George Washington wrote,
“Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.” —Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour
It takes thought and work to have a conscience. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer people who have done the work to have developed that conscience.
“[W]e certainly know that there are many teens and adults far past the age of twelve that don’t appear to have a conscience at all. This is very true, and the reason has more to do with the way in which a conscience is developed rather than merely cognitive development.”
A good example: The Travyon Martin incident brought out the “consciences” of the average man and the infamous. Al Sharpton played it to the hilt. No matter what the truth was, he was going to be part of the story. Did he worry about what was right or wrong; truth or lie? No. He just wanted to use the tragedy for his own purposes: self-aggrandizement. “Look at me!” his message seemed to be, “I’m important because I care and I can make people react!” That’s not a conscience; that’s a promoter (and, yes, there is a difference).
So if allegedly “caring” about something is not having a conscience, what is it and how does one get a conscience?
A conscience, as defined byWebster’s Dictionary:
“The faculty, power, or inward principle which decides as to the character of one’s own actions, purposes, and affections, warning against and condemning that which is wrong, and approving and prompting to that which is right; the moral faculty passing judgment on one’s self; the moral sense.”[Websters]
A conscience doesn’t come naturally. It takes training by an experienced person who also has done the work to develop their conscience:
“The first [step] is to create the context for moral growth. This is done through being a strong moral example on a daily basis.” …
“The second step to instilling conscience is to teach virtues that strengthen and guide behavior.” …
“The third step is to use moral discipline to help your child learn right from wrong.” …
“Conscience, along with empathy and self-control are the three core elements to building strong character in kids.”
Parents who do not do the work early on, or who leave others to do it for them (society, relatives, neighbors, whoever) have a price to pay because,
“Taken together, it is now becoming clear that conscience development in early childhood shares much in common with later moral development: the foundations for a relational, humanistic, and other-oriented morality are emerging in the preschool years.”
If parents do not do the work early and make it an everyday, ongoing lesson that is repeated consistently and with the same standards, the child pays the price. A good example is the story of the Brunswick baby murderer whose mother and aunt helped cover up for him. Did this young man have no one who took the time to teach him right from wrong, empathy nor self-control when he was a child? Looking at what the mother and aunt were doing for him when he was a seventeen-year-old child murderer, one can see that early in his life a conscience was probably not something even remotely considered! There are other instances when one wonders if the parents took the time to bother with the ideas of “right” and “wrong” while their children were growing up (minus the cases where the child had a distinct mental disorder). Also, if parents have no conscience they cannot teach conscience.
Granted, there are instances when consciences can be ignore. Ignoring your conscience is one thing, but without a teacher at all, there is no chance to have one. Conscience being an early childhood development, it is a rare thing that people develop one on their own. “It’s very hard to develop a conscience later in life.” So if we have not the people in our lives — or cannot be the people in the lives of others — who help us form consciences early in life, then we are in a sad state, indeed.
A closing story before I go. When I was a child I was taught to obey my teachers. I thought that teachers could never be wrong. Then I went to First Grade. My First Grade teacher shall remain nameless, but she had two sons: an older son who had been held back many times, and a son who was the appropriate age for her class. She loved and doted on the second son; to the first she was relentless in her strict enforcement of her nonsensical rules for him and him alone.
I could already read when I got to her class which resulted in my being assigned to being her elder son’s in-class tutor. While the other children were reading or working on other projects, I was told to go help “Son A” learn to read. After years of his mother’s remorseless rules, “Son A” was always a nervous wreck. I did feel sorry for “Son A” but I was told that there were rules for him to follow and I was to follow certain tutoring rules as well. I did follow the rules because I was taught to do so.
I obeyed the rules, that is, until one day on the playground the teacher told me make “Son A” push the rest of the kids on the merry-go-round; he couldn’t ride, he must push. I was to enforce that rule and I was about to report him to his mother for not wanting to obey the rules when my two elder sisters told me not to. They said that it was mean for me to do so. It never dawned on me at age six that it would be anything other than obedience. When they said that it would be mean, I realized that they were right. Not all rules were nice and, even at six, I had noticed the different way the teacher treated her two sons, as well as “Son A” and even the slowest of the other students. “Son A” was from that moment seen in a different light by me. I was kinder to him because the rules didn’t always need obeying if they were unreasonably cruel and singular to a person. I recognize that moment as the start of my conscious conscience.
Let us do society this favor. Let us be the person to whom the children in our lives can turn for that “Oh!” moment when their conscious consciences can be deemed to have a start. If we cannot do so, I fear for what our society will become; more so for what our grandchildren will become.