Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make It Right by Barbara Coloroso

Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make It Right: From toddlers to teens, teaching kids to think and act ethically
by Barbara Coloroso
Viking Canada, 2005
249 pages

You're not likely to see a lot of parenting books show up here. I mostly don't read them. I maybe should read more than I do, and maybe someday I will, but between the business of actually parenting, other parts of life, and reading things I enjoy... well, parenting books generally fall behind on the priority list. This is not to say that I don't see a lot of them go by and think I'd like to read them very much, or that they might be tremendously useful to me. They just tend to get brought home and then spend three weeks -- or longer -- sitting on the table, looking interesting and not getting read. See, the thing is, I am lucky enough to have some excellent role models, and besides that one doesn't work with children and their parents for ten years (!!) and not pick up a few things. (Or decide there are things I'm not going to pick up, thank you.) So while there's always room for improvement... and those books do look awfully interesting... I'm going to read Kimberly Derting's The Body Finder next, okay?

Barbara Coloroso's books may be an exception. My mother has always had Coloroso on her shelf, and I have grown up knowing her as an authority on parenting. I am primed to respect Barbara Coloroso's views on parenting and children, and after finally reading an entire book by her, I think I'll be ready for more.

It helps that she writes well. Just Because It's Not Wrong... is an easy book to read -- in some ways. Certainly the ways related to writing. Occasionally she uses a bit of blunt instrument to drive her point home, and there is a lot of repetition. Most of the times the things she repeats bear repeating. It does make me suspect that I wouldn't enjoy this book very much in audio, since repetition tends to be more noticeable and irritating (to me) there.

The point she's driving home, as a brief summary: we are all born with the ability to care deeply about ourselves, others, and the planet, but moral behaviour needs to be nurtured from infants on up. There are ways to help children become adults who think critically and behave compassionately and ethically. There are also ways to stifle those impulses. Coloroso explores the positive ways to interact with and teach children, and the pitfalls that can lead to children who conform to authority and the mob, and behave selfishly, unkindly, or with an absence of caring. In many ways, this is a companion to her book kids are worth it!, which I have yet to read, but is now creeping up to the top of the list.

Nurturing children's ability to care without teaching them to think critically will not serve them well. In his 1963 book Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

As I read parenting books, I tend to be extremely wary of the sort that make me want to lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I am DOING IT WRONG and I will ruin my child forever. This book didn't do that, not quite. I think there's potential there, because Coloroso does have some pretty strong views on certain things, and it's pretty clear that she thinks it is possible to do things wrong. It just so happens that I agree with her on the particulars, and so rather than make me want to quit, she validates my parenting philosophy and makes me feel better about what I'm trying to do. Also, I read it at the right time. I think if I was attempting to parent a teenager and reading this book, I'd find it a lot more alarming. Because I think (I hope) that if one reads this book early and starts to live the concepts in it early, it might make the later stages of parenting a little bit easier, a little bit smoother.

I like that this book makes me think just a little more carefully and critically about how I do things, how I interact with smallfry as she starts to get into her "Why?" stages and her "No!" stages. It makes me think about rules. Why do we have that rule? What is at the core of saying "don't throw food on the floor"? Because that is a rule, and a reasonable one, but what is it about throwing food on the floor that's problematic? (It's wasteful. It's disrespectful. It makes my life harder. In general, it's not a nice thing to do.) But if I can't answer the question "why?" for a rule, I think I should be thinking harder about it.

Apparently this book is helping me revert to my terrible twos.

But I did find this book alarming. I find it alarming that anyone feels a book like this is necessary, and alarming that it clearly is necessary. I find it alarming that Coloroso has enough real-life experience to pull terrible stories and examples into the discussion to explain a concept. I find it alarming that I recognize the counterproductive behaviours and attitudes she identifies because I've seen them in real life. Or I've felt those impulses within me. Or I've actually done that thing.

I find it alarming because it makes it very, very clear that parenting is going to be really, really hard work. This book makes me feel a bit daunted by the enormity of the task and the responsibility. These are things I know intellectually, and knew before we decided to have a kid, but it's sometimes better to just work away piece by piece rather than stepping back and having a look at the whole. On the other hand, seeing the whole every once in a while is a good thing too.

I find certain parts of this book flat out scary. The bits on media are not exactly scare-mongery, and she stops short of blaming video games for real-life violence, but I'm not always the most responsible, aware consumer of media myself. So how do I ensure my daughter is? Is our current strategy of not having a television (mostly out of lack of space and lack of interest, not actually a parenting strategy) going to actually serve her well in the future? When does she get her own computer? When does she get to use mine? When do I stop asking her for her passwords? Why can't we just pick up as a family and move into a cave somewhere very, very remote? (Answer: because we'd starve.)

Throughout all of this, though, Coloroso makes it clear that disengaging (see: cave) is not the answer either. Offering children safe chances to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes, and engage the world around them in a caring way helps them become ethical individuals. And while the task may seem daunting, it is also not an impossible thing. She offers counter-examples and clear advice to balance out the alarming pieces. In all, despite the parts that are somewhat hard to read and the parts that should scare the pants off any reasonable parent, this is a very balanced book. And frankly, as a primer on how to be in this world for any and all of us, not just our children and not just parents, one could do much worse.

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