The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada brought Barbara Coloroso to Ottawa this week. Barbara is travelling to promote her new book, Just Because It’s Not Wrong, Doesn’t Make It Right: Teaching kids, from toddlers to teens, to think and act ethically.

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Transcript of Portrait – Barbara Coloroso

Barbara Coloroso: This is Barbara Coloroso. I’m talking about my latest book, Just Because It’s Not Wrong, Doesn’t Make It Right, on Electric Sky.

[Portrait theme music] Podcasting visual insound, this is another edition of Portrait on Electric Sky.

Mark Blevis: When we forget how to act ethically ourselves, how can we expect our children to think and act ethically? I’m your host, Mark Blevis. On this edition of Portrait, author, teacher and presenter, Barbara Coloroso, on teaching ethics to kids.

Barbara Coloroso: I distinguish between ethics and ethic. Ethics is the study of our way of being in the world. What I want is for children to have a very strong ethic and that is our way of being in the world that is rooted in deep caring, not in rules, not in dogma, not in commandments or laws. Those are at the service of the deep caring. I want to teach kids to care deeply, share generously and to help willingly, which are the antidotes to the three virulent agents that rip apart at the fabric of our humanity and that’s hating other human beings, hoarding — me, mine and more instead of us, ours and enough — and harming through lying and cheating and stealing and deception. It’s not easy, but it’s a simple way of looking at using the stuff of everyday life to raise an ethical human being.

Mark Blevis: Wow! It almost sounds easy, but I’m sure it’s a lot of work. What’s the trick?

Barbara Coloroso: It’s not easy at all, but it’s using the stuff of everyday life rather than imposing some kind of program. For instance, it’s in children to care. It’s in our DNA. If you yawn, I yawn, it’s called empathic distress. If I mention the word yawn, some people will yawn. If I’m distressed, you’ll get distressed a bit and either want to resolve my conflict or fix my pain or in any way care deeply for me and you’ll also wish me well. That’s the compassion and loving kindness elements of deep caring. You see an 18-month-old baby and they see another child in distress, they will run over to them with their own blanket because I know as an 18-month-old that that blanket soothes me so I’m going to relieve that other person’s stress with my blanket. By 4 years old, children are able to discern what will soothe or relieve the stress or the pain of another child more appropriately. For instance, a 4-year-old might see a baby in distress and go get a pacifier or see a 2-year-old in distress and offer them a toy. It is in us. What we have to do is nurture that in our children. The first way we do it is we have to walk our talk and talk our walk. Do we care deeply about our children and about ourselves? When someone is distress or our children see us caring for them, do we relieve the stress of our children or do we say horrible things like “stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” which is the brick wall parent. An ethic rooted in brick wall is very much rooted in laws and rules and commandments and dogma. It’s my way or the highway, trying to make kids mind because people who believe in moral absolutism are so afraid that if we don’t have that absolutism then what we have is moral relativism, that slippery slope.

In the language of my work, the brick wall is moral absolute, the jellyfish is moral relativism. What I really want to do is help families become backbone families where you can flesh out the answers to things and we’re in this together. Backbone families have their ethic rooted in deep caring. So, if a rule or a guideline or a principle or a commandment or a law violates, denigrates or in any other way would diminish that deep, deep caring, we don’t bend the rule or the law, we put it aside because deep caring trumps it. I give the example in my ethics book about some young soldiers after the Hurricane Katrina. They were sent on a mission to deliver some supplies. They weren’t life-saving supplies, but they were necessary supplies. They flew over New Orleans and saw hundreds of people stranded on rooftops so they diverted their mission and rescued well over a hundred babies and young children and adults and old people. When they landed at their assignment, they were promptly reprimanded by their commanding officer and several were docked in pay. Every one of those soldiers said, “I’d do it again and I’ll accept the consequence.” That’s an ethic rooted in deep caring where they had an order, but they weighed that in terms of the deep caring and the needs of people on rooftops. They knew they had the skill and the equipment necessary to rescue them and they chose to do that, but they were also willing to take the consequences for the choices they made. That is what I want to teach young people to do.

Mark Blevis: Is there an easy way for a parent to introduce the concept of ethics to a child and work them down the path so they can be like the soldiers and take those chances?

Barbara Coloroso: Or be like the Norwegian coach who saw a Canadian skier in need. He didn’t even think about it, he gave her a pole. People were on him, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it?” He finally, in exasperation, said, “Because she needed a pole.” He was relieving her suffering and wishing her well. That’s deep caring. How does that go about being taught to young people? I think it’s more caught than taught and that is they view us doing that. How do we treat hired help? How do we treat the person at the grocery store that is going a little slower than we would like them to be going? How do we treat someone who looks different than us or talks differently than we do? Right away, we’re teaching our children to care deeply about one another and about people around us. I don’t tell children, “You have to like everybody,” but I say, “You must honor their humanity” because I want them to see themselves as an I, a very powerful I and the other human being as a Thou, not an It, not an obstacle, not someone they have to defeat. That Norwegian coach, those soldiers saw those other human beings as Thous and treated them with that dignity and regard. When we teach them to do that, we then teach them the second concept of that and that is the We, the We or community.

Margaret Mead said it so beautifully. She said, “You’re unique just like everybody else.” She also said that people say that a small group of people cannot do anything and she said, “Indeed, this is the only group that ever has made a difference.” These small communities that we create can make a world of difference for our children. Yes, we are batting up against media influence. It’s not always so helpful. It’s good, bad, indifferent, and ugly. We have to teach our children how to navigate the media world today in a way that will serve them well and help them become better human beings and not get caught in the trap of a culture of mean. That is a major job today. I will not even pretend that it’s simple. How do you teach them to share? Deep caring is sharing generously. I don’t say to a 3-year-old, “Now, if you share that toy with that other little girl maybe she’ll share a toy with you” because that says to kids, “Everything’s a deal.” Our culture is so steeped in “you do this, you get something. If I don’t catch you something wrong, it’s not wrong,” because everything is about getting caught, getting caught being good, getting caught being bad. That is an inner discipline. What I will say to a child instead is, “If you share your toy with that little boy or that little girl both of you can have fun with this toy.” So, that is creating that community. I don’t make a child share everything. I think there are some things they can hold on to themselves, for themselves, as very special toys. I don’t share everything. I’m not going to share my spouse. I’m not going to share — although I must say, my children have a wide extended family and we share a lot with that, but there are some things that we keep to ourselves that are very personal and very much our own. That is okay. If it came down to hanging on to a possession or reaching out to somebody who is desperately in need of it, I think the deep caring thing to do is let go of that possession because it’s people first. That is what I want to teach children. You are changed when you do good things for other human beings in a way that nothing else can change you. When they are little, I’m going to help them out. I’m going to say, “We’re going over to the Seniors Center this Saturday. There are some people there with Parkinson’s and there are people there who are blind, so maybe with your spelling you could write letters for them or maybe you can answer their E-mails or send thank you notes for them.” Giving them a way to serve as they get older and you have exposed them to Habitat for Humanity to Soup Kitchens and not just on holidays, that kind of thing, where it becomes a part of your life. They will then begin to use their own minds and their own hearts to look at ways that they can serve more effectively.

Mark Blevis: Links to Barbara Coloroso’s website and books can be found on my website, While you’re there, be sure to check out my previous episodes. Electric Sky is a proud member of the Rogic Podcast Conglomerate. Thanks for listening and please stay subscribed.

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