The Penny Problem

 Posted by on 17 December 2012 at 2:00 pm  Children, Funny
Dec 172012

I’m definitely going to start using “And in conclusion, I just believe in my opinion” at the end of every bad argument I make.

(Via 22 Words)


Family meetings are an excellent way for people to smooth the rough edges of life together. And I love Rachel Miner’s suggestion of each person talking about a mistake they made and what they learned from it too:

We start our family meetings with compliments. Each person gives each of the other family members a compliment. Not only does this help us focus on the positive, it also helps us recall times during the week when we admired each other. About six months ago, I was thinking about the growth vs. fixed mentality* and decided to add one more thing to this intro, a mistake. So, each person also shares a mistake that they’ve made during the week and what they’ve learned from that experience. The goal here is to make mistakes OK and recognize them as part of the learning process. I want my kiddo especially to see how common it is for grown ups to make mistakes and how the important thing is how we respond to those opportunities.

It’s crucial for kids to learn that people of all ages make mistakes routinely — and that the sensible response is to recognize and correct those errors. Absent explicit training in that process, kids learn to “manage” their mistakes by dishonesty — meaning, by denying their mistakes, concealing their mistakes, ignoring their mistakes, and rationalizing their mistakes. That’s disastrous, not just for a person’s life but also for his character.

If you’re interested in more, I published a paper on this very topic in the Journal of Value Inquiry back in 2004: False Excuses: Honesty, Wrongdoing, and Moral Growth.

Spanking Teaches Obedience

 Posted by on 6 December 2012 at 12:00 pm  Character, Children, Ethics, Parenting
Dec 062012

In my June 24th episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on whether the corporal punishment of children is ever justified. Two weeks later, I was stunned and thrilled and blown away and elated to receive this email from a total stranger who found Philosophy in Action via the Stitcher App. Here, see for yourself (with his permission).

Dr. Hsieh -

I recently discovered your podcasts when I subscribed to Stitcher and the app suggested it as something I might like. The app was correct.

The first podcast I heard was the one in which you discussed corporal punishment of children.

I was raised by parents who scolded, yelled, punished and frequently spanked me repeatedly with a belt. Until now, I had prided myself that when I spanked either of my twins I did so only once with my open hand and only when they were “out of control” – but if truth be told I have also noticed that I only spanked them when I was frustrated and angry at their behavior as well.

You really made me think when you asked the question, “What are you teaching your kids when you hit them?’ But you made my jaw drop when you matter-of-factly stated, “Obedience is not a virtue.”

It was a simple yet grand statement that I instantly realized was TRUE. It was grand because I had never thought of it before.

I have, in fact, been trying to teach my children to be obedient. Obedient to me to be sure, but obedient nonetheless. Since hearing it, your statement has been ringing in my head like a bell and I’ve realized that obedient may be that last thing I want my children to be – and that includes being obedient to me.

I want them to be strong, intelligent, confident and self-directed. I want them to question everything and take no statement for granted. I want them to internalized a father who loves them and values and respects them as rational beings.

So, a day or so after I heard your podcast I sat down with my 4 years old son and daughter after giving them breakfast and I told them that I had decided that spanking them was wrong and that I would not do it anymore. Their eyes lit up at hearing this and something changed in our relationship at that moment. I also hit upon, quite by accident, the principal argument and rationale that I have since used over and over again to convince them to cooperate with me. I asked them to help me.

Children generally love to help their parents and I now regularly ask them to help me get them ready for school, or ready for bed. I ask them to help us get things done so we can do other things. There are still times when they are willful and uncooperative and I get frustrated and angry, but I’ve kept my promise to not spank them and instead I tell them honestly how I feel and I usually refuse to help them with some trivial request that they’ve made pointing out that they didn’t help me when I asked them to.

Now, I find their willful episodes becoming less and less of a problem – much less than when I would spank them for it. Instead, they seem to be learning that kindness and cooperation beget kindness and cooperation.

I thought that you might like to know that all this has come from you saying to me, “Obedience is not a virtue.”

