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Director’s Annual Commentary

Autumn 2007: The Morality Dialogue


2007 was a great summer at Kingswood. I trust next year's enrollments will speak to that. I had plenty of great moments as director in this, our 23rd season at the helm. None gave me greater satisfaction than two bright moments of realization at meetings in the Great Room on the final Friday evening of each session. The first epiphany came when I simply called the meeting to order. Surely you must appreciate how difficult it is to gain the simultaneous attention of just a few kids, let alone 154 excited youngsters I encountered that July evening. Within seconds of requesting order, I sensed the gaze of all eyes upon me. Instantly, I had another great example to back up my farewell theme: First session 2007 was one heck of cooperative group of boys.

Minutes earlier, you see, I had inadvertently stepped on a ping-pong ball lying on the Great Room floor. "Why did I crush that ball?" was my opening line to my now-rapt audience. "Because you weren't expecting it to be there," came the immediate and correct reply from several campers. Exactly, and I went from there to suggest that any director with little more to gripe about than a wayward ping-pong ball must be one who has had a darned good run of things to begin with. My point was that this community had experienced a near-thing to Utopia, given everyone's apparent acceptance of the way we do business at Kingswood, including putting ping-pong balls back where they belong. "A perfect society is impossible to achieve," I told them, "but we can all try to get as close to it as is humanly possible." In the dialogue that ensued, campers were able to offer many examples of how things had, indeed, worked well for the session. Later on, I was feeling a bit sheepish for having advanced such idealistic notions to a bunch of kids. "You really were not far off the mark," several adults offered in much appreciated feedback.

Another bolt of awareness hit me on the last Friday of the summer, August 17. Same venue, same moment of collecting my good-bye thoughts. This time my mind was thinking backwards to six days earlier when I had presided over the annual Bow & Arrow sportsmanship meeting with the campers and counselors. In that gathering I had prodded boys to tell me what Kingswood sportsmanship was all about rather than my lecturing them on the subject. Every year Bow & Arrow color war goes well: participation, intensity, sportsmanship and fun are the working formula. Disagreements are mild and settled amicably at once. The verdict stays on the field. At meals, each team applauds the efforts of the other. Honestly, I had no problem getting boys to tell me these things at that session. "Some camps hire professional referees," I told them at one point. Catcalls came flying back at me. "Never at Kingswood," they hollered. "So, what are you going to do when umpire Tim here makes a horrendous call?" After a bit of teasing both ways, everyone agreed to the correct Kingswood answer - "Nothing."

But that was then, and now, it being the last night of camp, Bow & Arrow was behind us for 2007. So, I opened that final gathering by asking boys to help me review all the agreements we had made beforehand. "Well, did they work?" was the obvious question I had to ask them. Naturally, all the campers agreed that the competition had gone well. "But WHY?" was my crucial question. I love the "why" angle because that is the interpretation part of any analysis of the facts. "Because it's your camp and you said so," was one not-incorrect inference. "Because it always works" was another reply to which I had to say, "Not necessarily." But, then: "Of course those other analyses are not wrong," said David, "but Bow & Arrow was a good week because we as a community wanted it to be that way." Bingo!

Anyone, this director included, might be tempted to label the above paragraphs as blatant self-promotion. Not really and here's why: any community is only so effective as the resources out of which it is made. Whenever I get a parental compliment, my heartfelt response is to flip it back. On the whole, Kingswood boys seem to "get it," that is they grasp the significance of coming to order quickly, they see the subtle point of a misplaced ping-pong ball, and they easily adhere to the Bow & Arrow script. And, most importantly, they like it that way! It would be the height of arrogance for me to suggest that at Kingswood, we have reached Utopia. But, we do take lots of shots at getting boys to think about such outcomes.

OK, so where am I attempting to go with this year's version of the post-camp director's commentary? Here is a remark I read in a nifty book entitled "The Moral Education of Children" by Robert Coles: "The child is a witness; the child is an ever-attentive witness of grown-up morality - or lack thereof; the child looks for cues as to how one ought to behave, and finds them galore as we parents and teachers go about our lives, making choices, addressing people, showing in action our rock-bottom assumptions, desires and values, and thereby telling those young observers much more than we may realize."

The thought I have from reading Coles is that moral education never stops. It's a lifetime building process in which parents need to be invested for the long haul. True enough, many parents hover. Some intrude. Others are more buddies to their kids than mentors. Over-parenting is the rage these days. Yours truly and Alice are not without fault. My examples in the Kingswood context cited above are just the beginning of what I think ought to be a continuing, two-way dialogue between young people and adults. This conversation should be perpetual. Furthermore, your kids - savvy as they are and well aware of parental shortcomings such as smothering and dominance - must know that you have no intention of ever surrendering the moral ground to them. However, Coles tosses in a significant parental caveat: Nouns are cheap; it's verbs that matter. Discussions about integrity and civility, while surely terrific, pale by comparison to your own acts of honesty and kindness. Indeed, your every move is being scrutinized by your kids.

