Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Little Guys

A father ponders the moral architecture of children on a trip to Sherwood Forest

man lighting anthropomorphic figure with tree branches for hands
Illustration by Seth Scriver

Odd. There are people in Nottingham, England, who don’t seem to have heard of Sherwood Forest. The clerks at the hotel stare as if no one has ever asked how to get there. They call a number and say a cab will cost £30 each way. Wow. I at first thought Sherwood would be a big theme park, with the region focused around it, like Orlando. I have since learned it is a nature preserve, with a short Robin Hood Festival each summer. We planned to get here on its final weekend. But I was sure there’d be regular tourist buses.

My son Gideon has been engaged with Robin Hood since age four; as we make this trip, he’s almost six. Pin it on Ross Petty, at the start. The actor-entrepreneur produces an English-style pantomime in Toronto each Christmas. Two years ago, it had been Robin Hood, with Ross as the Sheriff of Nottingham. In music-hall tradition, the audience was encouraged to boo and cheer. Gideon was enthralled. From there we went to movie versions, especially the 1938 Errol Flynn film, with its robust music and rollicking jokes. Those tales met the main condition for capturing his four-year-old’s interest: they were about good guys versus bad guys.

Maybe it sprang from the rich, fraught world of daycare.

The big kids get their way over little ones: on snacks, access to swings, etc. It’s not fair. Or was it about the relationship to parents and other adults, who get to set the rules, often just because they say so? Or both, one injustice reinforcing another. Gideon started dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, as if it were an innate impulse. The Robin nexus added an intriguing complexity. Robin was an outlaw, but a good guy. He did bad things, like stealing, but for good-guy reasons. So that seemed to make it . . . all right. Only the bad guys objected when Robin lied or stole. “Are bad guys nice to each other?” he asked one day from the car seat. And: “How did the Sheriff of Nottingham get to be a bad guy? I think all the time about it.” Surely the Sheriff had started life as just a kid.

What I knew about child development went back to my days as a philosophy grad student in New York in the late 1960s. My friends in psych all made pilgrimages to Geneva to study with Jean Piaget, the grand master. They talked about the narrow range of kids Piaget based his studies on, especially his own children. He spent most of his career studying the development of cognitive processes: how abstractions and categories form, where logic originates, etc. In 1965, he published The Moral Judgment of the Child, tracing the rise of a sense of good and bad in a way similar to his model for intellectual development. Emboldened by the notion that your own kid can serve as a model, I began to wonder: Why make cognition the main focus? For kids themselves, it is often moral issues that underlie their experience of the world.

It isn’t just that kids divide the world into good guys and bad guys. It’s the fertility of those categories. When we climb into a canoe at the lake, Gideon becomes Cottage Robin (like Rocket Robin, on the retro-toon shows), paddling through Sherwood Marsh to save the people of the lost city of Atlantis, which he’d watched on dvd, emphasizing the theme of rescue, though the film didn’t. Or he’ll bring the moral quality of The Force (after seeing Star Wars) into a race on his bike (“Gideon, The Force is with you”) or add Obi-Wan Kenobi to the Justice League action figures on the living-room floor, where large realistic characters interact with a dinky metal plane that stands in for Darth Vader, no questions asked—and the key to the motley concoction is not an indiscriminate mingling of real with represented, or tiny with huge, but the underpinning moral theme: good guys against bad guys, which draws it all together.

“How about we go watch a dvd on your computer?” says Gideon, who is bushed after the overnight flight and two-hour train ride to Nottingham. So we fling ourselves on the hotel bed and watch Looney Tunes.

The desk calls. There is indeed a bus, they say. It stops across the street, or is supposed to, and it’s due in seven minutes. I tell Gideon we can run for it. He’s not interested. He lacks the adult sense of mission and duty while travelling. For him, there’s no contradiction between coming all this way, then watching a cartoon because you’re tuckered out. All the components of a life nestle together, the way Robin and Darth Vader and even Harry Potter coexist in the games he plays. That goes for morality too. It’s an adult cognitive trick to compartmentalize the moral sense in a term like ethics, which you can then write books on or take a degree in. Out in reality, the moral elements are imbricated in the flow of life and can be separated only artificially.

After supper at Pizza Hut, we stumble onto the outer wall of Nottingham Castle. It looks exactly right. There’s a great statue of Robin. We follow the wall, a massive structure, down a hill, and around a corner we find Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, “the oldest inn in England,” says the sign. It dates to the first Crusade. It’s built into the wall of the castle and there have been no unnecessary renovations. When we finally go through the gates, there’s no castle there. It came down long ago, though there’s a nineteenth-century manorial pile in its place, which we have no interest in entering.

Next morning we catch the bus. It’s called the Sherwood Arrow, makes a million stops, circles lazily, and finally arrives in the forest. There are food stands and a kiosk selling Robinalia where the vendors call us “sire.” I resist buying a plastic crossbow and foam arrows, which I say to Gideon we can find anywhere. We get a Lincoln-green cap, a collar, a sword, and a dagger (beech wood from the forest, they say). Then we start down a path with a sign that says, “To The Major Oak.” We assume it’s what we know as Gallows Oak, from the Flynn flick, where Robin rallied the peasantry to join him against Prince John and for good King Richard. (Another complexity: is Robin a rebel against authority or a loyal royalist?) And this is where the magic begins.

