Friday, November 22, 2013

Social responsibility

I was at a social event a while back, outside of my neighborhood, with people I sort-of know but don't know well. It was a small gathering.

At one point I was talking about Eldest and her job search (she's a senior now), and how she wants to put her computer science degree to use in a position where it would make a difference in the world. She's not interested in working in finance, and not interested in start-up shopping services, and not interested in designing violent computer games. She's looking at companies at the intersection of computers and education, and at firms that build computer games that improve health outcomes, and at places that make applications to accelerate relief services after natural disasters.

One of the women turned to me and asked, "How do you teach a kid that kind of social responsibility? Kids feel so entitled these days!" Then the doorbell rang, so I didn't get to answer.

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Had I had the chance to reply, my reply would have been, "You can't teach social responsibility... you have to live it." I would have also said that there's no guarantee. I don't know what proportion of what parents teach their kids gets tossed out; I've always guessed it's about 30%. It's probably a different 30% for each kid, too. Kids make their own choices, and some of them will end up having values very different from ours.

All we get to choose is the input. This one of the things I think many parents struggle with mightily: even if we do it all "right", at best we influence rather than control the outcome.

We're also notoriously blind to our sins of omission. What we teach our kids consists not only of what we say is right and wrong, but by what we show them. We can assume our children know we believe we should take action to alleviate human suffering, but they don't see what happens in our heads. They don't even see the check we put in the mail for typhoon relief. If we remember to tell them about the check, we forget that they don't necessarily know a) the thought process that went into our decision, b) whether the amount we sent constitutes a real sacrifice or simply an allocation of funds, or c) what our role is in alleviating suffering in the world.

We may forget to talk about how suffering is a constant for many people, not a weather-driven exception. We may forget to muse aloud about how hard it is to remember that others suffer, and how hard it is to remember -- in the midst of thinking about what we'd like to eat for dinner -- that we are the means of making the lives of others better.

When someone else's extreme suffering intrudes on our feelings, we have social sentiment. Social responsibility is what we do day in and day out.

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I think it helps not to have extra money to donate to causes. Kids, after all, learn by doing, not by writing checks.

They learn by shopping for the food pantry ("Let's buy the good stuff, because think of what a bummer it would be if you had to go to the food pantry for Thanksgiving dinner supplies. And think how happy you'd be to see something really yummy in your bag!")

They learn by coming with you when you deliver the meal to the mom with a newborn. ("I betcha Sam's mom is exhausted. So I made them supper to make her day a little easier.")

They learn by having to deal with your absence when you're at a community board meeting, or when you shlep them along to put up fliers for an event, or when you send them on an errand to help a neighbor.

The main thing is that they get the picture by connecting the dots... and there have to be a lot of dots for the picture to make sense.


  1. Is she looking at various corners of digital humanities? there are a lot of universities doing really interesting work on that, and if you want (if she wants) I can come up with a list of a few; plus there's the Digital Public Library of America, a great project.

  2. and they learn by hearing you talk, and reading bits of the newspaper aloud at the table, and by being engaged in conversation about this and that. which is just more "doing", but the more think-y doing instead of the doing doing.

    (and all of a sudden "doing" looks like a one-syllable word like "boing".)


  3. Yes, yes! All the observations and thinking-aloud things matter, because that's how kids see our thought processes. And they learn to engage with us on topics bigger than their own wants and interests.