From time to time I wander about the Junior School playground while the kids are enjoying a break from their classroom activities. Playgrounds are great places for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with learning how to interact with one another in a safe, caring and ethical way. Sometimes excitement gets the best of kids, and that’s when mistakes (and learning) can happen.
A few days ago, during our wonderful streak of good weather, I happened upon a situation where one of our excited students thought he’d jump ahead of the line and take a ride on the slide before his turn. As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder why this student decided to do what he did. I know that he’s not selfish and that he is caring at heart. So what happened? Did he make a conscious decision to not wait his turn, or did he simply act without thinking?
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he very likely gave some thought to what he did – our students are thinkers, after all. So what was he thinking, anyway? How did this good kid make the tough decision to jump the queue? Was it the right thing to do?
I trust that the student I’m talking about has the same core values that we all do – to do no harm, to promote good and to be fair. At first blush, we probably wonder if he was being fair, but on closer inspection he may very well have been facing an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemmas have two right choices, and they are at the heart of our toughest decisions.
The kind of ethical dilemma our student faced is a classic one known as “the individual versus the community”. Stated in a slightly different way, although it might be right to preserve the rights of an individual (to be first), it is also right to consider the rules and customs that govern a community (the playground rules). When our student jumped the line and took his turn on the slide before others, he resolved his ethical dilemma by elevating the principle that individual rights outweigh the rules of the playground. He stuck to his principles.
Of course, his decision to ride the slide caused me to face an ethical dilemma of my own – justice versus mercy. Justice urged me to stick to the rules and enforce them (clearly, there’s no butting in line and there should be a consequence), but mercy compelled me to care for the particular needs of the individual. Maybe it was the student’s birthday and his parents forgot to send treats for the class to help him celebrate – justifying, in his mind, his choice to exercise his individual rights.
Thank goodness for playgrounds. Evidently, it’s not only the kids who learn a lot about human interactions. If we watch carefully, place assumptions to the side, resist the temptation to rush to conclusions and think sensibly about what we observe, it’s amazing to see how the youngest people in our community are faced with the same kind of tough decisions we all face. I’m just thankful small people can practice their big ethical thinking on the playground before they jump into real world.