It’s a thick old English forest; the sunlight struggles through in patches. We pass minstrels and other tourists, but the forest dominates. Many trees seem ancient and could pass as “Major.” They fold off the path into a tangle only Robin or his men could find the way through. Gideon is playing Robin and I am Will or Little John as needed. He carries Paddington Bear on his shoulders.

Being Robin, here in Sherwood, the actual Sherwood, is a unique moment in his relationship to Robin. It’s way better than the tableaux in Nottingham or the plays they do near the gate. Those are representations, like Errol Flynn and Gideon’s Robin games with his friends. But this is actually walking along inside the myth of Robin Hood. It’s that myth which excited him from the start, not any particular representation or version of it. Those came after his original identification with the myth itself, in all its compulsive flexibility, as scholar Stephen Knight says in his book Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. A myth grips you not in any specific details, but precisely because of its malleability and adaptability, the many meanings and situations it can include. You gather a sense of it, connect it to your own sense of the world, then explore and expand it, as required or desired.

I’d say this is similar to what a moral sense is about: not learning good from bad or right from wrong, but feeling that the world is limned in terms of good/bad and right/wrong. The thickness of that sense in the myth of Robin Hood is what attracted Gideon. It reflected his powerful sense of good guys and bad guys, he felt at home in it because of the underlying moral presumption in all stories and versions. It’s because of this foundational, proliferating quality that I think of his moral sense as complex rather than ambiguous. Are bad guys nice to each other? Sure, sometimes. Does that make them good guys? In a way. It depends. Etc. His moral sense is not ambiguous—it’s rich and tangled, like the forest.

The Major Oak is about a thirty-minute walk in. It’s massive and anthropomorphic, like the gnarled trees in The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings. It’s protected by a fence; its branches are buttressed, propped, and trussed, like an old cathedral. There are some stands and kiosks. We buy a beech-wood bow and arrows to go with the rest of our gear and there he is in the heart of Sherwood, romping around the big oak, shooting away. I relent on the plastic and foam items because he’s right and I’m wrong: why insist on prissy adult distinctions about what is authentic or worthy and what isn’t? It’s the flexibility of myth.

In my teens and early twenties, I taught a lot of Sunday (or Saturday) school at synagogues. The curriculum often involved teaching moral values. It’s a fad that races through the pedagogical world regularly. In the introduction to a 1997 edition of Piaget’s moral judgment book, William Damon wrote that the point of the studies was not just to discover “how young people learn to distinguish right from wrong,” but “most importantly, how can we induce them to prefer the former over the latter.” To me that sounds disrespectful: pushing free moral agents in a particular direction, teaching them which goals to value and pursue. Either they make their own free choice or one is imposed on them, and, if the latter, you deprive them of the dignity that makes them moral agents to start with.

But after our walk into the heart of Sherwood, I’d say there is also something superfluous about teaching moral values. The broad sense of right and wrong is endemic. It goes with being human; it’s virtually the same thing. (Two things fill me with awe, said Kant: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.) That’s why I find Gideon’s tendency to see the world as a playing field for good guys and bad guys compelling and, in its way, sufficient. He is voicing the inherent moral quality of human existence. To think it has to be instilled or developed is like saying breathing must be taught, or speech. Kids aren’t taught to speak. They have an innate bent which unfolds as they grow. Same thing with the moral sense. At most you can aid or hinder it as the child discovers and cultivates it in himself.

This brings me again to Piaget. He discerned “two moralities of the child” that occur in sequence: a morality of “constraint,” imposed on kids by adults, and a later morality, built on co-operation between peers, between ages nine and twelve. It is internalized; it judges on the basis of intentions and motives rather than external consequences. The first teaches mere duty; the latter, an inner sense of good. According to Piaget, the transition between the phases corresponds to a historical move from primitive, superstitious communities to complex, differentiated societies, marked by individual responsibility. This marks a “qualitative” advance—in kids and societies. So the development of moral judgment in the child builds smoothly and inevitably to the better, more abstract, more truly moral viewpoint of the older child and then the adult—as history is sometimes thought to progress inevitably toward equality and democracy.

Now, even if there are types of morality, it seems to me risky to link them, sequentially or otherwise. Think about the people you know who behave according to fine principles: serving the poor or oppressed, but who are not very nice to others in their own lives and lack empathy. Or the ones with loathsome moral and political views, but who you know would stand loyally by you in a crunch.

But what really bugs me is not Piaget’s tidy schematism. It’s the way his approach denies to both small kids and primitive peoples the possibility of exemplary moral behaviour, as would be the case if we (grown-ups and/or citizens of advanced societies) had a lot in common with them and could learn from them—which I think we can. I am at least as likely to learn from Gideon as the reverse and have always found this with kids. The requirement to advance doggedly through set stages is condescending toward both kids and earlier generations of humans. It’s like traditional Christian condescension toward the unsaved—those born before Christ, or those who failed to receive his gospel.

