How To Generate Values in Young Children


Sue Spayth Riley


Table of Contents



1.  Bubble Gum In The Garden Of Eden       

2.  The Crumbs From The Wood After The Saw Sawed It  

3.  The Blankelee Got Burned Up      

4.  I’d Rather Do It Myself    

5.  Fences Without Fights     

6.  It All Takes Time 

7.     Today Is Tomorrow




This is a book about the pursuit of happiness in a free society.­ It assumes that the essential means in the pursuit are the ability to make intelligent choices among alternatives, to make decisions that are logical and compatible, and to be confidently creative.

In this book Sue Spayth Riley acknowledges the factors and complexities of modern life which inhibit the development of children while stating that we need not surrender to them

Children who enter adulthood without experience in the process of choosing, deciding, and being creative are handicapped. Their chances for success in life are diminished. In a sense, they are a burden to themselves. Very often, they also become a burden to society.  Instead of developing values in which they believe, they respond to force, fear, and greed, and find at best a life of dullness and­ frustration.

Moral and ethical values are imperative to happiness. They arise from choices between modes of conduct and a decision to follow one or another. Confidence in one’s ability to derive satis­faction from a particular set of values stems from the experiences one gains from self-generated activities in work, education, or rec­reation during which such choices occur. The essences and pro­cesses of choosing, deciding, and being creative not only form the roots of each individual’s set of values, but also taken together generate the value structure of our entire society.

Although there are parents and teachers who understand the need to give children confidence and skill in choosing, decision making, and creative works, many need to know how to accom­plish that purpose. It is hoped that How To Generate Values in Young Children offers insight and a simple methodology for be­ginning the most valuable process which young children can undertake to generate their life’s values.

Mrs. Riley’s observations of young children over more than thirty years have proven to her that when you give boys and girls the freedom to evaluate, decide, create, and re-create their world, they usually construct a happy place, a place with meaning that expresses truths and dreams that are very real to them.

When children interpret those meanings and truths, and select priorities, and finally make efforts to change—freely and frequently—what does not satisfy them, they generate within themselves an inspiring force that they feel in the form of confi­dence and a positive attitude about their lives which any parent or teacher can see as the children work and play.

The following is an excerpt from a history of the Ferrer Mod­ern School that Mrs. Riley is preparing. It illustrates, in part, the roots of her conviction and inspiration in the guidance of the ethical and moral education of young children.


The school building was one low-slung story, sit­uated at the bend of a dirt road on the crown of a softly rolling hill. At least, in the flat lands of New Jersey it could be called a hill. The building, small for a school, was covered with stucco of a nondescript brown. A wide porch extended half way across the face of it, giving a view of the road and beyond that, the Ferrer Colony, a community of several hundred persons. The dirt road, dubbed School Street, but with no markings as such, meandered down the hill, across the brook, and led in a mile or so to the highway and the outside civilization of Piscataway Township; to the west, New Market and on to the Watchung Hills; to the east, Stelton, New Brunswick, and the Atlantic coastline.

From the schoolhouse porch could be seen scattered dwellings, some larger than the school, some smaller, all of different shapes and designs reflecting the indi­viduality of those who built them. Most were weather-beaten and in disrepair; some were so small they were little more than shacks. Tarpaper covering was the most unifying building material of this unorthodox assort­ment. Near the brook the growth of trees and under­brush was thick; otherwise, the land was open to the sun; flat and muddy during the spring thaw, caked in summer’s heat.

To the rear of the main schoolhouse were several smaller buildings, one housing the print and wood­working shops, a second, The Kropotkin Library, where in days gone by white-bearded Hippolyte Havel and his anarchist cronies gathered each evening to reaffirm their philosophies and re-argue world politics. As a schoolchild in those early days, I have no recollection of ever seeing Hippolyte during the daytime when the school swarmed with boys and girls, but when by chance I hap­pened to be out at night I could see this group through the windows of the library. Their faces aglow in the lamplight were animated with thought as they gestured excitedly, rehashing the old isms, living Laurence Veysey’s observation that “aggressive contention was a shared value…in contrast to a culture where it is con­sidered important to hold one’s feelings in.” As a child I don’t think I was impressed by Hippolyte’s opinions (for I’m sure I did not understand them) but I was much taken with the large belly that ballooned beneath his white, Russian smock.