I thank you for that truth.

- Christopher J. Wieczorek, PE

Wow, just wow. My hearty admiration and congratulations to Christopher. He’s quite a man — and quite a father.

If you missed that episode on spanking children, have a listen:

Also, if you’re interested in taking your parenting to the next level, I interviewed Jenn Casey and Kelly Elmore on “Parenting without Punishment” on the next Wednesday. That’s here:

Toys for Boys Versus Toys for Girls

 Posted by on 29 November 2012 at 2:00 pm  Children, Funny
Nov 292012

Christmas is just around the corner, so if you’re buying for children, be sure to consult this handy gift-giving guide, folks:

More on Central Purpose

 Posted by on 9 July 2012 at 12:00 pm  Career, Children, Ethics, Hobbies, Purpose, Work
Jul 092012

In the June 24th episode of Philosophy in Action Radio, I answered a question on parenting as a central purpose. In my answer, I suggested that Objectivists seem to have misunderstood what Ayn Rand meant by “central purpose.” In part, I suggested that based on Ayn Rand’s comments in “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness:

The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics–the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life–are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.

Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work–pride is the result.

That was her only comment on “central purpose” in her novels or anthologies. It doesn’t seem to imply that a person needs to have a central purpose in the sense of an overriding theme of his life, as many people seem to think.

Shortly after the broadcast, someone pointed out that Ayn Rand discussed “central purpose” briefly in her interview in Playboy. Here’s the relevant passage:

PLAYBOY: Weren’t Hitler and Stalin, to name two tyrants, in control of their own lives, and didn’t they have a clear purpose?

RAND: Certainly not. Observe that both of them ended as literal psychotics. They were men who lacked self-esteem and, therefore, hated all of existence. Their psychology, in effect, is summarized in Atlas Shrugged by the character of James Taggart. The man who has no purpose, but has to act, acts to destroy others. That is not the same thing as a productive or creative purpose.

PLAYBOY: If a person organizes his life around a single, neatly defined purpose, isn’t he in danger of becoming extremely narrow in his horizons?

RAND: Quite the contrary. A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and, therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find.

Ayn Rand’s analysis of the life of the man without a purpose is correct: such a life would be terribly disintegrated. However, I’m doubtful that a person must have one single dominant purpose — a theme of his life that trumps all other concerns — in order to live a rational, integrated, and purposeful life. Instead, my thought is that a person’s ultimate integrating purpose is his own life and happiness. Often, that ultimate purpose will be pursued via three to five major values, such as a career, a spouse, children, and a hobby.

Those major values might not be strongly connected to each other. My passion for horse training and skiing has little to do with my love of philosophy. Paul doesn’t join me in those hobbies either, but he’s hugely important to me.

Those major values will come into conflict periodically. A parent, for example, faces constant choices between spending more time at work versus spending more time with his kids. Sometimes, those choices might be painfully difficult, such as during a major crunch time at work.

Even if a person’s career is most important to him, in the grand scheme of his life, that doesn’t mean that his career will always trump his other major values. I could work more hours, for example, but I choose to spend some of that time riding my horses instead. If my horse Lila were injured, my plans for work for that day would be instantly discarded.

A person might forgo certain career opportunities in order to enhance or preserve the other major values. I wouldn’t ever move to New York City — even if doing so would hugely advance my career — because doing so would preclude my pursuit of too many other values. (Hence, I would be miserable in very short order.)

Ultimately, what should matter most to a person is his own life and happiness: that’s the ultimate purpose that properly integrates all his actions. Beyond that, a person needs to cultivate and identify the major values by which he pursues that life and happiness. He needs to know their relative order of importance to him, in the grand scheme of things. He needs to be sensitive to changes in those major values over time.

To go beyond that — to attempt to intertwine all the disparate threads of one’s life into a neat and tidy bow known as a “central purpose” — seems likely to be unhelpful and perhaps even unrealistic for many people. For them, the result of the attempt is not greater clarity or purpose, but only guilt, worry, and sacrifice of values. Obviously, that’s not good.

