Gradations of ethical awareness

Lillian had just cut one of her elastic hair ties with her scissors.  She seemed to be following her curiosity, wanting to see what it felt like to do something a bit wrong, and what my reaction would be. 

“Look, Daddy, I cut it” she said, holding it out before her. 

“Uh huh” I said, rather more interested in the next item coming up on the TV news.

She held up another, fancier hair tie.  “Now I’m going to cut this one” she announced.

I said, firmly but nicely: “Well, I don’t think you should, and if you do, I’ll be unhappy, but it is your hair tie and you can cut it if you really want to.”

“Oooowwww” she griseled.  “Daddy, I really want to.”

She was very conflicted.  I hadn’t said she couldn’t do it.  Indeed, if I had explicitly forbid it, she probably would have gone ahead anyway.  The situation would have been clear cut, and from past experience she knows that no terrible consequences follow from her disobeying clear instructions.

No, this was different.  Now she sensed that she was being challenged to make her own choice.  She couldn’t just misbehave in light of some arbitrary standard. 

“Its your decision.  I won’t like it, but you can if you want.”

This was an altogether more confronting experience than she had bargained for.  Her social curiosity had taken her into uncharted territory. 

Even more upset, she complained again.  “But I really want to!” 

She didn’t cut the hair tie.  She climbed into my lap, still miserable, but sensing that she’d made the better choice; she’d gained my approval for deciding herself to do the right thing. 



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