A third structure, used to house some members of the school faculty, stood beside the Kropotkin Library. Beyond it were woods where one could always collect hickory nuts in the fall. And farther still, on land that had been fertile truck farms was the sprawl of Camp Kilmer, the World War II Embarkation Center, de­serted, but soon to become the distribution center for refugees of the Hungarian Revolution.

On a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1952, there were no children around the school. The Kropotkin Li­brary was empty; Hippolyte Havel was long since dead. The roof over the porch of the school building resem­bled a half-lowered eyelid in a dozing face, the face of an old man dreaming of his youth, nodding in the warm autumn sunshine. Built in 1920 by the unskilled hands of the early colonists, the building was about to end its life on earth, for within a year it was to be closed as a school, and in 1955 leveled to the ground by the ravages of fire.

But that time had not yet come. A small group in serious discussion was gathered around a table in one of the classrooms. The tone of the conversation was quiet, and though not exactly weary it was subdued and thoughtful. Those present were with a few exceptions in their fifties and sixties. In keeping with the building, their attitudes had taken on the retrospective mellow­ness of later years. I remained to the side. I was, as a young adult, a new addition to the group, one of the final boards of the Ferrer Modern School. The talk I heard that quiet Saturday afternoon was in distinct con­trast to the loud, explosive, and lengthy discussions I remembered overhearing as a child.

The two other young people present were a couple recently hired to take over the school in a last-ditch effort to revive what had been since 1911 one of the most viable and creative experiments in progressive ed­ucation in this country during the time when the pro­gressive movement was at its height. Though the Mod­ern School developed and grew from the same ferment as other progressive schools, such as the Walden School, the City and Country School, and the Horace Mann School, it was different in one very important respect. It was the focal point of a rural community, a counter­culture, if you will, that gave sustenance and support to the school, and received from it, vitality and commit­ment.

The young couple were no further into life than their early twenties; their ideas were fraught with feel­ing, almost bristling, in contrast to the time-softened attitudes of the older group. The young woman was es­pecially uncompromising in the surety of her views. She held her first child, a baby of several months, in her arms. As she suckled the infant she defended her opin­ions. A fine-looking woman, she would have been beau­tiful if humorless fanaticism had not so wholly con­sumed her demeanor.

“When they are ready—when they see the need for using the puzzles—they’ll sort them out and pick up the pieces!” The husband nodded agreement; the others shook their heads, and one, an elderly teacher in the school, a woman of warmth and experience, said,

“You’re asking too much—they’re young; there is too much confusion. They need guidance…” her voice trailed off.

With an abrupt motion that shifted the infant to the second breast, the young woman responded with intensity,

“If this is a free school, as you told us when you asked us to come here, then it is up to the children to pick up those pieces, to learn by their mistakes, to ac­cept responsibility—to accept the consequences.”

A man whose leathered face was a shade of tan that almost matched the faded brown of his work shirt, leaned across the table opposite the young woman and replied,

“But you see, this is not what we mean by free or by responsibility. This situation has become a battle of wills between you and the children.” He leaned back in his chair and added, as though in summary, “Chaos is not freedom."

In a room down the hall—the playroom for the youngest children—the entire floor was littered with hundreds of wooden puzzle pieces, a discouraging heap of small, variegated shapes. The shelves where the puz­zles had been stored were completely empty. The puzzles were an extensive collection of years, and usually only a few were taken down at a time. So unbounded was the freedom the young couple had given the children that their behavior had gotten out of hand to the extent that a group of them had thrown all the puzzles to the floor in a torrent of uncontrolled childish rioting. Jumbled even more by other toys and equipment, the pieces had remained there, unsorted and stepped on.

The young couple, so imbued with their hands-off philosophy of “free” education, refused to stop the ram­page, or when it had wound down, to help the children regain order in their surroundings. Initially, these teach­ers had either been unable or unwilling to provide an ap­propriate framework for a program in which the chil­dren might have the opportunity to develop their own inner controls as well as their creativity.

