Imagine a scene. You are sitting across from your children (let’s say aged somewhere between nine and 16) at the dinner table. The food tastes fine. No-one is yelling or stomping off to their bedroom. A pleasant family glow radiates. And then a small conversational lull falls…
With what do you fill it?
Well, you could ask how the day went. You could do some scheduling around the next few hectic days of cricket, piano, ballet, soccer etc. You could talk about what was on TV or YouTube.
Or you could have a values-based conversation about something that really matters. You could have a conversation about lying, stealing, honesty, trust or any one of a hundred other topics that are important to us. Not an excuse for a lecture, but a genuine conversation in which you find out what your kids feel and guide them a little.
The children sitting opposite you will not be yours forever. In the next couple of years and decades they will be setting sail into society. They will become someone’s partner, someone’s co-worker, someone’s boss, someone’s parent. They will vote. If they are lucky, they will touch many other people’s lives for the better. We have a responsibility as parents to make sure they are the best people to do this.
Of course we all know this already. But the point is, in the onward rush of modern life, it is easy to forget it all from day to day. So it is worth that awkward moment, when the conversational lull falls, to wedge in an opener about ethics.
So how do you open it up? Well there are two ways:
• The slightly less awkward way
• The slightly more awkward way.
The slightly less awkward way is to have already scanned the landscape for ethical issues that may have already emerged. Maybe it is something that has happened at school – a friend lying, or people cheating on a test, or someone who hasn’t been invited to a party. Maybe it is about something on the news – a political scandal, or a healthcare issue, a humanitarian crisis occurring somewhere else in the world. Perhaps it is something that has been raised in church or in religious education. Either way, you can raise these at the table and start a conversation.
The slightly more awkward way is to simply say, "I was wondering…" or "I’ve been thinking about x and I’d love to get your opinion." Your kids will probably see through it, but that’s fine (you didn’t become a parent to show your kids how cool you are, after all).
Then there is keeping the discussion going once it has started. A couple of tips here.
• Listen to what your kids are saying. If you are doing more than about 30% of the talking, you may well be talking too much.
• Take what your kids say seriously. You may have heard the point a dozen times before, but it might be the first time they are saying it. So you could act as if it is the first time you are hearing it.
• Gently present the opposite point of view, just to see what it looks like. Let your children know explicitly you are doing this and don’t necessarily believe that point of view.
• Don’t be ready to jump in with the 'correct' answer. Kids are less likely to join the conversation if they think you are planning to lecture them. Be confident that strong ethical principles and positions - the very ones espoused by Christ and the church - will come out of the reasoned reflection of the conversation itself. They usually do.
And have fun. You only get a couple of years to have these conversations with your children around the dinner table before they become grown-ups. So enjoy it while you can and know you are doing your bit in creating the ethical, thoughtful sensitive adults of the future.
Michael Parker is the headmaster of Oxley College in Bowral. He has recently published two successful books, Talk With Your Kids: Ethics (2012) and Talk With Your Kids: Big Ideas (2014).