“All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass – what values we must live by.”
― Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
I’ve never bought the idea that people are just born good and then are corrupted by an evil society. That said, I’ve also never bought the idea that we are naturally depraved and have to have all of our horrible impulses tempered by constant vigilance either. I’ve spent a fair bit of time with kids and I’ve seen them display as wide a range of moral thoughts and behaviors as most adults I’ve known.
Instead of a black and white style “good” or “evil”, I think we’re all born with a drive to get our needs met. Good and evil actions come from how the situations we’re put in interfere with our ability to meet those needs and from the tools (i.e., coping skills) we have access to when the situation isn’t ideal.
So, in that sense, I like the way the question in this statement is framed (“what collectively we might do to right their moral compass”), but I think the answer is pretty straightforward: We have to shape the world, from our individual families on up to society as a whole, so that it meets everyone’s needs. That includes obvious physical needs (food and shelter), but also emotional needs (love, a sense of fulfillment, justice, security, etc.). The latter is just as important as the former.
In other words, we have to create situations that minimize conflict over needs.
That’s a tall order though. An impossibly tall order. That’s why we have to look beyond that. We have to teach our kids how to use their own physical, intellectual, and emotional tools to cope with times when the situation they’re in isn’t up to muster. I think in general that means modeling the way we use those tools ourselves. That’s the other reason I like this quote so much. He begins with a question that points at kids and the ways in which their character seems lacking. That’s where a lot of people stop, but he continues by pointing at us as adults and as a society asks us to consider the values we model.