Though the problem with the puzzles may seem a trivial matter, the frequency of such conflict in the thoughts and philosophy of libertarian or progressive education is significant. As I research the beginnings of the Modern School at Stelton and as I study the current educational scene—the mushrooming of “free” schools and the development of “open” education in and out of the public school system—it is clear that there is danger in a simplistic interpretation of the meaning of freedom. The recognition of the complexity of the idea of free­dom with its accompanying responsibility is of profound importance and must join with an ability to relate the two to a definition of the teacher’s role and to the nature of a curriculum.

Within a month the young couple had moved on, leaving the small house to the rear vacant for another teacher, Myron Jacobson, who came to try out his ideas in the aging stucco schoolhouse. Jacobson had none of the fanaticism of the previous pair. His intelligence, warmth, and humor kept him there for many months working with the several elderly teachers remaining from past times, but by then it was too late. Attendance had dwindled, and most of the children were of pre­-school age. The community which had supported the school was fast decaying. Moving into the homes were a conglomerate of poor from the urban center of New Brunswick and middle-class families from other areas who sought housing during a time when housing was scarce. The colony was becoming just another neighbor­hood of the metropolitan sprawl. Few who moved in cared or even knew about the school.

In 1953, the doors were regretfully, but with finality, closed. The building was put on the market, the windows boarded against vandalism, and all records were turned over to the archives at Rutgers University. “Not with a bang but a whimper” did a living memorial to the martyred Francisco Ferrer, the Spanish educator who was killed in 1909, pass into history.


I doubt that Sue Spayth Riley’s remarkable educational ex­periences could be duplicated in the 1970s. Her childhood was dominated by the Ferrer Modern School in Stelton, New Jersey. Her undergraduate years were spent studying drama in North Carolina at Black Mountain College, that infamous and famous experiment in community. She later received a degree in early childhood education at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, through Goddard’s innovative alternate adult program.

Sue Spayth’s own early childhood was marked by frequent moves and many periods of poverty, but the move to the Ferrer Colony with her parents and younger brother in 1929 began a period of stability during the Great Depression when most of the rest of the country was in great disruption. The stability did not stem from prosperity or material goods, for the several hundred people who made up the colony were largely unemployed—the first to be affected by hard times—and were casting about for ways to survive. Although the colony was rural and very poor, it was inhabited primarily by philosophical anarchists who were peaceful, intelligent characters of very diverse backgrounds, and the entire community centered around the Ferrer Modern School. Her parents, who had both worked for newspapers, started their own paper in nearby Dunellen, New Jersey, and the Spayths even­tually moved from the colony, but remained in the area for many years.

After finishing high school in Dunellen, Sue Spayth entered Black Mountain College, where she met and married Jeremiah Wolpert, a philosophy student, in 1942. During the war, she was a reporter for the Hays, Kansas, Daily News. In the first years after the war, she was employed at Time, Inc. in New York. When her husband died suddenly of polio, she returned to Dunellen with her two small boys and went to work as the news editor of her father’s paper. She also participated in a cooperative nur­sery school, and this was her first formal training in early child­hood education.

In 1958, she married Jesse Riley, a scientist with Celanese Corporation. A son was born, and soon after, the Rileys moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Sue Spayth Riley realized her dream of a school for all children. Of the time she spent at the Ferrer Modern School, Mrs. Riley says, “I learned there a deep sense of respect for the differences in people and for the develop­ment of humanitarian values.” These were the qualities she brought to the Open Door School.

The Open Door School, begun in 1966 under the sponsorship of the Unitarian Church of Charlotte, was the first weekday pre­school in Charlotte to actively recruit children from all represen­tative economic levels, religions, and races. It served as a workshop in nonsectarian education and a viable example of integration in a divided city. Mrs. Riley and the teachers at the Open Door School worked with parents and community organizations to urge other preschools to provide scholarships and to admit the children of minorities. When court-ordered integration came into effect in Charlotte in 1970, many of the privately held and church-sponsored preschools had followed the lead of the Open Door School in preparing children for a balance between their lives and their educations.

Today, Sue Spayth Riley, with a graduate degree from The University of North Carolina, continues as an advisor to the Open Door School and the Council that directs it. At the request of various institutions, she conducts workshops in early childhood education for teachers. And much of her time is spent writing about how to help young children develop their ability to learn wisdom, patience, integrity, and self-confidence.


