Talk With Your Kids

Conversations About Ethics -- Honesty, Friendship, Sensitivity, Fairness, Dedication, Individuality -- and 103 Other Things That Really Matter


By Michael Parker

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A guide for parents to help their children better understand the world around them by helping them think through the questions they face regarding honesty, friendship, sensitivity, fairness, dedication, individuality and 103 other character-building issues

Many families and almost all schools spend a great deal of time developing children academically, but studies show tht scholastic achievement is not the only key to future success. Developing non-cognitive skills, which children often learn from their parents, is equally relevant.

Talk with Your Kids prompts thoughtful and effective discussion between parents and children by posing 109 open-ended questions. Many of the questions reflect situations immediately relevant to kids, such as cyber-bullying, cheating in school or in sports, accepting differences, illegal music downloads, what defines lying, and making choices about drugs and sex.

Other questions ask kids to consider larger dilemmas, such as medical ethics and medical testing, declaring war, crime and punishment, eating meat, and more. Parker also offers suggestions to parents on how to keep the conversations going and encourage kids to think more deeply about an issue. Throughout the book are questions based on the theories of famous ethicists and philosophers, including John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Best-selling parenting books such as How Children Succeed and Nurtureshock emphasize the importance of strong values in a child. The conversations in Talk with Your Kids help parents achieve this goal.



Jeremy Madin and Helen Nugent at Cranbrook for their backing of this program from the outset. Jane Curry Publishing and the people at Black Dog and Leventhal for picking up the idea and running with it. Phillip Cam, Sandy Lynch, and all those in the Philosophy in Schools Association over the years. Rod Farraway, Christophe Gauchat, Peter Hipwell, Anne Robertson, and all those who have helped in their discussions relating to these conversations. Thanks also to Jonah Darling for many of the photographs and to Jill Corcoran, my agent. My parents and my teachers for giving me whatever ethical sense that I may have. My wife Fiona for many conversations about Conversations. And to my children Julia and Elena.

A percentage of author royalties from the sale of this book goes to fund Cranbrook/Jeremy Madin School in the foothills of Nepal.

Note: A version of many of these materials form the base of the Ethics program at Cranbrook School in Sydney, Australia. I thank the hundred teachers and the thousand students who have had these discussions and given me such useful feedback. In particular I thank the several hundred boys who have challenged me in 109 and more ethics conversations over the past four years.



Your child may be smart but is he or she good?

Many families and almost all schools spend a great deal of time academically developing their children. This is a good thing. Yet I think it is at least as important for us to all think consciously about how we ethically develop the next generation to be decent members of society. This development already bubbles under the surface in homes and schools, but we can make this development break through the surface and become explicit. This can be done with lots of complex problems, lots of the wisdom of the ages, and lots of independent thinking—all of which this book serves up.


Of course, I must start with the observation that if you don’t own this book, your children are not necessarily destined to become unethical brutes. Children learn their ethics from all parts of the world around them: sometimes from school, their friends, their church, their sports team, or their ballet class. Children don’t learn ethics by getting it in a handbook.

The main place that a child learns his or her system of ethics is from the home (no pressure, Mom and Dad.) This should come as no great surprise to anyone—home is where a child spends most of his or her formative years.

Children will learn consideration from how considerate their parents are. They will learn empathy from how much their parents care. They will learn generosity from watching how generous their parents are to others. It has always been so. In addition, basic ethics are still delivered by parents in everyday interactions. “Share that toy with your sister,” “Wait your turn” are all ethical instructions, taught in an unremarkable way in most homes a dozen times a day.

Ethically strong parents still can have children who cheat, lie, and push old ladies over in the street—after all parents are not a child’s only source of instruction. However, the positive example of parenting is invaluable.

While this basic, practical, moral education has remained the same, what has changed in the last generation or two is the way in which ethics has been transmitted explicitly. Several major shifts have occurred.

Firstly, outside organizations such as churches often no longer play such a strong role in a child’s life. Many religions in particular preach about how to live and the ethical statements they make are fundamental, involving charity, generosity, care, and purposefulness, for example “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.” However, the ethical teachings of religion as a moral compass are something that many children don’t get anymore. You don’t have to subscribe to any of the major religion’s theistic beliefs to appreciate the value of many of the moral statements they taught.

Secondly, some parents now feel they have lost their authority to “push” ethical concepts on their children. Expecting or imposing firm ethical standards can make you feel like an old fashioned authoritarian; not merely “copying” your own parents, but copying your great great grandparents. And this hardly gives you street cred with your child or their friends. For example, insisting that “responsibilities are as fundamental as rights in a functioning society (e.g. this house)” may sound like nineteenth century twaddle. However, insisting that “the responsibility to do some housework is the flip side of the right to live in a house that is not a cesspit” is important.

