by Jordan Poyner

In the midst of great debates on the merits of public vs. private education, the proposed necessity of prison reform, and the essence of America’s relationship to the 2nd Amendment, it is worth reflecting on a nearly universal feature of our moral development: our parents. In each instance of disagreement, we necessarily ask how individuals in society are morally shaped and informed. Not having born the great responsibility of being a parent, any understanding I might have here will be narrow. My perspective is that of a son who has spent some time considering my parents role in forming the individual I have become.

In contemplating my upbringing, I recognize that my parents did certain things exceptionally well–and others that I hope to do differently with my children someday. During a stretch of my teenage years spanning from 7th to about 10th grade, my parents expressed acute anxieties about my social experience. To be specific, when I would be invited by friends from school (i.e. not from our church community) to hang out at their house or at parties, my parents would not grant me permission to do so unless they had assurances that another parent would be present (which would often necessitate their speaking to the parent in question).

Although as a teenager I don’t think I had the wisdom to understand this, as an adult I feel that this stipulation failed to consider that I might have befriended an individual from a less stable home where parents were often not present (physically, or otherwise). This partly logistical problem, however, suggests the deeper, more fundamental one. By not trusting in my capacity to recognize and struggle with the private dysfunction of others, I feel that my parents let an anxiety about my wellbeing overwhelm the possibility that I might learn something meaningful from that experience. And furthermore that I might be a force for good in these spaces.

My parents’ worries about what I might be exposed to often motivated them to try and shield me from certain experiences. Yet I strongly feel that weathering such experiences is a necessary element of true moral education. Children must be allowed to make some of their own decisions, experience their consequences, and to confront new social realities. How and when to moderate those choices and encounters is perhaps the single most difficult responsibility of parents. The important thing is not to let fear motivate decisions in this arena. Though it will be difficult to do so, parents must accept that their children will make choices they do not condone or agree with–decisions which place their children in uncomfortable and unstable spaces. This is an essential step in teaching children that they are capable of meaningful action and must be responsible for their choices.

Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology.