Sally, Sean’s Wallet, and Moral Ethics

When we go grocery shopping, I generally let Sally choose something small for herself. On a recent trip, Sally made a choice that was more expensive than the price range I generally ask her to stick to. I could have had her put it back, but I could see she was entranced, so instead I put back the little marshmallows for hot chocolate and a few other things.

“Sally, since you wanted that little doll, I had to put some things back,” I told her in the car. “So we didn’t get the little marshmallows,” I went on. I had intended to tell her this in the store to ensure it was her choice, but things got really busy at the checkout and that was that.

“Oh,” Sally replied, and then frowned. “Mommy, next time you should just take some money from daddy’s wallet!” she burst out suddenly. “You should take it when he does not see you, like when he is sleeping!”

“But don’t you think daddy will be sad if I take some of his money?” I asked.

“Well, he can just do more work and get more money!” Sally replied.

Sally’s suggestion that I take money from Sean’s wallet while he is sleeping seemed to suggest that she knew it was wrong, and maybe she did, but her tone suggested otherwise. She was genuinely surprised at the idea that taking money out of Sean’s wallet might cause him harm. Because when you’re four, it can look for all the world like your parents’ supply of money is unlimited. You’re out of cash? Just get more from the bank! (Yes, Sally has made that suggestion in the past too.) But I’ll be honest: I was a bit troubled by Sally’s glib endorsement of stealing.

“Sally,” I said, “taking things from someone else without asking is called stealing, and it’s wrong.”

“Oh,” she replied, “I did not know that.”

Now here’s the thing. I know Sally knows that taking her brother’s toys is wrong. So what was going on here? It took me a little while, but I think I have hammered out what was going on. I suspect Sally said it would be just fine to take money from her daddy’s wallet because she didn’t think it would cause any harm. Because after all, he could just make more money! So what was the big deal? But if she were to take her brother’s toys, well, she knows how that makes him feel. She’s seen it.

The truth is that when we talk about morality I focus a lot on how her actions affect others’ feelings. You took your brother’s toys. Look how he feels now? Look how sad he is? You need to give your brother’s toys now. I do the same thing with regards to Sean and I, pointing out that if she makes a huge craft mess I have to clean up for her, or spills Sean’s coffee all over his papers, that affects us too. I teach her to be considerate of others and to take others’ needs and feelings into account. I myself generally operate on adages like “do unto others as she would have them to unto you” and “an it harm none, do as ye will.” I think Sally has picked up on this. In other words, when deciding whether an action is permissible, she thinks about how it will affect others and then makes her decision from there.

And from this perspective, stealing isn’t wrong if it doesn’t cause harm. And since Sean has plenty of money (so far as Sally can see, anyway!), he surely wouldn’t mind if she (or I) took a twenty from his wallet.

I’ve been thinking, lately, about my moral standards, and I need to do some more thinking. Sure, I can tell Sally that her daddy’s money isn’t unlimited and that he would indeed miss the money out of his wallet, but is that enough? Perhaps I should be teaching her, say, that stealing is an absolute wrong unless there are mitigating circumstances (i.e. your children are starving) as a supplement to my focus on how her actions affect those around her.

What say you?

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