Nancy McAllister

Chapter 1

Bubble Gum In The Garden Of Eden

Learning from choosing: to achieve a reliable sense of right and wrong, children must make choices; it is the task of parents to make this possible.


 Randy had just turned five. His parents had promised that after his birthday he would be old enough to have an allow­ance. He was delighted. Each Saturday he was to have fifty cents to spend as he wished.

Early the very first Saturday morning, Randy and his father took off for the local variety store. Randy, the two quarters jump­ing merrily together in his pocket, walked tall with the determi­nation of new responsibility.

In the store Randy thoughtfully surveyed the toy counter, examining, discussing, asking occasionally for some help with prices. The selection was limited because so many handsome little cars and other items were priced well beyond his budget. There were a few plastic cars for forty-eight cents, but Randy properly characterized them as “crummy.” The bright balls of bubble gum, each separately wrapped, were two cents each. With fifty cents, he calculated, he could buy a feast—twenty-five pieces. A whole bag full! Never before had he had more than one piece at a time. Then there were some toy pistols for thirty-nine cents and some books for forty-nine.

It was difficult to decide, but Randy savored the indecision and his authority. His father, who was thinking about the lawn that needed mowing and the dirty car that needed washing, be­came impatient.

“What about this little fire engine, or this book?” his father said.

“No, the fire engine has crooked wheels, and I don’t want a book.”

“Well, how about this paint set?”

“Naw, that’s baby stuff.”

“Hurry up, Randy.” His father’s voice had an edge to it. “Why not decide on the book or the fire engine?”

After a short pause, a thoughtful one. Randy said, “Okay, I think I’ve decided.”

“Good,” said his father with obvious relief.

“I’m going to buy twenty-five pieces of bubble gum, all col­ors except purple.” His father frowned.

“Not bubble gum. It’s bad for your teeth, and besides it will be all gone in a day.”

“But I want the bubble gum. I’ll get more of it than anything else. I’ve decided.”

“No! No bubble gum.”

“Okay,” said Randy, accepting his father’s denial, “then I’ll look around some more.” He wandered off. Finally he spotted a nifty little water pistol for fifty cents.

“Hey, I’ll get this, Daddy.” Daddy examined it carefully.

“Randy, this won’t hold up for an hour. It’s cheap. Why don’t you save your money until next week then you’ll have a dol­lar and can buy a better water pistol.”

“But Daddy, I want to spend my allowance now, and I really do want the bubble gum. And besides you said I could decide...” his voice trailed off. “Please, Daddy!”

“Now Randy, bubble gum isn’t a good thing to buy with your allowance. It’s just junk...”

And so ran the dialogue between Randy and his father.  Finally, Randy decided on the fire engine with rickety wheels that he really did not want very much, and his father allowed him to spend the remaining two cents on a piece of red bubble gum. They left the store. Relieved to have the ordeal over, Daddy re­solved to turn the shopping trip over to Mother next week.


Though he was unaware of the implications of his father’s in­terference with his choices, Randy was being cheated. Daddy had inadvertently deprived his son of a valuable learning experience. Daddy had also broken a promise: he had given Randy an area of choice, but then had thoughtlessly proceeded to hem him in with restrictions. Daddy’s opinions based on his experience may have been correct—bubble gum is bad for your teeth and a cheap water pistol will soon break. But these are things for Randy to learn for himself, not from Daddy.

Adults, having learned so much from long experience, often find it difficult to give children defined areas of choice and then stand back and allow them to use their freedom. “Oops, he’s mak­ing a mistake” comes so easily that it is hard for Daddy not to insist that he knows best, for of course he usually does. Yet the parents’ knowledge cannot be spoon-fed to the children. One of the major responsibilities of adults is to give children freedom to learn from their own experiences and to shoulder the consequences of their choices. Too often we are inclined to isolate the virtue of responsibility and assume it can be taught in a vacuum. We say to ourselves, “The chores must be done each morning so my child will learn to be responsible.” We need to realize that freedom and responsibility are inseparable, and that one cannot be learned without the other.

