Euthyphro for Parents

My kid said “Oh Shit,” today while playing with grandma.

I’m reminded of a line spoken by Ralphy in “A Christmas Story,” a line that will certainly be true for my daughter.  “Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”  But it is somewhat embarrassing when your child blurts it out at gramma.  I think it probably happened because she helped me fix the sink the other day, which reminds me of yet another quote from the same movie: “I have since heard of people under extreme duress speaking in strange tongues. I became conscious that a steady torrent of obscenities and swearing of all kinds was pouring out of me as I screamed.

Well, that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.  I sat down with my daughter and apologized for what I said and told her that Daddy shouldn’t have said those words, and neither should she.  Her mother suggested, “Daddy needs to go on time out.

I don’t go on time outs, but this got me thinking.  SHOULD I tell her that it is bad for me to say swear words?  Should I let her believe that time-outs apply to her parents?  I am reminded of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma:

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

In other words is a commandment good, in terms of cosmic justice, because a deity commands it to be done, or does the deity command it to be done because it is good?  If a deity commands something because it is good, then its goodness is independent of that deity; in essence it is a law that transcends the deity, or is supreme to the deity.  On the other hand, if it is only good for the mere fact that a deity commands it, then ANYTHING COULD BE GOOD, if only the deity would say so.  In other words there is nothing inherently WRONG with any actions; an action only becomes good or evil when a god arbitrarily assigns that value to it.

If I tell my daughter that I should not swear, and, in order to uphold the order of justice that we are attempting to impose upon her, I must then go on a time out, then those things that should be done and those that should not be done do not come from me at all.  If I let her see this, does that not make me her peer in some way?  Does that not bring me to her level, and thus I lose my authority over her in her eyes?  And what right would I then have to impose a punishment upon her?

OR, if I show my daughter that I may do as I please, and that punishment such as “time-out” will not apply to me, won’t it then become clear to her that I am inventing right and wrong before her very eyes, and then doling out punishment based on her adherence to my inventions and whim?  How is that just?  Will she then come to believe that there is no right and wrong, only that with which one can get away and that with which one can not get away?  Not to sound like a fundy Christian, or to rip off Dostoyevski, but won’t that teach her that “anything is permissable?”

Well, she’s only 2½ years-old.  Maybe I don’t need to worry about it just yet.  Maybe she is not capable of seeing me as her peer, in which case I should submit myself to punishment to teach her ethical stability.  If, on the other hand, I teach her that the rules apply only to her, I could perhaps temper that with the golden rule, but unfortunately there is quite a lot of evidence suggesting that children are not able to empathize with others until they are 5 or 6 years old.  Without empathy, one cannot make a good moral judgment about how to treat others (say she had hit someone instead of just said a naughty word) based on a humanist viewpoint of “it is bad to hurt other people” or a maxim like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It seems as though I am in a situation where the only effective option is that in which I follow the same rules, and suffer the same consequences, that she does.  But then at what point, and HOW, do I switch that over into a secular humanist ethic, where the only real “good” is in causing happiness, and where the only “evil” is in causing harm to people.  How do I show her that, if she has come to believe in a tangible force of right and wrong, something that is above even me?

This must be why somebody pre-packaged a value system a long time ago and put it on the market as religion.  It would be nice to not think so much…


5 Responses to “Euthyphro for Parents”

  1. My husband and I have talked about this at length, I wrote a blog post about it and I even spoke about it on the radio the other day. Well, the cussing issue, that is. But I think it has some general applicability. I have taught my kids (all 5), there is no such thing as a bad word. And I mean it. I mean, who is The Decider of what is and isn’t a bad word? It varies depending on who you ask. Some think only the “biggies” are bad – you know, the F-bomb, etc. On the other end of the scale, some would go so far as to include the words “hell”, “damn”, “sucks”. When we were kids we couldn’t even say “jeez” because my grandma was convinced that it was short for “jesus” and that was, of course, taking God’s name in vain and was full-on blasphemy.

    Now, I have gotten A LOT of criticism for what I am about to say, so I wouldn’t be surprised if your comment in-box becomes flooded after this, but here goes. With few exceptions (I’ll address that later) I do not teach my children that certain things are right or wrong, good or bad. Instead, what I teach them is that there are some very predictable consequences and outcomes that follow from our words, actions, inactions, etc.

    For example: Is it wrong to smoke? Is it bad? Although my husband and I don’t smoke, we have a few friends and family members that smoke so I don’t want to teach my kids that it is bad or wrong, lest they begin to look down thier noses at those folks who are, for the most part, very upstanding people. SO – we teach them consequences. “No, smoking isn’t “bad”, but let’s think about the pros and cons.” And then we proceed through things like the expense of smoking, lung disease, heart disease, clothes and hair not smelling fresh, yellowed teeth, etc. And I’ll say to my kiddos “If you decide that smoking is going to be a part of your lifestyle, some of these things are CERTAIN to follow, some are likely, and some are possible. You have to decide if you are willing to live with those consequences.”

    We go through this exercise with a lot of things. We have 2 teenage daughters in our home and my husband and I had a similar conversation with them a few weeks ago about relationships and sex. They were asking some typical questions – “is it bad to have sex before marriage?”, “how many sexual partners are too many?” and on and on. So we applied the same logic. Now, being an atheist I do not believe in sin so that is never part of our discussions. So we went through several scenarios and played out the likely consequences. For example: “If you have many, many sexual partners in your lifetime you will likely have a “bad” reputation (rightly or wrongly), you will increase your odds of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, etc. Now, if you wait until you are married to have sex, you may not face those issues, but you may find that you aren’t as sexually compatible with your spouse as you would like, you may wish you had had more experience and intimate relationships the older you get. And then there are many variations on that. Think about the probable consequences of all types of sexual behaviors/lifestyles and decide what you are ok dealing with. Maybe repuation isn’t that important for you. But just know you will have a reputation – good or bad or somewhere in between no matter what.”

    Anyway, the conversation was much longer and more complex than that, but you get the idea. It is all about taking the good/bad label off of actions and preparing kids to analyze what the possible or probable outcomes will be from certain behaviors and let them decide if they want to accept those consequences. I find this useful because those labels of good/bad and right/wrong will change from crowd to crowd, community to community, religion to religion, culture to culture, country to country and so on. And certainly our kids will be crossing most, if not all, of those boundaries.


    This does not mean that we let anarchy rule the day. I have also told them that there are certain behaviors that I find are either (1) patently wrong or (2) personally offensive to their Dad and/or me. Those behaviors will get them swift and severe consequnces at home, while they are “living under my roof” (hahaha – sound familiar?). For example, I find lying, stealing and cheating to be wrong. You lie to me – consequence. You cheat at school – consequence. Again, you get the idea.

    But even here, there are subtle nuances that – you guessed it – we discuss. For example – is it ACTUALLY lying to tell the stranger on the phone that Mom and Dad are home when they are, in fact, not? Is it bad to tell your cousin she looks beautiful in her prom dress, when she looks, in your opinion, dreadful? Is it wrong to hide 2 of your 5 dogs when the police are in the neighborhood because you know 5 dogs is beyond the limit set by city ordinance (yes, this actually is an issue at our house)? A little bit of common sense and good judgment can go a long way in these types of situations. Again, what are the likely outcomes that will follow from a certain course of action? Do those outcomes match your desired outcomes?

    SO – the cussing thing. We let our kids cuss in the home. We have told them that when it comes to cussing – consider your audience and the consequences of cussing in front of that audience. You cuss in front of grandma (your story really cracked me up because we ALWAYS use the grandma example) she will get offended (offending Grandma is on the list of unacceptable behaviors). You cuss at school you will get in trouble (getting in legitimate trouble at school is also on the list). But you’re hanging out at home with just the family and you’re singing your favorite song and it has a cuss word in it – sing it. Who really cares? Admittedly, it is harder with toddlers because they can’t do this type of analysis. My husband and I don’t cuss in front of the kids (but we cuss like sailors when we’re alone together!) so that was an issue we didn’t face too much until they were old enought to hear music and see TV show and movies with profanity.

    This approach has taken the magic out of cussing and, believe it or not, they rarely cuss. And when they do, there is no special response so there is no reward in it for them. It has proven to be a non-issue. I pick my battles carefully with them because certain things like drugs – I want them to sit up and listen when we talk about that. I want them to take me seriously and not just think “Blah, blah, blah. Here goes Mom again”.

    Anyway, that’s my $.02. For what it’s worth…

    I love your blog. It is my new favorite.



  2. Fantastic response Jennifer. If you’d like to post a link to your blog I’d love to check it out. This is clearly something you’ve put a lot of thought into, and I love your ideas, particularly about “taking the magic out of cussing.”