Coles' book, from beginning to end, features one dilemma. It asks, but never totally resolves, this question: When is a parent prying too much into his child's business of life's choices and when is he doing too little to guide his child in the right moral direction? His chapter on adolescent morality, for example, is laced with vignettes from parents whose teenaged kids would not listen to one word of moral related issues. Children this age want to live inside an untouchable zone where no one, mom and dad especially, have any influence over them. At camp, I use the word "bubble" to describe this sphere of personal space of influence. While kidded about the term, I nonetheless believe we all have an invisible aura of some sort around us, within which we are in charge. I tell counselors, for example, to use good judgment in making decisions within their bubble of authority. Kids might like that term, too, as a bubble suggests that personal haven which they so crave.

Obviously, though, you cannot just cede them this territory. But, you do have to accept the fact that children demand their own space. So, what to do? As Coles suggests, first comes the setting of a good example, which starts at birth and continues throughout your and their lives. Secondly, at about the time kids are old enough to go to camp, a genuine moral dialogue with them commences. Remember: kids love to be engaged, especially the pre-adolescent ones. But, all children are "doers more than viewers" and that attribute includes an urge to be heard as well as be told. When a child's vote counts, the idea sticks. Once assured that his final morals are his business alone, he'll stay much more attuned than if otherwise.

Of course there must be some rules regarding any dialogues between children and their parents. Kids can get quite manipulative when it comes to discussing the whats and whys of their behavior. The trick is to acknowledge their ultimate freedom of choice, but remain vested in the outcome. Rule number one: in any discussion involving a moral dilemma, demand a full assessment of the facts. Here's a Kingswood example where the full truth is crucial: Suppose your child suspects another boy has taken something from him. Even if circumstantial evidence is preponderant, he should want to get some third-party input as well as a thorough vetting of the details. No accusations until he knows he's got a solid case. (Most of the time, at Kingswood anyway, stealing is more like wrongful borrowing.) Even then, once he has been shown to be correct, can he learn to accede to a solution that is both fair and forgiving?

Or, suppose your son has done the taking. Rule number two: always tell the truth. When children lie or make excuses, they are more often emitting waves of amorality than immorality. They are not bad for life just yet. You can help influence a happy outcome by getting them to concede that truth always trumps untruth. Here is a key thought: as they get older, the examples of fact-gathering and truth-telling get far more serious and with enormous consequences. Your children have to understand, therefore, that you will be invested in their game of morality building for some time to come.

Speaking of the word "game," I say sometimes do just that: Get kids to acknowledge issues at school where they are not directly involved: plagiarism, bullying, rudeness, for example. The more complicated and gritty the better. Give them greater than 50% of the talk time and taunt them with your best lawyerlike cross examination. But, if the debate goes well, let them win the game. Seriously, even if some levity is introduced, your children, as Coles suggests, will remember the brunt of the conversation. In due time, most of the time, they will arrive at the moral conclusion you would want them to.

I think another really good rule of engagement is to let your children know that you intend to respect and follow the advice given to you by their educators and other role models. So should they. I cannot tell you how significant it is when I say to your sons, "I have the support of mom and dad on this." I've seen both bad behavior (mistreating others, for example) and unfortunate behavior (selfishness) practically dissolve once a boy sees that parents and Kingswood are in lockstep mode. Moral outcomes are far likelier to be successful when kids know that you have full intention of paying as much heed to their mentors as to them. Might kids be more careful in defining their personal morality once they realize the final decisions are subject to some intense scrutiny beforehand?

The last rule should be something akin to "You make the bed; you sleep in it." Read my commentaries from each of the past several summers and they all urge you to give your children some meaningful space. While, for certain, you are the ones in charge of your kids' values incubation, you cannot expect to be the proverbial "fly on the wall" for them at all times. So, why did I double the number of photo reports this past summer? Easy. The communication was one-way, providing you the sense of being an insider while sparing your son the feeling of your hovering over him. While you and your kids' educators are part of the process of engendering that sphere of influence we are speaking of, it is the child who must live with the outcome of its creation. Thus, to give kids brief but fully independent forays from the nest, in serious places like Kingswood, is to offer them an enormous leg up in defining their life's morals in ways you'll appreciate. But, while they are on these missions, leave them alone.

Lastly, I think an important component of your filial dialogue is the acknowledgment that just about all kids feel entitled in their own homes. This is a real change from past generations when life at home was in many ways stricter than outside. While the degree of such freedom is your business, not mine, the ease of life in the home might color your son's perception of his personal morality. You've got to get him to see that once out the door, the rules of moral engagement change. What they see as simple privileges are a bit tougher to come by at places like school and camp. Kingswood says NO to video games, NO to excessive foodstuff packages, NO to incessant telephone calls. Interestingly, quite a few campers we describe as "Kingswood pros" place themselves on the camp's side of these issues. The WHY is that they envision camp as a better community without such needless distractions and have come to realize that privileges in community settings need to be tempered. Entitlement indeed is a moral issue; best to get youngsters to see this now, while the issue still is debatable.

In conclusion, given your children's ages, you have just commenced on the torturing and treacherous but exhilarating mission of aiding them in selecting their life's morals. And, thanks to a continuing parental dialogue, your children ultimately will determine for themselves that values such as honesty, selflessness and humility are the stuff of really happy lives, of Utopia. Or, as close to it as is humanly possible. We at camp will do our part to maintain the conversation. Go on line and order the Coles book. I found it for one penny. Finally, please keep "family debate" on the calendar from time to time over the long winter months. And, don't be surprised if you are surprised by how well developed your son's morals already are, thanks to input so far by yourselves and maybe even some of those simple lessons grasped at Kingswood.