What Makes a Person Good?

What makes a person good?

When raising children people seem to agree that the goal is to raise good people. When teaching them we stress good versus bad. But what is bad? Comedian Chris Rock used to joke if you had a daughter you were a successful parent if she didn’t end up a stripper. So can a stripper not be a good person? What about a criminal? They represent the epitome of bad. But should they?

What happens if you have a child who is lazy, failing, rude, self-centered? Is that a bad person? What if your child is achieving and pleasant but pregnant? Where is the line?

It’s rough to go from the black and white world of evangelical Christianity to the gray world of the non-religious. There’s freedom but also a lack of direction. It makes so much more sense to make a decision and own it instead of doing what’s “right”. It’s prescribed not chosen. But it means having to think through everything. It means arriving at conclusions based not on being told, but on the understanding of what it means to be human.

There’s definitely a set of cultural expectations for what a “good” child is. Good grades. No trouble. No drugs. Hard worker. Polite. Popular. Respectful. Friendly. Determined. Good looking. Respectful especially of adults. Involved in all the right sports and community organizations. Always smiling. Never angry. Never complaining. Striving for all the goals that the adults in their lives set for them. Independent, but in a way that puts adults at ease. Trustworthy.

There is also most definitely a set of cultural taboos that parents tend to steer their children away from. Colored hair, tattoos and piercings (though it’s getting more acceptable). Moping. Disagreeable. Making mistakes. Uninvolved. Uninterested in what adults are saying. Involved with drugs or self-harming. Pregnant. Failing. Angry. Lazy. Gay. Transgendered.

Read over these lists and you don’t get good and bad, you get pleasant and struggling.

I have seen so many adults get completely sucked into believing the child who looks more like the first list is good when they can often be anything but. A child can exhibit the entire first list and actually be incredibly egotistical to the point of bullying and manipulation. But does that mean the rest of the list doesn’t matter? Does that one characteristic make them bad? Do the rest make them good?

I’ve also seen so many teenagers from list two be written off by adults as “troubled”. They recognize the need for help don’t see that the help they offer is only to push these kids onto the “correct” path. Who determines what path is right, though? Some “troubled” kids care more about the people around them than those focused on grades and college admissions. Does that make the list two kids “good”? Does the rest of the list make them bad?

People often use Hitler as the description of bad or even evil. Gandhi is sometimes at the other end. What characteristics make them stand out as completely good and bad?

Christians, Jews and Muslims all claim that they know good from evil because God gave them a list. But if we look at the many different lists just in the Bible it isn’t clear what are the most important characteristics of good and bad. There are plenty of characteristics listed that are paid little attention while others that are barely mentioned become deal-breakers.

In America, a phrase I hear often is “to become a functioning member of society”. This appears to mean working, paying taxes, self-reliant and following laws. This is generally stated when justifying a lack of empathy for the homeless. If someone is unable or even unwilling to pay taxes, are they bad? 

There are a few characteristics, though, that seem to be universally accepted as “bad” and “good”.

Bad: cheating, lying, bullying, abusing, killing, raping, manipulating

Or – in the case of Hitler, mass annihilation of entire races and cultures

Good: helping, caring, sacrificing, empathizing

Or – in the case of Gandhi, standing up for those without a voice.

My problem isn’t just that parents aren’t emphasizing the right things or that our society is stressing the wrong ones. My problem is that these lists are subtle yet powerful. These lists determine how we treat children and their parents. Figuring out what is good is important but it often leads to judging. We’re unsure of how “good” our child is, so we look for the struggling ones and say “at least my kid isn’t like that”. It’s not right. Our view of bad is a cultural invention that causes us to mistrust anyone not on our path. We start to assume that a “bad” kid is that way because he chooses to be. Helping these kids would be “accepting” or “encouraging” their bad behavior. We want them to be aware of how bad they are. 

But I doubt they aren’t aware of how much they miss society’s mark.

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of our children’s accomplishments. But let’s think through what actually is worth being proud of and why. And let’s stop judging who has the right to be proud of their children.

So, can a stripper be a good person? If you look at the first list, it’s unlikely. But can a stripper be kind and helpful? Can a prisoner care about the people around him? 

Can a responsible good student be bad? Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon if you’re using the second set of criteria.

And then, especially this... let’s stop determining who deserves our love and care and help and sympathy based on our definition of good versus bad. All humans deserve love. Period.


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