Ultimately, the goal should not be to force oneself to think and act in terms of a single unifying central purpose of life. The goal should be to live a rational, integrated, and purposeful life — and I see many ways to do that.

I Love Hores Too

 Posted by on 19 June 2012 at 3:00 pm  Children, Funny, Language
Jun 192012

Oh, the difference that an S makes!

Growing Up in Video

 Posted by on 16 May 2012 at 2:00 pm  Children, Cool
May 162012

“Frans Hofmeester filmed his daughter Lotte once a week for the past twelve years and produced this time lapse film. We’ve seen this kind of thing before … but the use of short snippets of video instead of still photos adds something.” (

He did the same with his son Vince too:

The video really adds so much personality!

Mar 202002

Cathy Young has an article entitled Sound Judgment on the opposition to cochlear implants and other cures for deafness by advocates for deafness. As wonderful as deaf culture may be, surely being unable to hear and unwilling to learn to speak seriously limits a person’s opportunities. For parents to force such a life on their children is barbaric.

I wonder whether the refusal of such defect-fixing medical treatment (presuming affordability) constitutes a violation of a child’s rights at any point. If a fifteen year old wants the cochlear implants and a rich aunt is willing to pay for them, are the parents violating the child’s right by refusing? I’m inclined to grant children a fair amount of authority in their own medical decisions because such decisions may greatly impact the child later in life as an adult. (Yes, I know there is lots of complexity here that I am ignoring. Another time…)

Mar 182002

As Paul has been away at a conference for the past few days, I have spent a few hours in those days in rather dubious pursuits. Perhaps the worst was a few night ago. After watching my beloved Batman Beyond, I stuck around the Cartoon Network to watch some bizarre Japanese cartoon. As it turns out, the cartoon contained an interesting moral lesson, although not the one intended.

In the cartoon, a young boy has died. But there is a possibility of his returning to life if he properly cares for a magic egg. If he behaves badly, the egg will hatch a terrible monster which will bite his head off. If he behaves well, the egg will hatch a powerful creature necessary to return his spirit to his body. But his house catches fire and threatens to destroy his body, without which he will not be able to return to life. A girl he cares for runs into the blazing house to rescue his body, but she gets trapped by the fire. The boy is thus faced with a stark moral choice. He can throw the egg into the fire to save the girl, but thereby ruin his chances of returning to life. Or he can save the egg for himself and allow his friend to die. (Of course, if the boy allows the girl to die, his body will also be destroyed, along with any hope of rebirth. But the cartoon doesn’t consider this fact.) The boy overcomes his “selfish” desire for life and throws down the egg. The gods are so impressed with this noble act that they return him to his body despite the destruction of the egg. In fact, the gods inform the boy that had the egg hatched, the creature would have surely eaten him for his bad behavior. (Sorry for the long summary, but the story line was too bizarre for a short synopsis.)

The moral of the story, of course, is that selfless behavior is rewarded. By acting to save the life of his friend, he ends up saving both of their lives. If he had acted to save his own life, both he and the girl would have died. Only by acting against his own apparent interests can the boy has all of his wishes realized.

This moral message is fairly common, particularly in children’s literature. Adults sell the ideal of altruism to children by giving it an egoistic veneer. They claim that rewards will be heaped upon those who act selflessly. Those rewards may come from God after death, from other people, or even from psychological satisfaction. Those rewards may be delayed, but they will come. In essence, this dressed-up altruism asserts that the best way to obtain happiness is to not pursue it. Or even more strongly: the best way to obtain happiness is to pursue the happiness of others at the expense of one’s own happiness.

Of course, when the issue is put so starkly it seems rather ridiculous. Imagine a person who has $50 in his wallet. He wants to buy a $75 gift for his beloved wife. Would the best way to acquire the extra $25 be to give away the $50 dollars he has? Should he then expect to magically receive $75 back? Or should he just directly pursue the needed $25 by going to the ATM and removing the funds from his account? Obviously, we get the stuff we want by pursuing it, not renouncing it. That’s how life works.