The bubble gum episode may seem inconsequential, but when it is added to many more such episodes in the life of a small child, it could retard the child’s ability to explore alternatives, examine consequences, study all sides of a question, and make a decision.  The child, let us say a boy like Randy, may grow into the kind of adult who will easily turn important moral decisions over to whatever authority is available and blindly follow the established patterns of others, regardless of their merit.  Whether he develops into a submissive and conformist individual is certainly not going to depend upon whether or not his father allowed him the purchase of twenty-five pieces of bubble gum when he was five years old.  It does appear, however, that the accumulation of such experiences will influence the development of his character.

I have observed that in raising children some parents think of decision making only in very lofty terms.  For them, decisions are grandiose choices between earth-shaking alternatives and may be turned over to children only when they have reached the age of reason.  It is quite true that earth-shaking moral decisions cannot and should not be presented to young children.  The opportunity, however, to make decisions involving less significant options may be given to the very young.  Practice in the process of choosing is a must, with the options being in keeping with the age and ability of each child.  When children are given practice in choosing, the chances are good that they will develop decision-making ability, insight, flexibility, and the imagination to cope with the loftier choices to come later.

At five, choices may involve bubble gum and water pistols.  Later alternatives will almost certainly concern an occupation, a spouse, a vote for a president, a war, a cause.  Human beings possess the capacity to symbolize, to reason, to imagine; we have a sense of time, an ability to project our thoughts into the future, and to calculate the results of our choices two weeks or two years ahead.  We are born with the capacity to be sensitive to others and to contemplate the possible effects of our decisions.  Decisions, large and small, are the responsibility of the human species; we are “condemned” to freedom and to the responsibility that goes with it.  Choices given other species are limited by instinctual drives.  The human being is the only one with this glorious, albeit sobering, condemnation.

The awesomeness of the unique human capacity to choose is expressed symbolically in Genesis.  Before Adam and Eve stole the forbidden fruit they were innocent, unseeking, unquestioning, and safe in Eden where God’s authority ruled.  All this changed when Eve picked the fruit, persuaded by the serpent who promised, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Suddenly, they were thrown on their own with the full knowledge of their potential as human beings.


Human childhood is relatively longer than that of most other species.  When you come to think of it, growing up takes about one quarter or more of our entire life span.  There is much to absorb and accomplish during these first several decades of life—a complex and interrelated mass of physical, emotional, intellectual, and social learnings that cannot be separated and isolated for teaching one at a time.  Our parental responsibility toward the young accordingly spans a good portion of our adulthood and is significantly more intricate and challenging than the assignment of parenthood given the wolf, the cat, or the chicken. Since we human beings are the only species with the ability to make choices, to plan ahead, to reason, to carve out values, it must follow that the human faculty we need most importantly to encourage in our young is the ability to choose. We must provide the child with a rich variety of opportunities for decision making—based, of course, upon the child’s age and willingness to accept and profit by the responsibilities that go with the decisions.

To neglect to nurture the gifts of choosing as we raise our children invites ruinous consequences. Yet too often, without meaning to, we are guilty of neglect. We surround children with rules, regulations, and prohibitions. We hand them values ready­made, we lecture, we moralize, we stuff them with facts. Then when they reach adulthood, we assume the success of our training, and as they step out into the world we say in effect, “Run along now. I’ve given you all I can.  Make your own decisions, fend for yourself, be self-reliant, and Godspeed.”

Areas for choice in childhood must nevertheless be carefully selected. In an excessive burst of enthusiasm for the idea of free­dom, parents may be tempted to overload children with too many options. Too much freedom can be crippling to the healthy growth of a child. Burdened with more freedom than they can handle at any particular age, children may develop in one of two undesir­able directions: either the disproportionate amount of freedom creates confusion and insecurity that prevents the growth of inner discipline and confidence, or it encourages a license that results in unbounded self-centered activity, willfulness and, to use the good old-fashioned term, a spoiled child. Such behavior is generally the result of complete permissiveness, though I hesitate to use the word as its meaning has become elusive, changing according to the context in which it is used. The fact remains, though, that it is a disservice to children to give them more responsibility and freedom than they can handle at any given age.

To determine how much freedom and which choices to give a child is often baffling. For this is our area of choice, and the task is not an easy one. But we should be able to provide a sensible bal­ance between too much and too little freedom if we maintain a certain objectivity. We must be wary of the danger of becoming bossy—an easy posture when our primary concern is the preser­vation of our ego rather than the child’s development. At the same time we must not risk the abdication of our control by an anything-goes attitude.

