A Mistake! Names, Ethics and Accountability…

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Juliet was correct. The flower would smell as sweet whether you called it a rose or a potato casserole or a Nebraska pig farm. The name would not change the fragrance, but then, a rose would no longer be a rose. Juliet was making a profound point worth absorbing by parents. We look at the essence of things, the fragrance, for example, and not the name, to judge what its qualities and characteristics.

The same principle applies to many other words as well as to the application of words: we must look at the essence of underlying concepts rather than swim along the surface being concerned with names rather than underlying substance.
Here’s why I’ve been thinking about Juliet’s probing question about names and her answer. Several reasons dictate why we should be concerned with underlying substance rather than with names. Words often have ethical content, that is to say, the use of a particular word may have a moral message, and thus, if the word is use improperly, the use of the word may be unethical. Also, morality requires that a person be held accountable for his or her words. If not, then the use of unethical words will increase.

As parents, we want our children to be strong and independent, of course, but we also want them to be decent and kind. Decent kind people make the world a better place, which is a noble goal. Decency and kindness reject unethical words; dishonest or hurtful or stupid words. The use of such words reflects upon the speaker’s character and integrity. We parents want our children to be of the highest moral character and integrity.

This posting is prompted by this unethical use of words I noticed a few days ago. I was driving east on Hampden Avenue in Englewood, Colorado. A huge billboard advertising a law firm’s legal services stated:

DUI and Criminal Defense
Everyone makes mistakes.
We can help
Call xxxxxxxxxxxxx

I’m a lawyer and I’m intrigued by billboards hawking legal services that permeate the landscape like kudzu. This billboard’s message bothered me.

The billboard was coincidental. Almost ten years ago a mother ironically named Madelyne Toogood was seen on a security tape brutally assaulting her four-year-old daughter in a shopping mall parking lot in Mishawaka, Indiana. Ms. Toogood was located, arrested and hired a lawyer. Her lawyer said, “She made a mistake.”

A mistake!! Beating a little child is a mistake? I know what a mistake is and so do you. A mistake is, for example, forgetting to put a stamp on your credit card bill payment envelope, mailing it and getting it back two weeks later, subjecting you to late fees and a rapacious increase in your interest rate. That’s a mistake. Brutally assaulting is not a mistake.

I was so angered when I learned of Toogood’s lawyer’s words that I created a Continuing Legal Education program titled The Ethics of Rhetoric, an entire program devoted to informing how to judge the morality of words. Now, a Denver-area law firm, on its many similar billboards, was defining criminal behavior—driving while intoxicated and other offenses—as mistakes.

There are lessons deeper than understanding that lawyers intentionally misstate reality. One lesson is noting the application of a perverse moral relativism: that beating a child, driving drunk or committing other crimes is in the same category as forgetting to place a stamp on a letter. They are morally different, of course, and the use of language to present them as equal is unethical. Calling a crime a mistake trivializes the criminal behavior. It makes it less significant; less meaningful. It also trivializes the victims of the crime. No longer targets of a heinous act, they are mere recipients of a mistaken action.

There’s not much society can do to make lawyers accountable when they abuse language. But we parents must hold ourselves to a higher standard. We have real children to raise and they are subjected to real consequences when something goes wrong.

These principles have application to parenting. Let’s say your child yells hurtful words at you such as “I hate you!” or “You’re the worst mom in the world.” or “I wish you were dead.” These phrases stab into a parent’s soul like a dagger.

Are they true? Are they ethical? How should parents respond?

Obviously they are not true. The statements are not ethical. When a child abuses language, even a young child, the child should be held accountable. The child should be taught moral judgment. We have a duty to judge the morality of things, including words. Judging separates humans from the primal ooze.

I recommend the parent not be dismissive of the child’s comment. Don’t say, “Honey, I know you don’t mean that!” or “You must be angry.” It doesn’t matter if the child means it or if the words were said in anger. It matters that the child said the words.
The better response is informing the child that the words are not true and that they hurt. Discuss why the child would say hurtful words that are false. Ask if the words are fair to the parent. Ask if your child would welcome such words being said about him or her. The exercise is not done because the child is bad; it is done to create responsibility for the words.

By this process, parents help develop a child’s empathy and compassion for others. The child begins to understand the power of words and thus, the duty to use words responsibly and ethically. The exercise applies to all abuse of language, such as lying or using racist or bullying words.

Help empower your child to be morally stronger and honorable. Talking about words and their abuse is a good way to start. Ask your child what he or she thinks about equating a criminal act with a mistake. You may be delightfully surprised at the moral and intellectual depth of your child’s answers. And you can take comfort in knowing you are raising a more moral child.

–Michael Sabbeth


Michael Sabbeth is a lawyer in Denver, Colorado and the author of the recently released book, The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How To Talk With Children About Values. Please visit his blog, www.kidsethicsbook.com.  Books can be purchased online on the website.


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2) Juliet was correct. The flower would smell as sweet whether you called it a rose or a potato casserole or a Nebraska pig farm. The name would not change the fragrance,…