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March 24, 2009

Teaching Morality

Should parents convey moral standards when discussing sex with their children? A new pamphlet produced by England's Department for Children, Schools, and Families suggests that such lessons are inappropriate when they conflict with the state's interest in producing an open and accepting society.

“Discussing your values with your teenagers will help them to form their own," the brochure advises. "Remember, though, that trying to convince them of what’s right and wrong may discourage them from being open.”

The pamphlet, Talking to Your Teenager About Sex and Relationships, began distribution in pharmacies throughout England this month, and includes detailed information on various contraception alternatives.

Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute has responded to the document, calling it "outrageous."

“Preserving children’s innocence is a worthy goal," Calvert says.  "We would like to see more of that kind of language rather than this amoral approach where parents are encouraged to present their children with a smorgasbord of sexual activities and leave them to make up their own minds.”

“We do not know what is right and wrong," responds clinical psychologist Linda Blair (no, not that Linda Blair) in defense of the publication. "Right and wrong is relative, although your child does need clear guidelines.” (Exactly what those "clear guidelines" might be absent a concept of ultimate "right" or "wrong" is left unsaid.)

At least in England, it appears that these guidelines are supposed to come from the state, rather than the family, which cannot be trusted to advance the openess the government seeks. It's almost enough to make your head spin.

(A tip o' the cap to the folks over at GetReligion.org for the heads-up.)

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Jason Taylor

Why is it the State's interest in producing a free and open society? While that is conducive to military, economic, and political success in various and sundry ways mostly having to do with personal efficiency, none of these is increased by childrens increased knowledge of sex.

It is in society's interest to produce a free and open state. Which goal is not advanced by saying the state has an interest in children's increased knowledge of sex.

Gina Dalfonzo

It's a fictional example, but I was strongly reminded of what life without right and wrong looks like by last night's "Secret Life of the American Teenager," which showed the "Christian" girl simultaneously wearing a purity ring and popping a birth control pill. Talk about your confusing messages.

(This led to some thoughts about how the world, including many Christians, have lost the sense of sin. Which indirectly led to the Sayers quote this morning.)

Ben W

Jason - "promoting the common welfare" would probably be the constitutional argument for getting involved, although I hope our government stays out of morality. On the other hand, I remember anti-Nazi morality teachings forced in Germany after WW2, and I'm in favor of that, so.. I'm not sure where to draw the line. Maybe at "caused us to go to war, commit atrocities, and lose."


This isn't just about sexual morality by any means. "It's 1984 All Over Again", again!

Jason Taylor

Ben, is it the common welfare for an ill-paid teacher chosen by bureaucratic machinery to teach our kids about the birds and the bees?

Ben W

I'm not really sure, Jason. Maybe if the alternative is not learning about the birds and the bees at all, yes. But that's not really morality (necessarily), just science..

Kim Moreland

Ben W.
Our government has been teaching kids about the birds and bees and the dangers of taking drugs, smoking, and drinking--and the kiddies still continue live dangerously. What's missing from the picture is those same kiddies' moral principles.
Cheers, Kim

Gina Dalfonzo

Ben, it's interesting that you put it that way. If you read Chuck's BreakPoint commentary about "Hooked" that I linked to yesterday -- http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/2009/03/hooked.html -- you'll see how the science indicates that we need morality.

Benjamen R. Meyer

Interesting timing.

I'm down in S.C; and this Sunday's (3/22) edition of The State Newspaper (http://www.thestate.com/ - sorry I couldn't find it on-line) had an article (Op-Ed, I believe) about parenting and how parents need to stop letting their children "express themselves" (the 1960's parenting style, as he called it, that has 'ruled' for the last 50 years) and get back to the business of parenting, and how this self expression has been, overall, bad for society. (I tend to agree.) His main point was that kids need to be taught the boundaries - when to cry, when not to; how to respect other people, etc.

This article seems to be along the same lines - but in the opposite direction - essentially saying "let the kids express themselves", claiming its 'in the interest of society to let them make their choice'. Problem is, it's not.

Is it in the interest of society when one person wants sex and the other doesn't, so they force themselves on the other? No - we prosecute that as rape. While an extreme of how this article could come to fruition, it is nonetheless a valid point. Is it in the interest of society for someone to be masterbating in public? No - we prosecute that too. (The actor who played Pee Wee Herman was arrested and sent to jail for such behavior.)

Kids need to be taught the boundaries. They need to be taught not only how to express themselves, but also when.

If the State is not going to teach such boundaries, and parents shouldn't because its not "in society's interest", then who? The courts?

Only, by the time something gets as far as the legal system having to get involved, it's usually already problematic and the result will usually end up with jail time.

Have you looked at the return rate to jails? Is that really what you want?

No, what's in the interest of society is for parents to teach the boundary's. Not the schools - though they certainly help to reinforce them. Not the courts/legal system - that's too last minute and should be the last method where possible.

It's parents job from day one. They and the rest of the family is the only influence over the child for many of the most critical years. Failing that, society has to pick up the pieces - starting with friends, the schools, the work place, and then the legal system.


It isn't _1984_, it is _That Hideous Strength_. All Britain is being turned into Belbury.

Jason, those 'ill-paid' teachers often make more than the median income of the areas in which they teach. Teachers aren't ill-paid any longer - unless you are talking about private Christian schools.

Depending on the age, telling a child when to cry and not to cry is rather like telling them when to have hiccups and when not to - and punishing them when they aren't able to stop the hiccups by force of will. That isn't parenting, that is child abuse.

Teach morals and manners - you bet - but some parents apparently don't remember their own childhoods. Some parents think of their children as pets performing tricks. Some parents apparently think that children can control autonomic responses. The thrice-excommunicated heretics, the Eddos, come to mind.

Benjamen R. Meyer


Whether it is crying, hitting others, or any number of other things - there is a parental responsibility to teach. And no, it's not child abuse - it's good parenting.

There is a time to show feelings and self-expression and there is a time not to. Following the 1960's style of "free self-expression all the time" is not good parenting - in fact, it hinders good parenting.

As a parent you do need to discern between what's controllable and what isn't. Crying isn't _always_ uncontrollable - many children (especially girls) are very well able to control their crying - some even on demand (my sister). A good parent will know their child and know when its uncontrollable and when it is and respond accordingly.

It can actually be quite funny watching children grow up. In their toddler years you can see a lot happening as they 'try a cry', a temper-tantrum, etc. to see if it'll get them attention (fully controlled) or not. They're testing their parents to see what they can get away with. And get away with it they will if they can and it gets them what they want. Letting them get away with it is not good parenting - but that's what the 1960's style of 'free self-expression' parenting wants you to do.

Ben W

Gina, Kim, what I meant was that while I'm okay with schools teaching about how the mechanics of sex work, I'd rather them stay out of the morality - as you've said, that's the parents' role. I'm okay with the government teaching right and wrong only in so far as it divides legal and illegal (stealing, rape, murder, drunk driving, drugs, etc.). If the government pushes those boundaries, it's going to annoy a lot of people.

Of course, if promiscuous teen-sex is mentally unhealthy, that should be taught in a health/psychology class as well (or in Sex Ed?). But morals and health are two separate matters.


Ben W wrote: "(stealing, rape, murder, drunk driving, drugs, etc.)"

Hmmm - fascinating. Consensual sex outside of marriage is not illegal except for statutory rape - and apparently it isn't statutory rape if both participants are underage.

But what about lying? (Ben, this isn't an attack on you - just an exploration of your argument.) Lying is similarly illegal under only certain circumstances, such as lying under oath. Imagine schools teaching (explicitly, labrialumn, *ex*plicitly :-) ) the mechanics of lying, while taking no position on the morality of it. Can the sociology and the morals of lying be separated in the same way as the health aspects and the morality of schoolage sexuality supposedly can be?

I imagine a curriculum entry: "Fabrication 101: Fibs, White Lies, Whoppers, and Statistics". Why wait for the kids to get their MBAs?

Benjamen R. Meyer

LeeQuod wrote: "Hmmm - fascinating. Consensual sex outside of marriage is not illegal except for statutory rape - and apparently it isn't statutory rape if both participants are underage."

Actually, I believe adultery is illegal in most states - though not prosecuted. (One of the those laws on the books that is widely ignored.) But you are 100% correct with respect to sex when neither party is in a marital relationship.

Ben W

I might argue that lying is sometimes an amoral/moral thing to do. Is it okay to lie about a surprise birthday party, or to lie to protect an innocent life?

I don't think we want to talk about the morality of dietary restrictions - even though some Hindi would be quick to point out the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. Or of abstaining from caffeine, alcohol, or pork (mormons, muslim, jews). What good would this really serve? So maybe (for those who think some morality should be taught in schools, by the gov't) we can distinguish between different aspects of morality? Help me here.


Like a guy with a papercut walking into a room full of overeager Boy Scouts needing their First Aid merit badges, Ben W wrote: "Help me here."

For the moment I'll just say that there are two problems, Ben: first, the source of moral judgment; second, the consistency of the moral framework. Bright children are always seeking to question authority, and to find inconsistencies that permit them to engage in rebellious behavior without punishment. One of the problems in schools is that human authority is inherently arbitrary and fallible. So you're kinda forced to go with a non-human authority (or else build a complete police state).

So the next question, then, is discovering which non-human authority has the most consistent moral framework. Interestingly, Christianity appears to apply the same moral framework to both members and non-members. (Christianity's founder repeatedly praised the moral behavior of individuals who were outsiders to the dominant moral system of the time.)

Hm - have you seen the movie "Doubt"? It covers much the same territory. For that movie (as with many others) the unaknowledged elephant in the room is God.

I've applied the Band-aid; I'll leave it to other Scouts to practice their tourniquet technique.

Ben W

Hmm. First - while arbitrary may be sub-optimal, it's what we've got in many cases - speed limits, for example. Second, non-human authority may be also arbitrary and fallible, depending on whom you pick (ie, Greek gods were quite imperfect and often morally fallen). And picking which the correct religious authority requires human judgment, which is arbitrary and fallible again, so we're back at square 1.

My brother and I were talking about some of this the other day.
He said, "Is there any Biblical or Christian guidance that can or should be applied to how America behaves as a nation? If we implement old testament law then we become the Taliban or the Puritans. If we follow Jesus we sell our considerable riches to help the poor, welcome in hungry immigrants, and maybe don't fight any wars because God doesnt need our tanks and bombs to accomplish his goals. In fact America wouldnt exist because we would have respected King George (since Jesus advis slaves obey masters, citizens respect Caesar)."

Jason Taylor

Ben, King George would not exist if Englishmen had respected King James as God advises citizens obey Caesar. King James would not exist if Lancaster and York hadn't quarreled over William the Tanner's Son's spoil thus violating the advice for brethren to dwell together in unity. William would not exist if the Sainted Edward had had a more successful marital policy thus violating "Husbands love your wives" and "Children are a blessing from the Lord". And the Sainted Edward would not exist if some Hairy Barbarians hadn't landed long time ago, thus violating the commandment Thou shalt not steal.

In other words, the fact that America would not exist in the present form if previous Americans had been more respectful to King George is in fact irrelevant. Unless one is to say that the legitimacy of a given regime and the methods by which it gains and keeps power have a one to one correspondance.

Which would by the way outlaw the literal Caesar who violated the commandment to respect the higher powers by seizing power for himself, in the process also violating, thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not steal. Not to mention worshiping idols thus having another God before Him, and proclaiming himself a god, thus taking the name of the Lord his God in vain. Not to mention devising wicked plans, shedding innocent blood, and having haughty eyes.

Which is all amusing. But the point Ben, is don't try to trap people into the false conundrum of "if the Founding Fathers did it it must be right" vs "if the Founding Fathers weren't right, America is illegitimate."

Jason Taylor

And in case you didn't get the reference to William's mother, it was a reminder not of her caste but of the circumstances of his birth which was a violation(no pun intended) of the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

More importantly, I simply did not feel like giving an uppity French warlord the dignity of "Conqueror". After all it is good to make fun of the French whenever one can.

Ben W

Sorry, that trap wasn't my intent at all. I think my brother was just raising the point that it seems difficult to come up with a consistent and fair way to run a government based solely on biblical principles. I'm inclined to agree with him, which is why I'm in favor of a secular government separated from our own religious institutions. I wouldn't want to live under even the nicest religious government.

Jason Taylor

That would depend on what one means be "separated" and what one means by "religious government." Unless you are claiming that you would never want to live in England or Vatican City you must accept that living under the "nicest religious government" may not be so bad.
And the definition of "separated" as is usually interpreted means a religious voter should not take religious considerations into politics at all. As to claim that there is a sphere in which such considerations are illigetimate is to claim that God has limitations, essentially the modern meaning of "separation" is to give any religious person the choice between blasphemy and self-disenfranchisement.

Ben W

Hmm - the way I'd heard it, "separated" usually meant minimal involvement of the state in religious affairs. I'm less wary of the converse, but not completely so - when religion becomes so involved in politics that it starts to trump my rights, I get scared. I like my beer and bacon and the right to do whatever I want with my consenting wife in the bedroom, thank you very much.

And nope, wouldn't want to live in Vatican City.. England's a mixed bag, and more mildly religious. I can't say I like the food there, though, so I'll pass for the Continent instead.

Jason Taylor

But England is officially a religious state. Just as it is officially a feudal state. One of those English things.

Which is the point and yes it is a reductio ad absurdum.

As a side note the purpose of Vatican City is to facilitate separation by giving sovereignity in a small area in return for the giving up of a more confused claim that interfered with the sovereignity of the Italian state.

Be that as it may, the modern conception of separation is to eliminate religious considerations from the public square. Which is all very well for the non religious.

In any case, even in puritan New England you were free to drink beer and eat bacon and you were actually encouraged to "do what you want with your consenting wife in your bedroom".

Jason Taylor

And I have as little taste for living under secularists as you do for living in a religious state Ben as the dogmatism of avowed secularists is of a kind with the bellicosity of pacifists, the power-lust of anti-imperialists, the ignorance of the understanding and the bigotry of the tolerant.


Ben W wrote: "Hmm. First - while arbitrary may be sub-optimal, it's what we've got in many cases - speed limits, for example."

"Hmm" back atcha. When I took Driver's Ed (back when cars had holes in the floorboards so you could push with your feet, and the local drive-in served Brontosaurus ribs), the training stressed that speeding could get you killed or ticketed or jailed - not that it could endanger some other driver or a small child crossing the street. So morality was reduced to personal consequences. This, I think, leads to the thinking "It's OK to speed if no one's around and I think I can handle it and I don't think I'll get caught."

Similar thinking applies to Gina's original point, replacing Driver's Ed with Sex Ed. Funny thing is, I don't recall getting encouragement to drive.

Ben, you also wrote: "I might argue that lying is sometimes an amoral/moral thing to do."

You might. But the point in question is whether or not it is moral (ahem) to teach students the techniques of lying in all their variations, and leave it up to them as to whether/when to apply those techniques. One would assume that one student putting their name on another student's work, then lying about it, would be seen as immoral by the school. Sure, the school would be behaving inconsistently, but that's nothing new.

So is it good (ahem again) to have schools teach students techniques for something that could be used for either good or evil, and yet omit the teaching of moral guidelines?

Or is it better to have both the techniques and the guidelines taught by those who have long-term emotional investment in the student - i.e., the family in general and parents in particular?

Ben W

Uh, yeah, I did sort of back up and mix up my points in confusion there. Gov't is determining legality of speed limits (somewhat arbitrarily), but not morality.

Not sure what your point is about cheating, as that's "illegal" - it's stealing and fraud within school rules.

I don't think you *can* have both all the techniques and guidelines taught by family/parents. I learned organic chemistry and physics in college, and I could apply those to making drugs or catapults, but I would say it was out of the scope of those classes to talk about the morality of such things. If I'm taking accounting, are my parents going to teach me about the potential moral pitfalls of mark-to-market accounting? I think all the parents can do is establish a good moral framework in their child, then leave it up to him to use honorably what he's taught in school. Many parents don't have either the knowledge or desire to teach their kids about every issue that touches morality, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't teach the techniques.

Jason - I don't have any trouble living under a government led by religious people, as long as they aren't trying to enforce that religion on me. Agreed?


Ben W wrote: 'Not sure what your point is about cheating, as that's "illegal" - it's stealing and fraud within school rules.'

My point was that it's a fine form of hypocrisy to insist on moral behavior in one area - cheating/stealing/fraud/lying - and declaim responsibility in another area - sex.

It would *not* be hypocrisy, please note, if the schools did not teach sex.

And I don't expect parents to know how Org Chem and Physics could be exploited to make bioterrorist weapons, even though such knowledge could be used in that way. (We won't discuss how some of my classmates created highly unstable crystals in Organic Lab, and sprinkled some on a strategic location in the men's room.) But I'd certainly expect them to understand they could end up raising their grandchildren when Princess comes home saying she's pregnant and that they could forego early retirement because she'd have trouble making rent, or that she could suddenly die one day because an unregulated and unreviewed medical procedure left "products of conception" inside her. I'd expect the school to understand that enabling rampant single motherhood and deadbeat dads is not good for society because the need for welfare skyrockets (and two-parent homes tend to raise children who become more productive workers as adults), nor is rampant post-abortion stress syndrome and a spike in breast cancer good for an economy struggling under the weight of healthcare costs. However, I know school boards seem to have limited ability for that kind of advanced causal reasoning. Still leaves me feeling grumpy, though.

An aside on government not being involved in morals: how would you define legislation, Ben? I see it as morality that is the consensus of the majority, documented and enforced by the government. So it is hypocrisy again for the government to claim that they have no hand in morals.

Finally (for now), I'll note that we in the West are shocked, *shocked!!* to learn that in some countries small children are being taught the beliefs of radical Islam - death to all infidels and things like that. Just imagine, though, how those ultraconservative Islamic radical parents feel when they learn what we teach our youth.

A postscript of personal thanks, Ben; this has been most thought-provoking.

Jason Taylor

I would say that government has a rightful part in some parts of morality and not others. It has a right to enforce justice by definition. It has a very limited and debatable right to enforce temperance although that is sketchy and can have bad consequenses. This is the old trope about "outlaw obscenity and you can outlaw heresy"-or political dissent or what not-is a slippery slope, but slippery slopes do tend to slip at least part of the way at times.
The government certainly has a right to enforce fortitude, by having a system of discipline for those engaged in emergency services. And it has a right to enforce prudence by firing government employees who show themselves lacking. It does not have a right to enforce Faith, or Hope. And it does not have the right to enforce Charity as the later three virtues are in mens hearts.
As far as the instance given, it is very much an instance of "who says A, must say B." The point about whether children should be taught sexual ethics by the government is a necessary corrallary to whether they should be taught sex at all by the government. Or for that matter whether they should be taught by the government at all. Which is a question not raised often enough but worthy of consideration. Does the State have a legitimate interest beyond making efficient citizens? Probably not, because in a polarized society any faction will with some reason feel ill-treated if it's children are taught the faculties ideology.

Jason Taylor

"Jason - I don't have any trouble living under a government led by religious people, as long as they aren't trying to enforce that religion on me. Agreed?"

And vice-versa. And that is what is suspected of sex-ed in the first place.

Jason Taylor

"Our government has been teaching kids about the birds and bees and the dangers of taking drugs, smoking, and drinking--and the kiddies still continue live dangerously."

Presuming our government wishes to go about the eccentric project of teaching teanagers to desire not to live dangerously(which would rather lower the supply of soldiers, cops, firemen and spies)where do people get the idea of "safe sex". Isn't that kind of like, "nonviolent resistance" or "honest and open government"?

Picture Aphrodite coming down in a golden chariot. She says,"Paris, I am going to give you the most beautiful woman in the world, a women all men will desire. But remember to take proper precautions..."

Ben W

Likewise, thanks LeeQuod and Jason, for a great conversation.

LeeQuod - I don't think it's hypocrisy for the school to punish cheating. The schools, as the educational arm of the gov't, have that authority passed down from the gov't as punishment for theft and fraud. To question this, you just have to question where the gov't gets its authority from (either God, the people, or both, depending on your views).

You got me on legislation, though. Often it is just morality put into law, assuming we're not talking about speed limits again. But which morality is right to legislate?

I also agree with you on the effects of sex ed.. I just can't see a better way to not step on anyone's religion's toes than to keep the morality teachings out - and birth control vs. abstinence is a religious issue for many.

Jason - IMO, it's easy to make a strong argument for public schooling and sex ed based on the "general welfare" - LeeQuod outlined many of the effects of a generally bad knowledge about how sex works - single mothers, abortions, higher health costs. And maybe "safe sex" should have been called "safer sex"? Nothing in this world is free from danger, but reduced pregnancy/STD rates show that at least in some ways "safe sex" is safer.

Steve (SBK)

I think apropos to this conversation is the idea of what classical education should be - and why people go to universities.

Here's an interview with Dallas Willard about the splitting of knowledge and morality from today's Universities:

Dorothy Sayers has an interesting article on classical education called "The Lost Tools of Learning".

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