You can make just as good a case that moral complexity and sensitivity get off to a good start in small kids, then deteriorate. This may be easier to see in the arts, where creativity and imagination are common in kids, who then have those qualities baked out of them, so that the task of artist is to recapture those early impulses and resources. I know kids aren’t inherently nice and can be brutal. What I’m arguing for isn’t their niceness; it’s their moral acuity, that surprisingly sophisticated sense of good and bad.

That night we went to London and the next day, by rail, to Legoland, near Windsor Castle. It’s a theme park, with almost but not quite everything (e.g., the roller coaster) built from Lego. A traffic ride had little Lego-like cars with their own controls, lights and stop signs. Gideon was salivating. At the front of the line was a notice: “Six and up only.” “How old is he?” asked the attendant. Six, I lied. She let us through. “Daddy, you lied,” said Gideon. “Yes,” I said, “because they won’t let anyone under six in a car, and you’re almost six, and really want to do it, and sometimes it’s all right to lie if it won’t do any harm or might even do some good, for instance, if it stops someone from being hurt.”

He drove beautifully. He obeyed the stop signs, made the turns even though it was English on-the-left driving. We were both proud. That night in bed before he dropped off, he said, “Daddy, I liked it when you lied.”

It seemed to come to him as a relief, and maybe a delight, to have some account of the problematics of lying. That’s different from trying to instill a moral sense or values. It’s more like tips on how to think about these things. Perhaps he had been working through similar thoughts and found it useful—a bit like Piaget’s notion of moving from external moral realism (all lies are bad) to considerations based on intent and context. When I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York during the 1960s, that kind of ethical calculation was called situational thinking and treated as daring, though it is how most people behave most of the time, whether they admit it or not.

The way out of the park took us, by design, through a store called The Lego Big Shop, where I had my main parental meltdown of the trip. He wanted to buy a Bionicle—a pricey one—to go with his collection back home. I felt a surge of resistance about the cost and responded with a little blast instead of a regretful no. Maybe I was feeling underappreciated after providing this grand trip: isn’t anything ever enough? etc. His eyes teared up. Had they not, he might have argued, it occurred to me, that we’d flown all the way to England, travelled two more hours by tube, train, and bus to get here, paid a big entry charge, roamed happily around for hours—surely this proved the importance of our attendance at Legoland. Why shouldn’t he buy, as a memento, something grander than the toys he gets all the time at Kidstuff on Bathurst Street in Toronto?

We picked up the Bionicle he had chosen and made for the cash. As we edged forward in a long line, I grew aware of a cacophony of voices, howls really. Listen, I said. Every kid seemed to be yelling for something and each parent was barking back in reproach. He began to laugh. By the time we got to the bus stop, outside the park, he was making faces to show how I looked when I had my dementia. I didn’t know if the whole event had been a good or a bad thing. But come to think of it, Piaget says something useful on this topic.

He writes about helping kids to depend on their own sense of moral judgment rather than outside authority. “One must place oneself on the child’s own level, and give him a feeling of equality by laying stress on one’s own obligations and . . . deficiencies,” he writes, “to draw attention to one’s own needs, one’s own difficulties, even one’s own blunders, and to point out their consequences, thus creating an atmosphere of mutual help and understanding.” This suggests the nice possibility of turning your meltdowns into a source of moral assistance for your kid. How? By acknowledging them and using that admission to establish a level moral playing field between children and adults, thus encouraging kids to have confidence in their own judgment. That means it could actually help not to be a perfect moral model—a comforting thought whenever you lose it with your kid.

On our last day in London we went to the Imperial War Museum. Gideon chose it from a London-for-kids book. The choice surprised me (unlike the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum or the zoo). But he was just shy of three on 9/11. His mother and I put the sound down, but still kept the TV on all day. He must have seen those images hundreds of times, as we all did. Since then, it’s been lots of war: Afghanistan, Iraq. “There’s always fighting in Iraq!” he says in exasperation, as the news drones on. He’s a kind of war baby, as I was in 1942, except this war is in ways more pervasive for him, due to the omnipresence of media. So at the museum he scurried about among the tanks, missiles, and hands-on submarine controls. He was disappointed there weren’t more swords and daggers à la Robin Hood. I try my best to interpret war for him, but he has his own view, which I can only partially penetrate. So I have to hope my fairly ham-handed tales of Winston versus the Nazis or our chats about Iraq strike some useful chord. Surely it will have to do with good guys and bad guys, nuanced and filtered through his own conscience and values.

When we emerged from the tube in Paddington Station on the way to the airport, we went to a kiosk and bought a new bear, large and red with plastic rain boots. The first Paddington liked Canada so well that surely another would also enjoy it, plus how nice it would be for Paddington One to have company on the return trip. Gideon caringly strapped them both into his seat with him and when we reached cruising altitude positioned the computer so they could all watch a dvd, as we settled in for the eight-hour flight home.

Illustration by Seth Scriver
Rick Salutin