The art of tempering justice with mercy

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Most kids can tell right from wrong. The tricky part is showing them the right way to handle wrongdoing in a world of grey areas

I heard snatches of a conversation between my son and his friend as they ran past me at a recent birthday party. Behind them trailed C, their good friend, looking dejected.

"What was that about?" I asked my son on the way home. "What were you saying about 'stealing'? And why was C upset?"

My eight-year-old re-enacted the story like it was a Hollywood-worthy tale of drama and deceit. What it boiled down to, however, was likely just a misunderstanding.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

One of the guests had shown up with a super-duper toy gun complete with bullets and a tripod. Not surprisingly, all the boys clamoured to have a go at it. As they were clearing up later, someone saw C clutching a few of the toy bullets and accused him of stealing them, a charge my son parroted without thinking.

If their moral compass is set to true north from young, the risk of them straying from the right path in future will be lower.

But between the two extremes of apathy and self-righteousness, there is room also for compassion. This is the most valuable lesson.

He could have taken them for safekeeping first, I pointed out. Or perhaps he wanted to play a prank on the kid who owns the gun.

"But he didn't return the bullets when we were supposed to hand them back. Isn't that stealing?" my son insisted. "You said stealing is taking whatever that does not belong to you without asking permission."

Eventually, he said, C did return what he had taken. But that did not stop my son from branding him a thief.

When I retold the story with some exasperation to a few friends who were at the party, the mum of the birthday boy joked: "You should be glad your son didn't call the police."

She was speaking from experience. Her son, on seeing his aunt beat the red light one day, urged my friend to call the police. She laughed it off, only to discover that he was dead serious.

He was also greatly troubled by the fact that his mum seemed unperturbed that her sister had broken the law.

This was the same boy who, while playing mini-golf with his friends once, walked out of the game midway to protest against the "cheating ways" of the other boys.

Those kids (who included my supposedly upright son) had taken more than their fair share of turns at certain holes and defended their action as "practising", which they argued was allowed.

It left all the mums present squirming. How do you take sides when both parties claim to have acted in good faith and now expect a fair verdict?

A big part of parenting is teaching our kids to tell right from wrong. This, I've come to realise, is the easy part.

What we often neglect to do, however, is coach them on how to handle the aftermath of wrongdoing, perceived or otherwise.

As we discussed the case of the missing bullets later that night, I told my son it would have been better to talk to C in private to get the facts first before accusing him in front of everyone and embarrassing him.

"Even if he had meant to pocket the bullets, you should have given him a chance to explain and apologise instead of calling him a thief."

He seemed unconvinced.

He is still at that wonderful age when kids see the world in clear swathes of black or white: Mum says it is wrong to steal and I would be punished if I stole. So if someone else steals, that person should be punished. Justice done, case closed.

How do I even begin to tell him about the reality of grey areas?

Or analyse when it is okay to flout or bend the rules? Or explain why not every offence requires a call to the police?

The core values of truth, compassion, fairness, respect and responsibility may be universal, perhaps even innate. But the situations in which the lines are blurred are often variable, so the same advice will not always apply.

For instance, if I told my son to cut his friend some slack today, would he then turn a blind eye if he saw a pickpocket or shoplifter in action next time? And would my advice be any different if the offender happened to be his pal?

How do I explain the different legal and ethical nuances involved to an eight-year-old without confusing him or, worse, skewing his moral compass?

The late American ethicist Rushworth Kidder, who founded the non-profit Institute of Global Ethics, was known for teaching that the toughest moral dilemmas often involved what he called "right versus right", rather than choosing right over wrong.

This is when two or more core values are in conflict, and factors such as truth versus loyalty and the needs of the individual versus those of a community have to be weighed before coming to an ethical decision.

For example: Child A tells Child B he has taken a classmate's pen and swears him to secrecy. When the teacher comes to Child B asking what Child A had said, should he keep his word or tell the truth?

Kidder, who wrote several books including How Good People Make Tough Choices (1995) and Good Kids, Tough Choices (2010), did not give definite answers to his thorny posers. Instead, he developed a step-by-step self-help system that offers strategies to guide one's decision.

To hone what he called "ethical fitness", Kidder urged parents to drill into kids what is right and wrong from a young age and discuss potential ethical conflicts as they grow older.

In his 2012 obituary in The New York Times, I was heartened to read that, at the end of the day, he pegged mercy at a higher value than justice.

Yes, it is vital to first set the parameters in helping our kids navigate a world pockmarked with grey areas. There are some boundaries that one just does not cross, and certain things that one must never do.

If their moral compass is set to true north from young, the risk of them straying from the right path in future will be lower.

But between the two extremes of apathy and self-righteousness, there is room also for compassion. This is the most valuable lesson.

If justice is a social structure necessary to ensure order and civility, mercy is the cement that affirms and celebrates humanity.

There must be consequences for wrongdoing, and it is easy to mete out punishment. But it takes far more guts and wisdom to know when one can and should temper justice with mercy.

I'm glad my son appears to be developing a robust sense of morality. I would be even more proud if he grows up knowing how to balance the need for fairness as well as forgiveness, and having the moral courage to stand up for his beliefs.

Now the onus is on me to model and teach him just that.

•Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'The art of tempering justice with mercy'. Print Edition | Subscribe