Holding Ethics Conversations With Your Scouts

Your Scouts can recite the Scout Oath and Scout Law in their sleep, but can they apply those timeless values when they face tough decisions? A great way to prepare them “to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes” — words that appear in the BSA mission statement — is to organize discussions of real or fictional ethical dilemmas.

Jana Mohr Lone

That’s just what Jana Mohr Lone, Ph.D., has been doing for decades as director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children. Scoutingrecently caught up with Lone, the author of The Philosophical Child, to learn more. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

How old do children need to be to have ethical discussions?

By the time children are in elementary school, they are definitely navigating ethical issues all the time — for example, at recess or in the lunchroom. Questions about friendship and popularity and peer pressure and fairness and the different opportunities different children come into school with — children are very aware of these things.

What makes a scenario good to discuss?

A good prompt to foster an ethical discussion is one that is philosophically suggestive, such that it raises the questions without providing answers. Things that are more open-ended, in my view, tend to get children invested in the question.

Photo by Michael Hanson

You like to start with stories. Why?

First, everyone likes to listen to a story, and it kind of creates an environment of safety and comfort. Second, what often happens is the conversation starts by referring to the characters in the story or something text-focused, then moves slowly away from that as the level of trust in the conversation builds, to be more closely related to the circumstances of the people’s lives who are participating in the conversation.

You challenge older kids to come up with their own discussion questions. How does that work?

Say you have a group of 10 Scouts. Ask them to think of a question the scenario makes them wonder about. Then break them up into pairs or groups of three and say, “Share with each other your questions, and come up with one question that you think would be really interesting to talk about.” Then bring them all back together and get the three or four questions that come out of the various groups and have the kids vote on which one they want to talk about. Then start the conversation. In my experience, it’s pretty rare that that does not result in some — if not all — of the kids being really into the conversation, because it gives them so much ownership of what it is that’s at stake in the discussion.

Photo by W. Garth Dowling

Should ethical discussions have winners and losers?

This is not about that. This is about trying to understand this question that we all concede is very challenging and puzzling, and using our collective ways of seeing the world to help us get a better understanding of this issue together, recognizing that we’re probably not going to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction.

Click here for more ideas on encouraging ethical behavior.

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