Morality and Responsibility—A Conversation

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:


Ruth (a parent): My concern is pretty different from what I’ve heard so far—more personal, about being a parent. But I think much is related. Being a responsible parent today requires some new kinds of skills—and more than just skills.

CJ:  Give me an example.

Ruth:  Okay. My daughter is fourteen. About a year ago I happened to walk by her room. She and a couple of friends were talking—in hushed tones.  They were discussing sex.

I left before they knew I was there, went down to the kitchen ….. and freaked. I’d been a pretty wild kid. I got pregnant in my last year of high school and had an abortion. After that I became very much the straight arrow.  I got married and have been a good, church-going wife and mother ever since.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, my own teenage experience, I avoided dealing with the inevitability of Jane growing up and becoming interested in sex. My first impulse when I saw the time had come was to prepare the classic “save yourself until marriage” speech.  And I actually started to deliver it.

After her friends left, I confronted Jane and told her what I had heard. I started the speech … and stopped before the words came out of my mouth. I realized I was talking more to my own fears than to my daughter.

CJ: What did you do?

Ruth: I left and went out on the porch, gave myself a chance to cool off.  I found myself thinking about my own first sexual encounters. A lot had changed since my mother’s generation. But I saw that sex was likely going to present even more complex questions for Jane than it had for myself. Certainly there is AIDS. But it is not just that. While I had more options than my mother, Jane has more still. And an awful lot of what I saw as freedom was really less liberation than a reaction to the old rules. Today’s world just has more to consider.

Anyway, I waited out there until I felt I could listen as well as talk. Then I went back in.

CJ: Did you feel more comfortable?

Ruth: Not at first. For a while I just kept my mouth shut and listened—both to Jane and the ongoing battle in myself.

I could feel different parts inside of me fighting to be in charge. The part that believes in clear moral rules, the part that had started to give the lecture, was most obvious. It is well intentioned—and it speaks from good experience.  I was often pretty stupid about sex as a teenager. And the abortion was more painful emotionally than I could have begun to anticipate.

But another part inside of me was in its own way just as convincing. That part comes close to arguing that not having sex before marriage is immoral. My marriage wasn’t that good. If I’d waited, taken some time to grow up—which probably would have meant greater sexual experience—I likely would have chosen someone very different.

As I listened to Jane, and to these battling parts, I began to realize that really mattered didn’t have that much to do with sex. I want Jane to be healthy and happy. I want her to value herself and I want the relationships in her life to be as fulfilling as possible. Depending on the circumstances that could mean many different choices.

CJ: What was it like to recognize this?

Ruth: It scared me to admit that I didn’t have clear rules to pass on, that I couldn’t just tell her “do this, and don’t do that.” I felt like I was shirking my responsibility as a parent. But when I stood back, I realized this wasn’t so. I wasn’t saying the choices Jane might make don’t matter; right choices matter more than ever today. It’s just that simple answers—of any sort—don’t cut it any more. I wasn’t dismissing the need for moral responsibility. I was standing for a more difficult kind of moral responsibility—this almost in spite of myself.

CJ: How did it go with Jane?

Ruth: Pretty well.The fact that we were just able to sit together and talk—even though there was much we didn’t talk about—diminished my fears significantly. Jane told me some about what she had been thinking. And I ended up sharing some difficult experiences from my own adolescence—some things I’d not told anybody else.

I felt a lot of gratitude as we sat there. Most was for the strength—and responsibility—I felt in Jane.  I saw that she was already asking some pretty difficult questions—and all-in-all making good decisions. But I also felt gratitude toward myself—for my growth as a parent. I was understanding more deeply what responsibility is ultimately about.

In my better moments, I envy Jane for the questions she gets to ask.  She doesn’t have the security that the old rules promised. But I don’t think many of the old rules are capable of keeping their promises today.

CJ: I think the kind of moral conversation you and your daughter engaged in is something quite new, and new in ways that will be increasingly important. You spoke of your wish to be a more responsible parent. The weakening of traditional assumptions means that in a whole new sense we become responsible not just for doing the right thing, but for determining just what the right thing might be. That requires much greater responsibility of Jane. It also changes dramatically what it means to be a responsible parent.

Ruth: That makes sense.

CJ: .You took a role that was more humble, but also ultimately more sophisticated and powerful than we would have seen with parenting in times past. And your daughter assumed a much more active and empowered kind of responsibility. You were each manifesting culturally mature leadership.


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