Two objections could be made to this simple observation when applied to happiness. First, we do occasionally receive good stuff unexpectedly, like an inheritance from an aunt we never knew existed. Such gains cannot be relied upon, precisely because they are unexpected and unusual. Most of the time, we must work to achieve what we want. Second, some people pursue their happiness in all the wrong ways, thereby making themselves miserable. But the irrationality of some people’s means of acquiring something says nothing about the actual value of that thing. Just because some people attempt to obtain a job by threatening lawsuits doesn’t mean that pursuing a job is bad.

Altruism, if presented honestly, would advocate the sacrifice of oneself to others as an end-in-itself. To motivate altruism with hope or expectation of reward, as the cartoon did, is to appeal to egoism. But egoism and altruism are not compatible, no matter how often people accept the silly contradiction. Kant understood this problem, which is why his moral theory seems so harsh and extreme. He, at least, was consistent on this issue. (Although not well-grounded, as Will Wilkinson argues in this essay.)

I’m not advocating any form of psychological egoism. People clearly can and do act against their interests, both in full knowledge and in ignorance. My point is rather that to make altruism a palatable moral theory for a wide audience, its advocates must sugar-coat it with a veneer of self-interest. They must promise people rewards for their sacrifices. They falsely promise a positive cost-benefit analysis in the long run. Why? Because naked altruism would be abhorrent to most even moderately self-respecting people.

But by dressing up the wolf in sheep’s clothing during childhood, the indignity of altruism remains hidden from the sight of most people.

Encouraging Honesty

 Posted by on 17 March 2002 at 10:13 pm  Children, Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Parenting
Mar 172002

In Why Kids Lie, Eckman talks about reducing the temptation to lie. Speaking of his son, who he caught in a big lie two years earlier, Eckman writes:

Whenever something has come up that [my son] might be tempted to lie about, I have been very careful about questioning him in a way that would encourage him to be truthful. Not “Who broke the vase?” or “Did you break the vase?” But “We shouldn’t have kept that vase in such a vulnerable spot; it would be too easy to knock over. Was it you or your sister?”

In other words, Eckman is recommending asking leading questions that put the wrongdoing in the most favorable light so that truthfulness isn’t so scary for the child. The child feels safer in telling the truth, with fewer worries about harsh punishment to come.

However, the most charitable explanation for behavior isn’t always the most accurate. The son might have broken the vase playing baseball inside or smashed the vase in a fit of anger. In such cases, the leading question encourages the child to confess to the wrongdoing — but only superficially. The child might honestly admit to causing the damage, but then lie (either by omission or commission) about the reasons for that damage. In essence, the leading question provides a ready-made false excuse.

So using this method of leading, charitable questions in an attempt to promote honesty and responsibility may instead promote habits of dishonesty and irresponsibility.

In contrast, Linda and Richard Eyre’s book Teaching Your Children Values contains some excellent suggestions for teaching honesty to children of all ages. Perhaps the most interesting is implicit in the opening story of the chapter on honesty.

Pulling into the driveway one way, I noticed a broken milk bottle on the pavement. I asked nine-year-old Josh and his friend, Chip, if they knew how it happened. Chip quickly said no. Josh looked over at him, somewhat startled, then walked over and put his hand on Chip’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, he’ll understand.” Then to me, “The basketball hit it, Dad. Sorry. We were going to clean it up, but we forgot. Come on, Chip, I’ll get the dustpan.”

Despite his father’s direct question, Josh isn’t afraid to answer honestly. But most importantly, he knows what to do to fix the situation: clean up the mess he made. Not all wrongdoings can be so easily fixed, but most can be fixed with a bit of thought and effort. By focusing the child’s attention on the constructive task of making amends rather than awaiting punishment, the admitting the truth becomes less scary.

In other words, children ought to be explicitly taught the skills of redemption as part of learning about the necessity of honesty. The former will make the latter easier.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha