My 8-year old son’s favorite book is Richard Michelson’s As Good As Anybody. The first half follows Martin Luther King Jr. from his childhood in Georgia, listening to his father’s sermons at Ebenezer Baptist Church, on through the bus boycott and the march at Selma. When he calls on all of God’s children to join his plight, we enter the second part of the book, where Abraham Joshua Heschel answers his call. As a child, King sulks at seeing “whites only” signs, while Heschel flees Berlin after signs claiming “No Jews allowed” appear. The book ends with the two men marching arm-in-arm in Selma, with Heschel telling King that he feels as though his legs are praying. Before reading the story with my son, I worried that he was too young to handle the maltreatment of each figure and the larger historical backdrop of discrimination and hatred directed toward particular groups — especially since he’s a member of one of them. To my surprise, what upset him most was the tension in each story between law or authority and what is “just.” Both King and Heschel have to disobey, fight, or flee from authority structures.
Children cling to an innate and clearly defined sense of justice. In fact, a strong and literal belief in justice and reciprocity is how social theorists such as James Fowler label my son’s current developmental task — what he must master at this developmental stage. It is this sense of justice that leads my son to simply state, “Well, that’s ridiculous that black people couldn’t swim with white people,” as if he has just solved a centuries-old injustice in a moment. But in the next breath, he questions: “Why did she sit in the front of the bus if she wasn’t supposed to?” In his mind, if a rule exists, there must be a reason for it, and the person who violates that social contract is in the wrong.
I am challenged constantly by the question of how to raise our children with respect for authority while not following it blindly — and how to fight against authority when it is oppressive. We’ve introduced the concept of “bad laws,” which explains that a rule (or a ruler) is not necessarily just. Though I doubt that our children fully understand the nuance, we are at least teaching them that the concept of justice is complicated. Some of our biblical stories and lore — Abraham arguing with God about Sodom, Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive regime to freedom, and the civil disobedience of the midwives Shifra and Puah against Pharaoh’s edicts — teach us to struggle and challenge indecent human rulers and even God’s rulings, and that behavior encourages us to be independent and critical thinkers. While Judaism invites us and even demands of us that we struggle with and challenge our own texts, this dialogical value has been diminished in recent history by traditional authorities that have effectively stagnated and tightened what was once an evolving legal system.
Our family spent considerable time talking about the issue of obedience and independence earlier this year. We celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and we talked about the effect this would have on our two-mom family. One of our children surmised that, since there are wedding pictures in our home, we must have married illegally. “Why,” he asked, “did we marry if it was against the law? Could we be sent to jail?” Once again, we talked about “bad laws,” likening the bans on same-sex marriage to miscegenation (which did, indeed, lead to arrests) and ongoing racial discrimination.
But who gets to decide which laws or rules are bad, especially when a typical household raising small children is filled with rules — both unspoken and incessantly repeated? Do I want my children to challenge my rules or their school’s rules? Just how free thinking should they be, and at what age? I often cringe when I hear my son challenging his teacher: Does she value this quality as much as I do? Will she hear his query as disrespect? How will his peers, who come from cultures that prize respect for authority more than independent thinking, hear his questions?
In reality, if either of our children makes a cogent case against a specific house rule or punishment, we listen. We may not accommodate the request, but we want them to start flexing their civil disobedience muscles. They may feel, now, overly comfortable and confident challenging our rules, and, yes, I worry that a little fear and blind obedience could do them well. But overriding this concern is my hope that they will be inspired — like King and Heschel — to challenge authority and join other peoples who are seeking justice. I want them to struggle with the reality that justice, like everything else, is messy. They will have to call on their own internal moral compasses to guide them, and it won’t always be as clear as a child wants it to be. Hopefully, they will understand that every issue contains within it multiple sides, and when they decide to act on what we believe is “right,” someone who holds an equally valid viewpoint will inevitably be hurt by their action. Likewise, inaction will also cause harm, but often without their awareness. At an age when they seek clear-cut answers — good guys and bad guys — I hope we are creating an atmosphere in which they can find comfort sitting with the discomfort.email print