In My Book, Words Right and Wrong Aren’t Gray

I was reminded the other day of that old parenting adage: Just when you think you've done a great job of teaching your children right from wrong, someone will ask for a ride to the bookstore to drink smoothies and read books for free.

Here's what happened:

Betsy: "Mom, can I go to Barnes and Noble?"

Me: "Do you need to buy a book?"

Betsy: "No. I just sit in one of the easy chairs and read while I'm there. I figure after about four trips to the store, I can read an entire book so I don't need to actually buy it."

Me: "Ack."

Betsy: "What's the problem?"

Me: "What do you mean, 'What's the problem?' That's stealing."

Betsy: "How is that stealing?"

You get the idea.

On the one hand, I have to say I'm glad my daughter loves to read, but maybe I should suggest a book or two on morals.

"It's not like I'm breaking the spine or anything," she argues. This isn't the point, but I have to admit I'm relieved.

I don't know where to start, so I try the golden rule. "How do you suppose those authors would feel knowing you are enjoying their work but you're not willing to pay for it?"

"They probably would feel great," she says. "At least they'd know how much I like their books."

"And what about the bookstore owners? How do you think they feel about people who come in to read but won't spend any money in the store?"

"Hey," she says defensively, "I'm getting a snack. There's money involved."

"Look," I explain, "authors write books to make a living. The fact that you're ordering a frappaccino and a scone from the bookstore's coffee shop doesn't mean cash flows into the pockets of the people whose work you're enjoying for free."

She's not convinced. "Forget it," I finally say, "but you're not going to the bookstore. I'll drop you off at the library. You remember the library, right? The place where people borrow books for free?"

Betsy thinks we've hit on a "gray area" — a moral question that could be argued either way. She defends her integrity and reminds me she's a really nice girl.

I allow as how she's a perfectly nice girl, but I don't agree about the "gray area."

A gray area is whether I have an obligation to march my daughter into the bookstore and make her purchase a book she has nearly finished reading surreptitiously on frequent visits to the fiction section.

I'm probably not obligated, but a lifetime of Catholic guilt at least raises the question.

The problem is, in our culture, nearly every issue lands in the proverbial "gray area." Generally, there aren't many absolutes left in this world, and there sure aren't any moral absolutes. Except relativism. That's absolute.

In fact, I've noticed even the word "morality" seems to get a bad rap. Being "moral" is something people are accused of as if it's akin to selling snake oil.

Call someone a "moralist" or say they're "moralizing" and watch the response you'll get.

"How dare you. I would never moralize. I would not impose my morals on someone else." Of course, they're standing on moral high ground when they say this, but don't mention that. It only generates a circular argument.

As a culture, we need to remember that morals are not viruses. Not only will a good, solid set of morals stand one in good stead, they might even help you build a nice home library.

Suddenly at the end of our debate, I realize why Betsy is confused about the moral question at hand. I never actually used the only two words that would help her understand the context in which she needs to evaluate her behavior: right and wrong.

When teaching children how to decide what's moral, we can't confuse them with emotions. "How would someone else feel?" isn't a valid moral compass. Feelings are fluid — they change from person to person and day to day. Not only that, but feelings are projected easily and not accurately understood. How often do we say to someone, "You shouldn't feel that way"? Who are we to decide?

As teaching tools, the words right and wrong are underrated. Come to think of it, so are good and bad. And while I'm at it, I think the word nice ought to be banished from the universal parenting dictionary — anyone can be nice, after all. (Heck, even felons are nice to the people they love.)

Doing right and being good are signs you have internalized a moral code that guides your behavior and judgment.

Being nice means…well…it means you're nice. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I'm mulling over these thoughts as I recast my argument in the whole reading-a-book-in-a-bookstore debate.

Me: "Betsy, it's wrong to read a book in a bookstore that you haven't paid for and have no intention of buying."

Betsy: "Oh."

See how much easier and more efficient that is?

Children crave clarity. Betsy craves clarity and books, which is not a bad thing, come to think of it.

I'm somewhat chagrined that this conversation even needed to take place. I would have thought by now that she knew the difference between perusing and consuming.

Then again, the fact that we had the conversation strikes me as a moral victory — or at least a victory for morality, which in my mind is a darn good thing.

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