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“Am I a good boy? Or am I a bad one?”
“Am I a good boy?” my four-year-old son asks, “Or am I a bad one?”
It feels like mere minutes ago the concept was alien to you. You’ll have known whether something was a good thing to do—finishing everything on your plate, saying thank you, or sleeping through the night. You knew some things were good, just as others were bad—hitting your sister, screaming when we turned off your favourite cartoon, or illicitly feeding the dog unwanted carrot sticks under the table. You later learned you could be good or bad at things you loved: how good you became at running, flying down the street as an ersatz Sonic the Hedgehog, accidentally executing a perfect Naruto run—arms straight back, chest towards the ground—without knowing it; or how good you became at puzzles, one of your recent obsessions, as the steam almost comes out of your ears and Beautiful Mind chalk lines form around you as you figure it out.
Are you good, little dude? It’s a hell of a question. Are any of us, truly? What does being good entail? And isn’t that what we’ll wrestle the rest of our lives? You’re asking it now for the first time; you might spend the rest of your life searching for the answer.
The pendulum of morality swings with abandon at this age. You’ve only recently started understanding these abstract concepts, but now these moral poles have been internalised and you’re crossing the Rubicon, moving from wondering “Is this good?” through to “Am I good at this?” to now questioning “Am I, myself, good or bad?”
My moral backbone was informed by an illustrated book of Bible stories, sitting nightly underneath my pillow, supplemented by a weekly homily from a man of the cloth. But as I’ve left my Catholic upbringing behind, rolling my own interpretation of spirituality, I’m less comfortable outsourcing my children’s moral teachings to the Good Book. Morality and religion have always been bedfellows, playing supporting roles in society from day one. Adam and Eve were banished from paradise for unbecoming behaviour: eating the forbidden fruit after being repeatedly told by God to leave it well alone (a tale familiar to all parents). The Egyptians believed that, upon death, Anubis would place your heart on one side of a scale and a feather upon the other. If your heart was lighter—indicating you’d spent your life avoiding sin and accomplishing good deeds—you were welcome to join them in the afterlife for eternity. If your heart tipped the scale in its direction, you’d be sent to the underworld, or eaten on the spot by the lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid goddess Ammit. Christians may be nodding their heads after growing up with an adjacent concept (minus the getting eaten part) with the reckoner St. Peter, and his book of awaiting deeds as you approach the pearly gates of heaven.
My son takes some lessons from a religion that is not my own, learning stories of the Hindu deities passed down through his mother’s side. But where Christian morals are imparted through original sin and its seven deadly cousins, biblical tales and plagues, and the threat of eternal damnation (at least in the Irish Catholic strain that informed the early formation of my own moral compass), Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism focus on living a life in accordance to Dharma: a moral code that offers ways to live a better life. (Dharma is intricately connected to the more widely known Karma—the law of cause and effect through living a life aligned with, or contradicting, Dharma’s principles.)
The ongoing acts of violence in the world remind us of the dangers of applying binary labels of “good” and “bad” to vast swathes of the population. But children yearn for simplicity and situations where things sit on one side of the other. That’s maybe why my son has fallen so deep into rabbit holes of space battles and superheroes. (Perhaps I’m confusing causation and correlation, which wouldn’t be the first time.1) The ongoing escapades of Disney and its subsidiary companies—the highs and lows of Pixar, the MCU and Star Wars—illuminate his early understanding of complex principles like virtue, ethics and justice. Inside Out brought his emotions to life and helped him understand when his “red guy” was at the controls. The Incredible Hulk is good, but he’s angry—a complex one to parse, his four-year-old mind still unable to grasp the idea of the chaotic good alignment. And he hasn’t yet wrapped his head around why the Darth Vader toy we picked up from eBay has Anakin Skywalker under the mask. “But Anakin’s a good guy, right?”
If only it were so clear-cut. But life isn’t that neat. Like parents who navigated questions around whether the police were “good” or “bad” in the wake of George Floyd’s
death murder in 2020, the truth is more complex than the stories we tell ourselves, and the answers we find aren’t easy. Like many, I’ve done my fair share of bad things, and there are moments in my life I’m not proud of. But I’m not the type to find myself asking whether I’ve been bad—that’s not what keeps me awake at night. (“Have you been good enough?” is more likely to have me thrashing into my pillow at 3 am.)
In parenting, as in life, morality and discipline are intertwined. Morality influences behaviour. Bad behaviour begets punishment. And whilst discipline today is less severe than what we experienced in our own childhood years—what I would have given for a naughty step to time out on back in the 80s—it can still illuminate the gap between bad and good (or, more accurately, between bad and very bad) for our children.
Whenever concepts of reward and punishment arise, the metaphor of the carrot and stick remains top of mind. I tend to think of my parenting approach as more orange-tinged—especially when said carrots are offered in Haribo form. But I grew up in a stick-first household, as many of my generation did, along with a greater number of the generation before. When my mum was little, my grandmother would send a misbehaving child outside to obtain the object of their own demise. They’d return from the back garden with a sally rod—a stick broken off the substantial branches of a nearby willow tree. If you picked a thin stick, you’d end up outside again, searching for a heftier instrument, gifted double the thrashing on your return.