As far as I can determine there is no precise formula that we can use. However, our decisions about children’s decisions will be best if we can develop a kind of sensitivity to age, an openness to needs, and awareness of the dynamics of growth and of the way children respond to and use freedom.


Randy’s father was impatient. He was not sensitive to his son’s thoughtful attitude toward a new responsibility and his pride in assuming it. He did not understand Randy’s five-year-old appreciation of quantity and his really fine mathematical ability. Furthermore, having promised something and then taken it away, he was not honest with Randy.  If for some specific reason bubble gum was forbidden, he should have made that clear beforehand. “You may spend the fifty cents any way you like or save it if you wish, but you may not buy gum or candy.” Randy would have accepted this and most probably worked happily within the pre­scribed boundaries.

Though often inadvertent, adult dishonesty involving de­cision-making appears in many forms. There are those who seem to be giving children several options, but distort the freedom by conspicuously hoping they will choose the option the parents be­lieve to be best. If the children choose the other way, the parents will attempt to change their minds by wheedling, persuading, arguing. This is a kind of manipulation that results in nothing but resentment and guilt in the children. Their decisions are either theirs or not. When a youngster asks to go to the movies during the week and you are opposed to it, it is much better to say simply, “Sorry, Son, I know you want to go, but tonight you may not,” rather than opening the door to argument by, “Why do you want to go tonight? You’ll be awfully sleepy in school tomorrow. Be­sides…” Another type of dishonesty is obvious when the parent gives the child a choice but loads it with warnings and advice. If the child, let us say Randy again, does not heed the advice, but buys the toy that breaks and Daddy is on the scene to say, “I told you so,” Randy has not had the freedom to learn from a mistake, because now his mistake is all mixed up with feelings of irritation and resentment. If he accepts Daddy’s advice and passes up the toy that may break, though it is the one he really wanted, he is going to feel he had been pressured and is less his own person.


There are many areas in which teachers and parents may give the freedom to decide, without qualm that the choices will be upsetting—areas in which one or the other decision should not make a whit of difference to the adult, but which may be very meaningful to children. The choosing of clothing is a fine example of an opportunity often neglected, perhaps because parents some­times think less of their children as unique individuals and more of them as extensions of the parents’ images. What children wear is very much a part of how they feel at a particular time and how they feel about themselves. Clothing is an expression of the de­velopment of their selfhood and identity. (We have the same feel­ings about our clothes, don’t we?) Within reasonable limits the choice of clothing is an area of determination that parents should turn over to their offspring.

One chilly spring morning Emily, a young-four-year old in my nursery school class, came in looking very pleased with herself. “Hey, Mrs. Riley, look!” She pulled up her shirt and pushed down her pants to show me that beneath these winter-type clothes she had on her bathing suit. “See, I wore my bathing suit under my clothes, ‘cause Mamma said it was too cold to wear my bathing suit, and it is almost summer, but not summer yet.” Emily was delighted with her creative solution to the impasse with her moth­er that morning. Her mother was one who allowed her daughter considerable leeway in clothing choices, and it showed in the charming heterogeneous combinations Emily wore. That morn­ing Mother had obviously put her foot down about the bathing suit. To wear the double set of clothes was Emily’s solution. For­tunately, her wise mother was less concerned about being boss than making sure her daughter was warm on a raw spring day. Otherwise, their disagreement could easily have become a battle of wills. As it was, Emily had a happy morning and grew a little more toward fulfillment of herself as an independent and imagi­native person. Compare another child’s ruined morning.

Peter was also four. He was a shy child who was having diffi­culty leaving his mother. After several weeks, though, he was feeling more secure in class and was beginning to participate. One morning his mother, obviously distraught, poked her head in the door and asked for my help with Peter. She had been persuading and coaxing him in the hall, but Peter would not come in. I found Peter stiff against the wall, uncommunicative and angry. I noticed he was wearing a handsome, hand-knit sweater. After talking with him for several minutes, I suggested to his mother that she leave. She did, and Peter made no move to detain her. Finally he came in, but spent most of the morning glum, resentful, and quiet. I could not determine what the trouble had been though obviously he and his mother had had some sort of set-to. It was a wasted morning for the child. He was unable to let go, to do anything. He seemed to have lost the slowly won gains of the past weeks of adjustment. Later I discovered that he and his mother had had a battle about wearing the sweater. He had wanted to wear some­thing else, and for a reason I cannot remember, she had insisted on the new sweater.