    I’ve always felt that certain religious values, like a heavy emphasis on the sinfulness of sexual desire, actually creates a bigger problem instead of helping. It makes a natural act taboo, more tantalizing, more interesting, more irresistable. Worse yet, it may act in such a way as to make people who engage in the act (whether it be cussing, casual sex, masturbation, drinking, drug use, etc) feel as though they are doing womething terribly wrong, something that they must hide. I think that all kinds of problems come up if you engage in a tantalizing act in secret, and you feel that you cannot share your feelings or interests with anyone else. It may become an escape, a fantasy, perhaps even an obsession. For longer than I can remember I have felt that it is the religious sexual taboo that contributes most strongly to “sexual deviance.”

    Likewise, there is some evidence that societies who view drug and alcohol use as a way of escaping social responsibilities and pressures, the substance is FAR more likely to be abused, or to hold an addicitve influence over the user, PARTICULARLY where they must do it in private.

    Thanks for sharing, and please do provide a link to your blog if you don’t mind.

  3. I could not agree more with your comments. My step-mom is a therapist and she asked me once – “Guess what the number one problem is with the families I counsel?”

    “Sexual abuse?”


    “Alcohol abuse?”




    This went on for a while and I told her “I give.”

    She said, “Secrets. Family secrets.”

    She went on to tell me about how it wasn’t usually the problem itself that caused so much dysfunction in the family. People that faced the problems head on usually kept their families intact with minimal, if any, long-term damage. But the secretive element that often accompanies those problems is what is so destructive. The hiding, the lies, the miscommunication, the guilt, the fear, the shame, the resentment, etc.

    Along the lines of what you were saying in your last comment, Christopher Hitchens once wrote that one of the four of his objections to religion is that “it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression”. Amen to that.

    My husband and I have made it a point to, as you put it, “talk about our feelings and interests” when it comes to things of a sexual nature. We decided early on that hiding that stuff and not talking about it could only be destructive. So we talk about it all! And nothing is off limits (to talk about, that is). We cover everthing from pornography to masturbation to fantasy – you name it. But it all seems fine because, well, it’s not secretive.

    We take the same approach with the children. Now, of course, we have to be age appropriate, but we started “The Talk” early and have it often. Or at least regularly. Again, we have taken much of the mystery and magic and taboo out of it. A few months ago we discovered that one of our children had been looking at soft porn on the internet. [For convenience I’ll refer to the child as “her” but I’d say the same thing to our boys and our girls] We made it absolutely no big deal. We brought her in the room, told her first and foremost that she was in no way in any trouble whatsoever but we wanted to ask her some questions. We asked her about the sites she was visiting and she got pretty bashful about it. So I told her “Don’t be embarrassed. It is perfectly normal to be curious about these things and it is perfectly normal to be attracted to the naked human body.” I’ll spare you the details, but we went on to talk about how EVERYBODY has normal sexual curiosities, desires, thoughts etc. And then we also, of course, talked about how those things have to be age appropriate, place appropriate, etc. For instance, you can’t just willy-nilly start looking at whatever you want to watch on the family computer because there are other people who access that computer for whom that material may be offensive or not age appropriate etc. But we stressed that the curiosity, etc was 100% normal, universal to all humans (whether they admit it or not) and that there was nothing shameful about it.

    The whole conversation was about 4 or 5 minutes. We all hugged and it was okay. Once again, we took the “bad” label off of it and just talked about limitations like age, place, etc. My kids talk as candidly with me about sex as they do about what we might be having for dinner. All 5 of them.

    It’s kind of ironic because ever since I left the church and just started being real, my life has taken on an honesty that has proven to be so rewarding, so refreshing and so completely healthy. We just don’t make a big deal out of stuff. We don’t talk about whether it is okay to reach for that diet coke or take a swim on Sunday or watch the latest Terminator movie. We pour our energy into being real people. Sincerely good people. We talk about important things like the value of honesty, fidelity, compassion for our neighbors, etc. We just don’t get hung up on all the petty stuff. It has literally turned my life around. As cheesy as it may sound, I have found a peace that I never had when I was a member and I had all the answers. Ha!

    And it is so fun to reevaluate all of these topics through the lens of education, tolerance, good judgment, common sense and figure out what really works for me inmy life. Damn, I wish I had gotten to this point earlier. Oh well, better late than never.

    Hey, regarding my blod, could you send me your e-mail address. There’s a few things I need to explain about it before you visit it. And trust me, there’s nothing mind-blowing on it.

    Keep the post coming – I love them.

    Warmest Regards,


  4. Oh, i don’t mind giving you mine. It is on my profile page anyway.

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