Visible marks fade quickly. Invisible ones—the ones that don’t trouble teachers, other parents, and friends—are harder to shift. Invisible to the eye, they take root inside and burrow underneath, creating inverted scars that define future selves. The lines of morality change over the years—what was acceptable then isn’t acceptable now, if it ever was. But if writer Peggy O’Mara is correct, and “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice,” then the way we define morals to our children will form their internal compass, and the way we discipline them will become their inner critic. It’s a sad truth that no one is harder on you than you are on yourself. Children who internalise judgements at an early age will end up spending vast amounts of time (and therapist fees) trying to shake them off as adults.
So, back to where we began. What do I want my son to believe? I want him to know: you are not bad. Sometimes, you do bad things, but that’s OK. You’re a work in progress, just like your old man. Other times, and (mercifully) more often, you do good. What’s important is you’re beginning to understand the difference. If you spend your life chalking up marks in the negative column, you’ll find folks don’t want to be your friend, and life will be more challenging. But if you try your hardest to do good and to be good—considering the feelings of others, being there for your family and friends, and treating others as you’d like to be treated2—that’s all you need to worry about for now.
3 things to read this week
“The States Sue Meta Over Child Safety” by Casey Newton in Platformer. File under “news that will be news to no one,” as 42 states come together to sue the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, alleging that these apps “hurt children by violating their privacy and misleading them about [their] potential harms.” The myriad accusations are explored by Newton as he delves into the details, noting that the allegations holding the most weight will be around Meta’s lackadaisical approach to age verification, granting many underage children access to the platform. “This isn’t to say Meta should be let off the hook. Platforms should conduct and release more research on how social media use can lead to mental health harms, and take steps to acknowledge and address it. That won’t solve the teen mental health crisis, either. But I imagine it would be more effective than this lawsuit.”
“A Coder Considers The Waning Days of His Craft” by James Somers in The New Yorker. Somers—writer, programmer and imminent new dad—reflects on the advancements in AI and its implications on the future of work for us and our children. A must-read. “In chess, which for decades now has been dominated by A.I., a player’s only hope is pairing up with a bot. Such half-human, half-A.I. teams, known as centaurs, might still be able to beat the best humans and the best A.I. engines working alone. Programming has not yet gone the way of chess. But the centaurs have arrived. GPT-4 on its own is, for the moment, a worse programmer than I am. [My friend] Ben is much worse. But Ben plus GPT-4 is a dangerous thing.”
“How John Steinbeck Tricked his Kids into Reading Great Books” by Dan Stone in Hey Pop. I mentioned this above, but if your kids are into their walking and talking years, you’ll indeed have experienced the inevitable event in which, just like Adam and Eve, they do something you’ve explicitly told them not to. So why not lean into it? I’m one of the hundreds—if not thousands—who have delighted in this anecdote from Thom Steinbeck, eldest son of John, telling the tale of his father's forbidden box of books and his layered threat: “Don’t ever let me catch you touching anything in that cabinet.”
👀 🏳️🌈 The Queer Book Club
In the early days of TNF my good friend Hana wrote what remains one of my favourite guest essays on her experience navigating life as the non-biological mother of a same-sex couple, and becoming a dad by default. Towards the end of that essay she shared a few LGBTQ-friendly kid's books—five books that were the totality of what she knew at that time.
Two years later—inspired by her daughter's love of books and the general lack of queer representation in kids' media—Hana has created the Queer Book Club. Here’s where I’ll stop talking:
“At a time when books are being banned across the USA, it feels important to take the time to support queer authors, illustrators, booksellers, librarians, teachers and families. For people who aren't queer themselves, but are allies who want to support, lemme just say that I WISH this resource existed when my daughter was born. Many of these books never make it to the front table of Foyles, Barnes & Noble or Waterstones.”
Introducing: The Soprano Sessions
For the last few years, I’ve felt a strong pull towards a rewatch of The Sopranos. It has stubbornly remained at the top of my all-time shows, but I’ve only seen it twice—once when it initially screened on Channel 4 in the UK (who punted it around, and at one point had new episodes dropping at 11.30 pm on a Monday) and later when the DVD boxsets entered my life.
I’m particularly interested in what Tony's story might hold for me on the other side of 40 and with kids of my own. The rewatch already feels like it is reaping rewards—the clip above, taken from the fourth episode, finds Tony playing Mario Kart 64 in the living room with his son AJ. He tries to check in on how his son is doing (”So how’s things going for you? How’s school?”) but chooses the very worst moment to do it. He realises he is being beaten, before resorting to physical intimidation to get his way—the only language he truly understands—and eventually passing it off as a “life lesson” to his son.
I invited a few dads in our community to watch along and we’re a few episodes in so far. In a world where we’re so accustomed to waiting hours for shows to get going—someone recently told me to watch Ozark, informing me “it starts getting good in the third season”—I’m amazed at how fully formed the show came into the world, and the impact it’s story is having on me as I watch Tony balancing his “family” at work and his family at home. I'm pairing it with The Soprano Sessions,and Matt Zoller Seitz’s book, with featuring episode recaps alongside lengthy interviews with creator David Chase.
For those interested in joining in, you can find the show on Max in the US, and in the UK, it's on Amazon Prime Video. If you’d like to join the conversation (and enjoy a host of other ramblings), jump into the community and say hello.
How did you like this week’s issue? Your feedback helps me make this great.
Branding by Selman Design. Illustration by Tony Johnson, who was particularly pleased with his Darth Vader, but tbh knocked it out of the park with all of them. Survey by Sprig. Additional Dungeons and Dragons alignment consultation by our in-community expert Sam.
A reminder: 100% of the people who confuse correlation with causation end up dead.
Clearly, some of that illustrated Bible remains lodged in there …