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Please Tell Children: the Essence of Morality is Thinking of Others

A mother wrote a letter to her daughter. There was a line which I really liked that read, “The first thing Mom wants you to understand is dignity. Like Dad always says, if you are polite, then others will be polite to you. When you need someone’s help, you must say ‘please’, and you cannot use a demanding tone. I know some of your friends aren’t like this, but you must listen to your father and me. When others are not polite to you, don’t mind them. You mustn’t expect others to be courteous to you. Be courteous to others, no matter what anyone else is like to you.” She brought up a very important question: Why do we have to be polite? According to ideas in Confucianism, manners

A mother wrote a letter to her daughter. There was a line which I really liked that read, “The first thing Mom wants you to understand is dignity. Like Dad always says, if you are polite, then others will be polite to you. When you need someone’s help, you must say ‘please’, and you cannot use a demanding tone. I know some of your friends aren’t like this, but you must listen to your father and me. When others are not polite to you, don’t mind them. You mustn’t expect others to be courteous to you. Be courteous to others, no matter what anyone else is like to you.”

She brought up a very important question: Why do we have to be polite? According to ideas in Confucianism, manners are not a necessity, but a choice. Many children will directly ask, “Why should I be polite?”

My boss told me about a time when she was on the plane and overheard a mother lecturing her four or five year old son in the seat in front of her. Their dialogue was very interesting.

Mom: Just in the car, that uncle gave you his seat. Did you say thank you?

Son: No.

Mom: You see, he was sitting, but gave up his seat for you and stood instead. Shouldn’t you have said thank you?

Son: No.

Mom: If you’re going to be like that, no one is going to lend you their seat.

Son: That’s fine.

Mom: You will be tired if you don’t have seat.

Son: That’s fine too.

My boss said that it made her think about the ways of how to educate children. From the utilitarian point of view (no one is going to lend you their seat), or from a moral point of view? For a four-year-old child, which is the right way?

I am not an expert, but I believe that there is more than one answer. Both utilitarianism and morality can be used. If the child thinks that courtesy is unimportant, then I would do a day-long experiment at home. I would let him experience what a world without courtesy is like. During the day, the whole family would agree to not be polite to him, to not say “thank you” when they ask him for help and not say “sorry” when they accidentally bump into him. They would ignore him when he greets them and pretend not to hear him. Surely he’d be unsettled by the lack of manners. People are social animals, and those who say that they do not care about politeness are speaking purely nonsense. Desire to be respected is the most basic human need, and as long as your child is human, he will not like this feeling of disrespect. Manners is not only a part of Confucianism, but it is also a part of the universal expectation for behavior.

The essence of morality is having others in mind. If you respect others, then others treat you in the same manner, this is your own dignity. The words are confusing, and a four-year-old child would not understand. You can talk to him slowly, however, so that the concept will be pounded into his memory and he will slowly begin to understand.

Reading the Hong Kong columnist Qu Ying-yan’s “Tiger Parents”, I was most impressed by the story of a Hong Kong person going to Japan to discover that even in the middle of the night when the streets are empty, the people would obediently obey the traffic lights. Why is this? A Japanese person said, “That lamp is the law. We are not afraid of the law – we just respect it. If we ignore and rush past the traffic lights, the traffic light will be sad.”

Yes, it sounds very absurd, but Professor Zhou Lian said, “Pretending is the inception of courtesy. If one pretends for long enough, one will start to believe in courtesy and get used to it.”  The problem today is that many people are polite for a purpose, and always think about the immediate effect of their politeness. If there is no benefit for them, they wouldn’t even bother to pretend.

Very often, our dignity is not based on how much respect we receive, but on how much we respect other people. Frankly speaking, I’m not a perfect person. Sometimes I’m noisy and use bad language, but I have one thing to be proud of and that is that I sincerely treat lower-classed people with respect. I am more polite to janitors, security guards, and taxi drivers than to the elite class people, since I have a strange logic that I should be more polite to the people who aren’t respected often. If I must be a moralless guy, I would dedicate a large percentage of my existing respect to those who don’t get enough.

I often feel that the fastest way of determining a person’s character is to see how he treats service personnel. If someone acts condescending and arrogant, I would think: On what level would a person have to be in able to bully others to gain the feeling of self-importance? The thing I hate the most is those who flatter the powerful and bully the weak.

I have seen some children, only four or five years old, who have mastered the game of bullying. When they see a well-dressed person, they show their good side, but at home with their baby sitter, they are extremely rude and even directly say, “You’re only a servant – if my mother tells you to get out, you get out!”

Some people say that rudeness is like hacking a loogie skyward – sooner or later, it’ll come back down and splatter on your face.

 Translation:  Ireen Chau


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