Good Versus Evil

A basic question is whether children are naturally good or naturally evil. I will phrase this differently. Can people derive happiness from being unselfish?

Why This Question is Important

If children are inherently good, we can leave a lot of their direction to them. We can provide them accurate information, trusting them to use it well. We can help them understand themselves, knowing that that will lead to more unselfish behavior.

If children are inherently bad, then it is very important to control them. We must be in control of what they learn.

Behaviorism takes the perspective that children are neither good nor bad; instead, children are a blank slate to write on. This isn't as middle-roadish as it might seem. From the perspective of parenting, it means that we must be in control of what they learn, so that they turn out good rather than bad.

So the issue, really, is whether there is some intinsically good force in children, that allows us as parents to let them do a lot of self-direction and self-selection in what they learn and how they grow. The behaviorists answer is no.

Miscelaneous Problems with the "No" answer

Of course, if everyone was inherently bad, there would be no good parents to teach their children to be good. Instead, it is obvious that there are a few psychopaths but most parents are good -- they want to help their children.

If you believe that your children are inherently bad, then you will never let them do what they want. Then you are always fighting with your children, and from their perspective, they will think that their happiness doesn't matter to you. That breaks the social contract, which impairs parenting.

There is also a test of which is right. If we take the people who seem to have the most insight into their own nature, do they tend to be good or selfish? I think the answer is good. Buddhism is explicit that if people were enlightened, they would be good. So I will take the Buddhists as voting empirically for that there are at least some good forces in people.


People are basically selfish. That's reality. But people are also programmed to care. That's reality too. Psychologists even know what parts of the brain are involved in caring.

People are also built to be social creatures. We are not like panthers, which hunt alone; we are like dogs, who hunt in packs. And even the panther has to form a family of sorts. We are programmed to be empathic; we are programmed to be enjoy seeing others happy; we are programmed to avoid conflict.

Yes, we care more about our own children than other children. Yes, we care more about our own tribe (nation, team, race, religion) than a different tribe. But look around. People care about whales and dolpins. Some people care about all mammals. Some people care about all life and will try not to kill a spider or ant. At least in human beings, caring generalizes.

There is an unappreciated logical point. The Golden Rule can be phrased in different ways, but one of them is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Your unconscious brain is not under your complete control. So, it will tend to form the same opinion of you that you would form of other people acting the same way you are acting. In other words "Your opinion of yourself, concerning some action, will tend to be the same as your opinion of another person if that other person had done the action."

People want to think well of themselves -- there is no happiness in not liking yourself -- so to the extent that people have awareness, they are faced with this Golden Rule: "To be happy, you must act towards others and you expect them to act towards you."

Okay, this does require some enlightenment. That is one reason for teaching your children to be enlightened.

More importantly, it does not guarantee goodness. If you expect other people to lie and cheat you, then you are free to lie and cheat and still like yourself. Yes, it is very difficult not to be upset when other people lie and cheat you. But if you can make that your norm -- you just say "Of course" and aren't the least bit upset, then you can do that to other people without disliking yourself.

So, that means it is important to set up a social contract of being good -- your child should expect other people to be good.

Do Children Naturally Want to be Competent?

There is a variation on the problem of good and evil: Are children naturally hard-working, or are they naturally lazy?

Naturally lazy would get the vote from most parents. Children usually do not spontaneously clean their room or do their homework or pick up their dishes. So let us be clear. When the work is boring, children usually do not want to do it. I think adults tend to be the same, though obviously they are more responsible.

But if you pay attention, children will work very hard if the task is enjoyable. Witness their efforts at playing video games. They will also work hard to achieve their own personal goals. Albeit this can include whining, scheming, and relentless nagging to get what they want. But the effort is there.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, children like to be powerful. So they like to learn skills that make them powerful. One of my favorite "complaints" to my children is "Awww, who taught you to read?" when they learn something I didn't particularly want them to know by being able to read.

Or, for example, when my children were very small and they would get angry, they would storm to their room and shut the door. It became family policy that I would then pass a note under the door. Eventually the door would open and I would get a note back. We played this "game" with my younger daughter before she had any idea how to read. So I had to read the notes to her and I had to write her notes for her. Or sometimes she would scribble something on the paper and read it to us.

Actually, I played the game as a way to get them to stop being angry. We didn't play this game to teach my daughter the power of reading and writing, but that's what it did. We didn't play this game to teach my daughters to express their feelings, but that's what it did.

Another example. I took a neighbor child to the library. When we arrived home, I had her coat. I turned to her and said, "Did you want to take your coat into the house, or should I?" She said, "You do it." I think she was being the naturally lazy child. The thing was, I didn't mind doing it. I was just asking because I knew that my own daughters, at least at that age, liked being responsible for their own things. So I cheerfully said "Okay." Then she thought for a second and said, "I'll do it."

And I will note Bob's rule of parenting, which is that children usually like to do a chore until they are good at it, then they will usually stop. So, as the parenting joke will go, your children tend to want to help you mow the lawn up until the age where they really could be useful help, then they won't want to help any more. It is not quite as bad as that. But it means that you should actively engage your children in helping at a time when they aren't that much help.