Also, saying that “all opinions are equally valid” is often a cheap way of getting parents and teachers off the hook when the ethical questions get tough. This started several decades ago when, in some quarters, whatever values the child developed were acceptable. For example a child might say “My values are to look after only number one and trample whoever else is down,” and for authority figures to intervene in this would be indoctrination. However, I think it is clear that not all ethical positions are equally good and that some values are better than others. Again, to use an example, when a small new boy turns up at your daughter’s school without food it is NOT ethically equivalent for your daughter to share her lunch or punch him in the face. One is kind and the other is mean. Very little your child may reason to the contrary will change this fact. How to deal with this in a nuanced way in conversations is something I raise later, under “conversations with the ethically challenged child.”


In discussing the questions in this book with your children, you are no doubt hoping that they come to hold a “good” set of values. Sometimes though it can be tough to put your finger on exactly what some of those values might be. I have listed some values that you would probably want your children to keep developing as they get older (they also appear in Conversation 75).

It’s unrealistic to expect someone to have all of these values. And you don’t want to go over the top with some of them either—too much “assertiveness” for example can be a bad thing. Nonetheless it is a handy list to keep in mind.























































































Ethics and values should be spoken about regularly in homes. Often they already are. Every time your child comes home with an example of something “unfair” that happened at school, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics. When an issue comes up on television or in films, this is an opportunity to speak about ethics.

I am not suggesting a return to the “good old days” when children were simply told how to behave and be respectful. Indeed, I am almost suggesting the reverse. I am suggesting that ethical issues are discussed and pulled apart by the whole family in conversation and that your children are a central part in these conversations. However, this is not permissive “values clarification” either. Instead, the important thing here is a belief that certain values are generally better—that courage is better than cowardice, that generosity is better than selfishness—and the rightness of these values is exposed by conversation and free thinking.

For example, you can tell a child “You have to be tolerant of other people” and he or she will hear “parent static” and probably filter you out. But if you use situations and examples to discuss tolerance and guide them to their own conclusions, your child will probably come to the view that tolerance is preferable to intolerance. The difference is that your child will have articulated the view themselves. The opinion will be his or hers and s/he will own it. So, in short, the better way to make a child tolerant is not to tell them to be, but to make him or her think it themselves. Of course, better than each of these is to get them to practice tolerance—but this book can’t engineer that.

In having thoughtful, ethical discussions with your children (instead of ramming ideas down their throat or letting them get away with any view at all) you are becoming a small part of the great enlightened tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years. It is the same tradition that bought you democracy, freedom of speech, the emancipation of slaves, and Monty Python. For centuries being enlightened means valuing the received wisdom of the ages. It has been proud of producing in people the ability to think critically. And it has been proud of allowing people to form their own well-grounded views by combining these other two elements. It charts the middle way between authoritarianism and permissiveness. Being open-minded is a rare and precious triumph of the human species that I think we are obliged to hand on to our children. In using this book, with all of its ethical thinking skills, philosophies, and dilemmas, you are doing exactly that.

Authoritarian Enlightened Permissive

On the one hand the conversations in this book might be a little awkward at the start. Lets not pretend that they are the same type of conversation as “How was your day?” or “Didn’t the Giants crush the Patriots?” Yet consistently discussing ethics with your children is one of the most important things you can do. And look at it this way—millions of parents are out there at the moment drilling their children in extra comprehension, grammar and math questions that come from joyless workbooks. I doubt that these are producing engaged, quality discussions between parents and children. As an educational project, this book and the conversations it promotes are a whole lot more interesting and worthwhile.


This book works the way you want it to work. You may choose to have a program of sitting at the dinner table one particular night every week and working from conversation to conversation. More likely you will dip in and out of conversations as they take your interest. You might choose a set time, or pull the book out occasionally. You may simply hand it to your children and say, “Which ones take your interest?” You may put it in the glove compartment of your car and pull it out when the road gets too long. You may keep this book in the background (in a drawer or by the bedside) and bring up the various dilemmas from memory when the times suit. You may take the ideas from the book and simply make up your own ethical dilemmas each time your child comes home from school with an issue. It is up to you.

Having said that, I do think it is important that your children get exposure to each of the three categories of conversations in the book.

Category 1—the ethical dilemmas and questions.

Category 2—the thinking-skills questions (10 of the conversations are like this: the ones ending in “0” i.e. 10, 20, 30).

Category 3—what famous ethicists and philosophers have thought in the past (11 of the conversations are like this: the ones ending in “5” i.e. 15, 25, 35).

The most important skill for parents to learn is how to fan the flames of the conversation so that the discussions catch fire instead of go out. There are many ways to do this and I have listed a few here.


Once your child has put forward a point of view, you can ask them why they believe this or you can ask them to give an example. You can ask them to give reasons for their opinion. You can ask how it links with other ideas they have had. You can ask them how it is different from something their brother or sister has just said. Just keep asking questions. By doing this, you are shepherding them along and getting them to think about their own thinking. (By the way, the single word “Why?” is more likely to fan the flames of a discussion than anything else.)

Asking more questions can be harder than it sounds. You might want to jump in with your own opinion, which could well be a conversation killer. Sometimes you will have to bite your tongue and use questions to explore the point of view with your children. The more they get to speak, the more they will feel that their point of view is being valued and the more they will be willing to speak.

Some specific questions:

• “What would the world look like if everyone did that?”

• “Can you think of an opposite example?”

• “How would you feel if you were on the other side of that?”

• “Have you got another reason for that?”

• “Who gets advantaged by that? Who gets disadvantaged? Is that fair?”

• “What do you think your football coach/priest/teacher/rabbi/school principal would think about that?”

• “What harm does this decision create? Is it worth it?”

• “Even if no harm has been created, could it still be wrong?”

• “Why?”

• “Why?”


This means coming up with the opposite opinion (e.g. if everyone in the family quickly decides that it is okay to tell a white lie to your granny who has knitted you a horrible sweater, then you can be the person to say that granny would rather know the truth so that she stopped wasting her time knitting more sweaters that no one likes). However, it is vitally important that your children know you are playing devil’s advocate to keep the discussion going, instead of just disagreeing with them. Flat out disagreements may throw water on the fire of the conversation instead of keeping it going.


To keep the spirit of open inquiry alive you can use a lot of starters such as “Another way of looking at it is… ”, “Another factor to think about is… ”, “Another person might say… ”, “Have you thought about it this way?”, “Actually now that I think about it, you could also say… ”


Many of the conversations are about real world issues, such as bullying, lying, and cafeteria behavior, that your child may well have other examples of (e.g. the questions about bystander bullying may prompt them to talk about a time when they saw someone being bullied). These “real life” examples are probably more likely to fan a discussion, because they have experienced it. Once you have the real world examples, you can even leave the hypotheticals behind and get to the real world discussion. Other hypotheticals (e.g. would you torture a terrorism suspect) will not have real life analogues, unless your child is living a very interesting life.


As we know, a lot of situations are not clearly ethical or unethical. Instead, there are shades of gray. You can introduce this into discussions by using the terms “white,” “light gray,” “medium gray,” “dark gray,” etc. Something else you can do to get your children thinking about shades of gray is to have them “rank” situations from most to least acceptable. A lot of the conversations have about eight or ten different situations to discuss. These can be easily ranked.


This involves pretending that your children are experts. For example, you could say “Pretend you are the school principal and you have to make a decision” or “Pretend we are an Ethics Board that has been set up” or “Pretend you are the president.” This simple trick gives a lot of questions more “oomph.” I have used this trick for some of the discussions in this book, but you can use it for a lot more.


Children are more likely to have a discussion with you if they think you are taking what they say seriously. Showing you are interested involves actively listening. Do all the little conversation promoters such as “okay,” “I see,” and “right” as they are speaking. Nod as they speak. Ask them follow up questions. Don’t look like you are waiting for their turn to be over so you can get back to delivering your point. Better still, BE interested in what they say, so that all of the conversation promoters come naturally.


Don’t Speak Too Much

If you find you are speaking more than your children, you are speaking too much. A conversation is not an opportunity for a lecture.

Don’t Disagree Too Early

Explore why your child believes what he or she does. If you are going to have to genuinely disagree, you need to disagree in a way that keeps the channels of communication open. It is okay to disagree—after all, if your child says “stealing is fine because K-Mart isn’t going to go broke if I rip them off,” you cannot simply let them think that is okay. However, the hypothetical nature of the questions allows you to explore and break down your child’s view. On the other hand, if the police bring your child home for having stolen something from K-Mart, feel free to make as many absolute pronouncements as you like.

Don’t Set Yourself Up As The Final Answer

If someone told you that they were going to have an ethical discussion with you, but that they would be telling you the correct answer at the end, you probably wouldn’t take the discussion seriously. Neither will your children.


As I stated earlier, I do not believe that this book is merely a values clarification exercise. I believe that certain values are better than others: generosity is better than selfishness, kindness is better than cruelty. So what happens if a child says, “Well, actually, I don’t mind if I rip people off and am mean to them, because my value is ‘always look out for Number One.’” When faced with that statement, I don’t believe it’s okay to say, “Well in our relative twenty first century world, if it’s fine for you darling, then it’s fine with me, now onto the next question.” I would rather you said, “That’s appalling, you selfish beast, I can’t believe you are my child.” At least you would have made a moral stand. However, I also strongly believe that asking follow-up questions that pull apart their attitude will usually have much more long-term effect than dressing them down. Some (loaded) follow-up questions to the statement about ripping people off could include:

• universalizing it—“What if everyone acted like that? Would you really be able to get very far in life then?”

