Family Matters

Ethics, Shmethics. Teaching Kids Right from Wrong Isn’t Easy

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As parents, we are tasked with teaching our children the difference between wrong and right. It’s easy when they’re very young, and most of their moral encounters are black or white: We don’t hit people. We don’t make fun of them. We don’t steal or cheat. Or do we, sometimes, if it doesn’t really feel like there’s any inherent harm in doing so? Most people, for example, don’t think twice before copying a CD for a friend. But that’s taking money from record companies, and, ultimately, musicians. For those in doubt, think back to the whole Napster fiasco.

Sometimes, as I experienced recently on vacation in San Diego, cheating can feel more subtle. I spent last week there with my husband and three children. We recently moved to Seattle, a city not renowned for its sunny weather, and natives had advised us to escape the dreariness of winter here and go someplace sunny. We picked San Diego, known for its glorious climate year-round — except for the week we just spent there. The rains drenching California made national news, and we can say we lived through it. Luckily, we’re used to rain, so we just donned our raincoats and went about our va-cay business, not even bothering to unpack our bathing suits. In any case, the pool at the condo where we stayed wasn’t even heated. (More on Want Your Kids to Eat Healthier? It Starts with Mom)

On one of our last mornings, when the sun finally shoved the clouds aside, we discovered Hotel L’Auberge, which is the kind of place I never stayed at with my parents but is exactly the kind of place I hope I’ll one day be able to afford. Perched above the Pacific, it was airy and modern and very upscale. And did I mention they had an outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi?

My husband and I are masters of sneaking into fancy pools from our pauper days in Jerusalem when we figured out a secret pathway through the housekeeping corridors of a five-star hotel, straight to the deep end. We’ve conned our way into a pool with a lazy river in Myrtle Beach and a tropical oasis in Kauai. But we faced a different and unanticipated obstacle this time: our son. (More on Pediatricians approve swimming lessons for babies)

He turned 8 this week, and, thank God, he is a boy with a conscience. He balked at sneaking into this fabulous San Diego pool, with its embroidered towels and shady cabanas. “It’s rude,” he told me. I acknowledged his concerns and told him I was proud of his integrity. I explained what integrity means. Then I proceeded to talk him into going swimming.

If what I was proposing would hurt someone, I rationalized, it would be wrong to do it. But waltzing into the pool area and acting like we belong there? Who would that impact, aside from us if we decided not to do it? There were no other guests in the pool. If the pool boy asked us if we were staying at the hotel, I told Aviv I would tell him the truth — and I meant it. Ultimately, Aviv acquiesced — and had a fabulous time. He even joked that we weren’t technically breaking the rules. After all, the sign read “Guests Only,” not “Hotel Guests Only” — and guests we technically were, since we weren’t staying there. (More on Do TSA Pat-Downs Work? Even Kids Know How to Blow Up a Plane)

Did I do the right thing? Probably not. I gave my righteous child a taste of an unrighteous world – akin to Eve tempting Adam with an apple, although to my way of thinking, it’s much easier to turn down a piece of fruit than a beckoning swimming pool in the thick of winter. Would The New York Times’ Ethicist column have taken me to task? Yes. Do I regret my decision? Not really — the kids had so much fun, and though we couldn’t afford the $1,500/night for the one-bedroom suite, we tried to make it up to the hotel by patronizing their ocean-view restaurant for lunch. Alas, they were fully booked.

As parents, have you run into similar ethical landmines? How have you handled them?