On the Corner

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You hear them out on the playground.

“He did it first!”
“Everybody else is doing it.”
“He is no good, and he had it coming.”
“I had to do it or nobody would like me.”
“But I made up afterwards.”
“They’re all against me– nobody likes me.”
“But I couldn’t have gotten it any other way.”


Some of these playgrounds have elevators in buildings with 57 floors. No, not kids. You hear such statements from anyone with poor conscience development.

Conscience–what is it? We can’t see it, find it, smell it or touch it. But–its presence can be inferred from behavior. It can be developed. It can be measured. And we know for sure when it’s not present. We even have a name for people without a conscience. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. It’s an antisocial personality disorder.

The conscience is not a single, internally consistent set of principles of right and wrong. It’s much more than that. It has many faces. “It may be the voice of experience. It may be rigorous in some matters, not in others. It may prevail over temptation. Or it may be sort of a gadfly, which does not prevent a person from doing what he thinks he ought not to do but only prevents him from enjoying it.” (Jersild)

So–the development of the conscience has something to do with socialization. In other words, it’s contagious. We get it from others. And it starts with parents. I suppose the word identification explains it best. Kids identify with their parents–whether we like it or not. Where there is a strong positive identification with a positive parent, you’ll see positive conscience development. The child becomes “like” the parent and begins to adopt the parent’s values about what is right and what is wrong. Oh, oh–that means morality is caught like a disease.

The kind of discipline used also is a factor in conscience development. Physical discipline delivers such strong sensations that the reason for the discipline gets lost in the process. Learning does not take place. There is no closure on the concepts of right and wrong in relation to the act for which the punishment was administered. Similarly, identification takes place. The administration of pain is modeled. Avoidance of pain is learned. The morality becomes: “It’s okay if you don’t get caught.”

What does one need in order to develop a healthy conscience? First, I’d say we desperately need to know, teach and model what is right. That means we have to avoid that which is wrong. That alone is not enough. We also have to be able to explain to ourselves why something is right or wrong.

Second, people need to feel loved–especially children, who not only need to feel it, they must know it. This means they need to be told on a consistent basis the reality of their love–not just with words–not just with rewards–but with all of the non verbal messages available to the human specie.

Third, we all need to know for sure, and especially children, that those who care for us do not indiscriminately accept everything we do. There must be boundaries which when breached deliver consistent consequences.

If there are no boundaries and no expectations of right choices–if “anything goes” then we seldom live with any kind of guilt. Guilt is the glue that holds civilization together. We need to experience and work through a little guilt in order for a healthy conscience to emerge.

All of us have a parental model whose personality was revealed in the life of Jesus of Nazareth–genuine love–compassionate care–friendly, fair firmness–completely consistent. Identify with him.

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