The challenge of doing the right thing…

Based on my own experience, along with much of what I’ve read in the last few decades, it’s clear to me that one of the greatest challenges we face in life is how to know if you’re doing the right thing at a given moment or not. What does “the right thing” even mean? It’s something that’s baffled people for a long time and is the basis of many philosophies, religions and codes of conduct.
Problem is, one person’s “right thing” might well be something anathema to someone else. There are plenty of examples that we encounter every day. For example, at the market I’ll see a mom yelling at a child or even slapping their hands in an attempt to get them to stop grabbing things. From the mom’s perspective, she’s trying to teach her child certain behaviors – certainly a primary job as a parent – and she’s using the tools she has available at that moment. From her child’s perspective, however, being hit or having someone you love yell at you is never good, never “the right thing”.
Which leads to a classic dilemma that I believe has defined a vast amount of human history: who wins? Who gets to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what behavior is “the right thing”, when there is a disagreement or differing perspectives?

I am not going to try and tackle the grand question of humankind because, well, I’m just a dad plugging away at life and my brain doesn’t fly that high. 🙂 I will, however, observe that one of the best gifts I have been given in my life is the ability to be sensitive to this issue, to be able to see and empathize with another position, even one diametrically opposed to my own views.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with them, but I think as a species we’re all too darn fast to go through the evaluatory process of “what are they doing? is it what I would do? if not, then they’re wrong and I need to change them.”
Even as a parent I see the same thing. My ex and I don’t always agree on how to proceed with parenting and it was problematic when we were married too. In fact, I suspect that it’s a rare couple that always thinks identically about how to raise their children, and when that is true, it’s probably because one parent has simply abdicated and lets the other make all the parenting decisions. If that works for them, no worries, but it’s darn hard to always agree!
And yet, good parenting comes from not being dogmatic and simply applying The Rules, which, more likely than not, the parent created without any input from the children, but from being able to step into your children’s shoes and try to understand what was happening for them.
You kid just threw their homework on the floor, breaking a pencil in the process? It’s born out of frustration. Getting in trouble for breaking a pencil is the wrong way to handle it, that’s a moment when understanding what’s going on and addressing the root cause — in this case by helping them with their homework — can be far more effective and is indeed “the right thing” to do in that situation.
But it’s hard because we’re wired to experience and reaction NOW, not to force that fifteen seconds of trying to understand the situation or evaluate motivations. I get it. I’m an enthusiastic guy and there are definitely times when my passion and enthusiasm overshadow my tact, sometimes with less than stellar results.
Trying to answer the question of “do the right thing” for everyone involved, not just for you as a participant is a beneficial exercise in this regard and it’s what I try to do.
And when you make a mistake – as we all do – own it. Own it and address it. That’s one big thing that differentiates mature adults from children in my opinion. I’ve had to do my share of apologizing – even as recently in a public meeting yesterday, after my zeal for improving our group’s product stepped on someone else’s contribution – and I’m okay with it, as apparently they were too.
Doing the right thing is not an easy quest, but an extraordinarily worthwhile one, even as it’s the proverbial journey and one where we’re all going to have our bad days, be tired, stressed, cranky, angry, whatever.
It’s in the attempt that we become better parents and more valuable people.

3 comments on “The challenge of doing the right thing…

  1. I agree that dogmatic application of Rules is not the way to do the right thing. Rules get in the way of being reflective, of knowing why you do what you do. Those 15 seconds of trying to understand you mention are crucial.
    To do that – and in the end, to have any luck doing the right thing – we need to be grounded. And what ground us is values. Not my values, or any particular set of values, but your values. Values that you’ve know and understand to be the cornerstone of how you want your life and the life in your family to be lived.
    Being clear on value does not mean we won’t mess up. We’re human. But we can own the mess we make, and we can use clear values to cut a path forward and work out how to raise our kids – and give them the handle of life that enable them to form clear values of their own.

  2. Totally agree with Lars and you, Dave. The “middle ground” is what is always harder to achieve…As a parent it is hard for me not to become “dogmatic” in my zeal to provide structure to my daughter; but often I find that helping her understand the consequences of a certain behavior will help her later in life.
    Values are learned in the core of our home. Values may be re-inforced by the school and/or church, but what if someone at those institutions is doing something that is contrary to your family’s values?
    I would hope that my daughter’s character and inner-compass will give her the strength to stand for herself and also defend her beliefs.
    Society gets unbalanced when we tilt the scales too much toward the “right of the one vs the rights of the many” (autonomy); or vice-versa “the rights of the many vs the right of the one” (beneficience). Like you said, lots written on the topic…

  3. Glad I found this website. I was actually thinking of starting a blog about the topic of divorce from a Dads perspective. I am fighting a daily battle with my ex-wife of 17 years over our 3 children and doing the right thing by them. This is virtually impossible because we are polar opposites when it comes to parenting and the divorce has only brought this difference to the forefront of many issues. I am struggling against the position of the bad guy, as painted by the ex and having lost connection to my 17 year old daughter and now seeing the same manipulation being used against my 11 year old daughter to break what bond I seem to have with her. My thoughts often wander thru self-doubt to steadfastness of my philosophy on my role as father. I am flexible in my style while having grounded fundamentals at the root of what I believe to be “the right thing” to teach my children. I just find it an overwhelming juggling act at times to try to continue on with my life while also having the responsibility to my children. At the moment I am just trying to be consistent with my children and remember I am the adult and the one who is supposed to be in charge.

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