Teaching Kids When To Break The Law

“Your kids are so well behaved!” says a stranger sitting on a nearby stool, eating his breakfast.

It seems well intentioned, but my insides curl and glow like a ball of crumpled paper that’s just been lit. A knee jerk response rises to my lips: “Yes, it’s a nasty habit we’re trying to get them to break,” but I manage to swallow it back with my breakfast bagel.

Imagine if the pre-requisite for entering middle school was an intro course on Stanley Milgram’s experiments about obedience. You know, just the basics: people were asked by a scientist (an actor) to administer electrical shocks to a learner sitting in another room (also an actor, not really receiving shocks at all) when they answered questions incorrectly. Subjects are told that it’s an experiment about how pain influences learning and are instructed to increase the voltage of the shocks with each incorrect answer, up to a deadly 450 volts. How many would obey?

Milgram asked 40 psychiatrists from a medical school what they thought would happen. They suspected that obedience would drop to 3.73% by the time 300 volts rolled around (when the learner stops responding, presumably unconscious, or worse) and thought about one tenth of one percent would reach 450 volts.

A meta analysis of the experiments, which were repeated many times in various constellations, found that results remained eerily constant: 61 – 66% of the subjects administer the entire amount. I’m not oblivious to the ethical concerns raised by Milgram’s test, but I’m chilled by what he found.

One of my favorite children’s books is the composition, by Chilean author Antonio Skarmeta. Nine-year-old Pedro’s world is turned upside down when his friend’s dad, Don Daniel, is taken away by soldiers. With the country living under dictatorship, the military enters the elementary school and asks the students to write about what their parents do in the evening.

Pedro lies.

And so begins an exploration with our kids about when it’s a good thing to lie. 

Middle child: When it’s good for others. When it’s saving others. If someone is going to war and they don’t want to go, they can hide somewhere.

My five year old has been grappling with the idea of war, and is intrigued by the lawn signs in our neighbourhood that say “War Resisters Welcome Here”. Hide and seek has taken on a new meaning for him.

Eldest child: If people are fleeing from danger and threats. Like Lulu.

Lulu Pusuma and her mom and dad are currently hiding in a church somewhere in our community. Their lawyer, now facing possible disbarment, botched their appearance before the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. In fact, he didn’t even appear, and Lulu’s family were denied refugee status. But Lulu’s dad was a hate crimes investigator in Hungary, standing up vocally against bigotry aimed at the Roma people. The family experienced violence as a result. It’s the reason they fled to Canada.

We spent the morning talking about the case with our kids, and they painted some pictures and wrote some words of encouragement to Lulu. We slipped them in an envelope with a chocolate bar for good measure and headed out to a house near us that collects and delivers letters to the Pusuma family.

The kids’ energy is charged as we climb the steps and drop our notes in the mailbox. Nobody is around. “Are we breaking the law, dad?”

I decide to invite Howard Zinn and Arundhati Roy to dinner that evening. It’s a cordial affair until Howard drops the bomb: “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” My eldest raises her eyebrows.

Arundhati wants to speak to my middle child. “Colourful demonstrating and weekend marches are vital, but alone are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, and when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft.”

The cogs are turning, slowly, slowly.

I haven’t told the kids yet about a key finding in Milgram’s experiments. It turns out that when two other actors are added into the mix, sitting alongside the subject and actively resisting the scientist’s prompts to go on, obedience drops precipitously to 10%. It reminds me of the Sandra Steingraber quote about letting our children watch us rise up in the face of terrible knowledge and do something.

To be clear, I’m not about to encourage my kids to jump up on cafe tables and throw pastries at the other customers, or run screaming through the libraries that they visit.

But I do want them to know when to lie.

And when to break the law.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching Kids When To Break The Law

  1. What a fantastic post- so glad my friend pointed the way to your site. I am just on the precipice of launching a new project- The Social Justice and Childhood Initiative- would LOVE to collaborate with you on some writing stuff 🙂

  2. Hey there, lovely to see this post. As one of Lulu’s supporters, I would like to talk to you asap about a rally coming up. The pictures of the horses were stunning and Lulu loved them! Can you email me please?

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