• implying a social contract—“You are relying on other people to trust you, even as you rip them off. Is this fair?”

• accepting the premise, but disputing the result—“You want to look out for number one, but is turning everyone else off you a good way of doing this or are your hurting your own reputation?”

If all else fails, I believe you would be within your rights to ultimately name the behavior and express disapproval: “I think that is selfish and I can’t pretend that it’s okay.” The danger is that your child will then stop having ethics discussions with you at all. You’ll have lost the chance for them to reflect on and perhaps change their ethical way of looking at things. It will depend on each situation and your own style of parenting. In addition, do remember that these conversations are hypothetical and your child may well be testing out different moral positions—don’t immediately jump to one conclusion and see calamity.


• The book is written with a “target” age range of about ten to fifteen years. This is quite a range. I have included an M rating against some of the topics. This could be because the concepts are a little bit tougher, because they explicitly deal with philosophers or because they involve some violent or challenging facts. It is up to you whether to deal with them—certainly it would be great if your children were up to it in one way or another.

• Some of the questions in the conversations are not there as reasonable positions (e.g. “Should children not have to do any housework at all?” “Is all tax just theft?”). Instead, they are there as extreme propositions to get a discussion going. Hopefully you will be able to spot these ones. Please don’t think that just because something is written as a question that there are two equal sides.

• There is no such thing as a simple “yes/no” answer in this book. For example, “Is music piracy the same thing as stealing from a store?” does not expect a “yes” or “no.” Instead it is a starting point to explore. If the questions in this book don’t have a “why/why not?” at the end of them, you should usually add one.

• Some of the conversations in this book merely scratch the surface of an issue. A good example of this is behavior in cyberspace. Hopefully the ethics conversations in this book will open up a place for discussion with your children. There are many other books and websites that can explore issues more fully in almost every case

• Many of the questions are hypothetical. It is easy to try to get “around” hypotheticals. For example, “If there was one piece of chocolate left in the world, who would you share it with, your best friend or your sibling? Why?” In this case, many children will say, “I’d cut it into three pieces and share it with both.” Although this is laudable, it also dodges the hard questions about how and why you value your friends and your family.

• Throughout I have used the terms “your father” or “your mother” in hypotheticals. I also write about big brothers, little sisters, aunts, etc. The alternative was to have the book littered with clunky sentences such as “Your primary caregiver asks you if you have cheated at school.” I recognize that in many cases the use of specifics such as father, mother, aunt, will not be true for your family. I hope that you are able to see past this to the substance of the questions.

In any case, the first conversation now looms… I hope that you get a lot out of this book with your children and have a great time with the many vigorous discussions that follow. Enjoy!




A. Do you think Casey has done anything wrong in the following situations?


Casey loves music. He goes into a (foolish) CD store that has the CDs in the covers and takes half a dozen of them.



    In this surprisingly funny book, novelist and educator Parker (deputy headmaster, Cranbook Sch., Sydney; Doppelganger) provides parents with a neat tool for introducing conversations involving moral and ethical concepts. Aimed at children ages ten to 15, 109 brief numbered scenarios in three categories are presented and address topics such as lying, stealing, drugs, money, and more. Never pedantic or out of touch, the author has a singularly humorous way of making the topics not only relevant but also slightly dangerous and exciting. Some entries give a familiar concept a modern twist (Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor becomes redistributing a jerky millionaire's wealth), and some are rooted in daily life ("Your sister's rabbit dies when she is away. Should you replace it with an identical bunny?").

    VERDICT If parents can heed the author's advice ("If you?are speaking more than your children, you are speaking too much"), the practicality and relevance of the topics will have kids debating in no time. For younger children, go with Ian James Corlett's E Is for Ethics, but for those with older kids, this title is a must-have.

On Sale
Aug 27, 2013
Page Count
256 pages

Michael Parker

Michael Parker

About the Author

The author of seven novels and three collections of stories, Michael Parker has been awarded four career-achievement awards: the Hobson Award for Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, the R. Hunt Parker Award, and the 2020 Thomas Wolfe Prize. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Oxford American, Runner’s World, Men's Journal, and others. He is a three-time winner of the O. Henry Prize for his short fiction and his work has appeared in dozens of magazines and several anthologies. He taught for twenty-seven years in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and since 2009 he has been on the faculty of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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