A sweater, some bubble gum—small things in themselves—are to a young child tremendously vital and represent areas in which he or she should be allowed to exercise judgment, express feelings and a sense of self. By respecting children’s choices in such matters we are respecting their dignity and their ability to choose. When we jump in with “teaching” in mind or “mother knows best” or just simply to prove that we are in charge, our at­titude as well as our actions are a sharp slap to emerging selfhood. If we can remember that it is the process of choosing that counts and not get hung up on the particular choices children make, then I think we are on the right track. When we fuss with children over choices in such matters as clothes or dime store purchases the sig­nificance of the controversy goes beyond new sweaters or bubble gum. Rather, it attacks the very core of identity and self-respect.  When children choose for themselves they experience the au­thority of self-determination.

As children grow the quality of alternatives will change and their decisions will involve matters more weighty to the adult eye. If they are schooled in the process their chances of choosing wisely are better. A touching example is found in a story told me by a friend concerning her seventeen-year-old son. This mother is staunchly committed to allowing her children as many oppor­tunities as possible for making decisions, and she has practiced this philosophy since her children were very young.

Harry had become attracted to his best friend’s girl, but had kept hands off. He had discussed this with his mother and re­vealed how deeply he felt about the girl and how difficult it was to stay away from her, although he believed it would be wrong to do otherwise. The mother had sympathized and agreed that he was doing the right thing. The best friend became very ill and was sent to a hospital hundreds of miles away. Harry stuck to his decision until the best friend had been gone for some months. Then, coming to the conclusion that he had kept away long enough, he began to date the girl.

One evening Harry was on the kitchen telephone speaking in low, serious tones. Quite accidentally, the mother overheard him say, “I just feel terribly guilty, that’s all—it isn’t right and I don’t feel right about it at all.” The mother told me she fled to the front of the house not wishing to eavesdrop. She assumed he was talking to the girl, and her mind raced fearfully to conclusions concerning the reason for his guilt. She said nothing during the subsequent days, nor did her son. It soon became evident that the two young people had broken up. After the first sadness had passed, Harry seemed happier, less abstracted and more himself than he had been for a long time. Finally, he told his mother about it, explaining that he could not continue dating his best friend’s girl, even though the best friend was far away. The relationship had been further complicated by the fact that the girl had not officially broken with the other boy. “And it’s just that that made it worse, Mother,” he explained. “I was taking advantage of them both. It was a hard decision, but I feel right about it now.”


In his book, Personal Growth, Clark Moustakas says that the “challenge of authentic choice is a real challenge today because the values of the school and society are, in many respects, geared to successful achievement and a high place in the social hierarchy.” It is more difficult than ever for young adults to make choices based upon values of justice and respect for human dignity when these values are in conflict with the materialism and opportunism in our culture. The young must often make their choices alone. If they are to have the strength, the insight, and the self-confidence to choose fairness over expediency, it is imperative that we nurture their ability to choose courageously and wisely just as carefully as we nurture their bodies.

When a child, a girl for example, is pushed, prodded, directed, and confined from a very young age and is thought of primarily as a product of the teachings of parents and school and when she is turned off and repulsed in the pursuits that are meaningful and exhilarating to her, she becomes alienated from herself and dis­trustful of her intuitions and affirmations. She learns to fit herself into the molds of society. When she becomes an adult, she may feel a stirring in the deepest recesses of her soul and know that something is wrong with her personal world. But such stirrings will serve only to make her fearful, and she will confine her anx­ieties by continuing to settle for the security of society’s pre­vailing patterns.

Personal values, and the gift of making choices compatible with those values, develop slowly from within. Such values do not come from injections by persons in authority or by superficially copying society’s patterns. They must be searched for, tried out, discussed, and analyzed. Alternatives must be scrutinized and weighed. Every available resource of the human mind and heart must be activated. To achieve a reliable sense of right and wrong, children must exercise their human potential. They must make choices. It is the task of parents to make this possible.



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