in terms of how we respond to children’s good and bad behaviors—in short, praise good behavior and reinforce the message you’re a good person. In response to bad behavior, “[express] disappointment and [explain] why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.”[8] But what Grant is most excited about is the power of good role models. What we say really does matter much less than what we do. Grant cites research showing that children behave more selfishly when they witness adults behaving selfishly, even when the adults are encouraging them to be generous. And children behave more generously when they witness adults behaving generously, even when the adults are advising them to be selfish. It strikes me that as we here at UUS:E move forward into a more explicitly multigenerational congregational life, and as we build a religious education program that provides that “solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking UUs,” we ought to be asking ourselves as adults: how are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we feel spiritually at home in the world? How are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we have matured into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists? We can assume they’ve heard us say it. But let’s not assume they’ve seen us do it. Let’s do it.

The presence of moral role models in the lives of Katniss, Ender and Joffrey may not have changed their circumstances, but may have enabled them to feel more spiritually at home in the world—or at least more grounded and sure of themselves. Similarly, our moral role-modelling to our children may not alter the half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice in the world; it may not resolve the pervasive moral contradictions in our society. But I believe it will make a difference in our children’s lives—and that matters.

I’ll close with Jeffrey Lockwood’s reflections on his own moral upbringing. My parents, he says, “would have replaced the ethical admonition ‘First do no harm’… with the more realistic principle ‘First do some good.’ We were a family of positive incrementalists, wherein the task of life was to constantly do better, one step at a time.”[9] “I know that in 1987, we blanketed a typical 10,000-acre grasshopper infestation with five tons of neurotoxic insecticide, and this year we used forty pounds of an insect growth regulator, applied to just one-third of the infested land. I don’t know if doing less evil is the same thing as doing good, but it’s better than doing nothing. I don’t know if gradual, continual progress from within our roles as bit players in the military-industrial complex and industrial agriculture will be sufficient to create a healthy human community embedded within a vibrant diversity of ecosystems, but then I don’t know what else to do.”[10] Even if we don’t know what else to do, may our children bear witness to us “doing some good.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series may utilize a version of this same adult-child dynamic, though I’m not as familiar with them (and they don’t have the word game in their titles).

[2] Egner, Jeremy, “‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: A Regression to the Mean,” New York Times, April 20, 2014. See: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/game-of-thrones-recap-a-regression-to-the-mean/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[3] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) pp. 77-78.

[4] Ibid., p. 95.

[5] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[6]For the abstract of “Parents’ Goals and Values for Children: Dimensions of Independence and Interdependence Across Four U.S. Ethnic Groups,” by Suizzo,,see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/38/4/506.short. For the abstract of Value Hierarchies Across Cultures: Taking a Similarities Perspective,” by Schwartz, Shalom H. and Bardi, Anat, see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/32/3/268.short.

[7] For the abstract of “Accounting for parent-child value congruence: Theoretical considerations and empirical evidence,” by Knafo, Ariel and Schwartz, Shalom H., see: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2008-19090-011.

[8] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[9] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 103.

[10] Ibid., p. 104.