Put yourself in this mother’s place:

You’re relaxing with your 4-year-old son in a hotel’s hot tub. Except for the two of you, the area is deserted – until a hotel attendant happens by.

“How old are you?” the attendant asks your little boy.

“Four,” he replies.

“I’m sorry,” the attendant tells you, pointing to a sign that prohibits children younger than 5 from entering the hot tub. “He’ll have to get out.”

The attendant moves on. Your son is crushed. Trying to ease his disappointment, you tell him that as long as there’s no one else around, he can sit and dangle his legs in the water.

Making a beeline for the hot tub, Junior suddenly stops and looks back at you. “If that man comes back, what should I say?” he asks.

You’re stuck.

“Tell him you’re five,” you quickly reply.

Are you, as many undoubtedly have concluded by now, the worst parent in the world?

Or, out there in the trenches, is it not always that simple?

“We’re not here to tell you what to think,” Rushworth Kidder said Monday. “What we’re hoping to do is to help you understand how to think.”

It’s hardly a new mission for Kidder, the founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics. For the past 20 years, the Rockland-based nonprofit organization has labored hard to bring a sense of ethics – and, ultimately, morality – to a world where both often seem in perilously short supply.

Two decades ago, the institute’s primary target was the workplace. Then, at the urging of many a corporate executive who felt that too many kids were graduating from high school with no moral compass, Kidder and company took their seminars to the classroom.

Now, urged onward by educators and armed with a new book titled “Good Kids, Tough Choices,” Kidder has set his sights on perhaps the toughest target of all: helping parents raise ethical, morally grounded kids.

“It’s been sort of a tracing of the river back to its source,” said Kidder, sitting in an office overlooking picturesque Penobscot Bay. “If we’re not dealing with the parents, it’s going to be very hard to do this stuff downstream.”

The book’s stories, gathered by a researcher who spent a year interviewing dozens of parents all over the country, are all real.

There’s the teenage daughter who contemplates inviting her boyfriend over to spend the night while her parents are away. She finally decides against it, but her dad, upon hearing about it, decides that a chat with the boyfriend is still in order.

There’s the schoolyard bully who refuses to stop tormenting a 14-year-old boy. The victim’s mother pushes for a supervised sit-down between her son and his antagonist – soon thereafter, the two boys consider each other friends.

Then there’s the third-grade girl who attends a slumber party and, while playing the whisper-around-a-circle “telephone game,” outs one of her best friends as a bed-wetter. All hell breaks loose, leaving her mortified parents to sift through the social wreckage.

The way Kidder sees it, parents can be divided roughly into three groups: those for whom ethics already is a way of life for them and their children, those who couldn’t care less about their kids’ moral foundation and never will, and those “who know that this matters, but they’re not sure how to get at it. They’re spooked.”

It’s the latter third, Kidder said, that his institute most hopes to reach.

“If we can move the needle on the dial from 33 percent to 66 percent in terms of people who really care about ethics, we’ve done an enormous amount,” he said.

The goal goes far beyond helping parents to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong. That, to Kidder, is the easy stuff.

Rather, he said, parents need help navigating those sticky (and much more common) situations where their kids find themselves with “right versus right” dilemmas: Is it right for a 13-year-old girl to keep secret a close friend’s confession that she’s severely anorexic? Or is it right for the confidant to tell all when a school principal asks if she knows what’s troubling the friend?

Both options, notes Kidder, are in their own ways the “right” thing to do. The child’s challenge, and by extension the parent’s, is thinking it through to identify the “higher right” – as in getting her friend the help she so clearly needs.

Kidder’s book, rather than simply telling parents what to do when they see their child at an ethical crossroads, provides a variety of guideposts to help identify the real issue, present various options and, most important, step back and let the child do the heavy lifting that leads to a final – and hopefully ethical – decision.

Hence that thicket of “dilemmas” into which a kid wanders each day are broken down into four board categories: truth-versus-loyalty, individual-versus-community, short-term-versus-long-term, and justice-versus-mercy.

And the knee-jerk parental response – “Do this because I said so!” – gives way to such concepts as the “trilemma option” (a middle-ground solution to a seemingly black-and-white “dilemma”) five basic “core values” (responsibility, honesty, respect, compassion and fairness) and, above all, the “moral courage” that enables a child to step up and do the right thing.

Daunting stuff, to be sure. But Kidder, who’s now taking his 258-page book and its message on the road, has no doubt it’s a conversation that parents crave as they struggle to keep their kids’ heads on straight amid the chaos of Facebook, Twitter and the latest blood-and-gore video game.

Recently, the Institute for Global Ethics agreed to hold a parenting seminar in Vancouver, British Columbia, after 25 parents there promised they’d attend. By the time Kidder arrived in late September, an audience of 88 awaited him.

Similar gatherings since have attracted hundreds in Los Angeles and Dallas, said Kidder, who noted that the goal is to leave trained facilitators in each location who can carry on long after the Institute for Global Ethics has come and gone.

Interested? You can order an autographed copy of Kidder’s book by visiting the institute’s website, at www.globalethics.org.

Or you can hear Kidder speak for himself at noon on Jan. 12 at the Portland Public Library. Admission is free, but real-life parenting stories are always welcome.

And if you’re still wondering whether it’s worth all the effort, consider this: Half a century ago, Kidder said, researchers surveyed teachers about the major challenges they faced in educating kids.

“Number one was chewing gum, number two was running in the halls – that kind of stuff,” he said.

Fast forward to today, where the adolescent minefield is dominated by weapons in schools, date rape, drug abuse …

“We’re finally concluding that ethics is not an option. It’s not an add-on. It’s not something you can do or not do as you wish. It’s not negotiable,” Kidder said. “It’s absolutely essential to our survival.”

Starting, as it must, with good kids.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]