The imperfect Golden Rule

by Kristin on November 19, 2009

in Love, family & community

Photo by Frerieke

As a parent, the Golden Rule comes in handy.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Practice empathy and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Don’t treat your sister that way unless you would want her to treat you that way.

It seems I’m forever falling back on that old standby, asking my kids “Well, how would you feel?”

Maybe S doesn’t feel like sharing with her sister some of the delicious-looking brownie she brought home from a friend’s house. I don’t force her to share, but I do ask “How would you feel?”

The Golden Rule is effective, but not always. Because then there are moments like this: Maybe Q questions her younger sister’s outfit choice, so S starts second-guessing herself and gets upset that her sister is being critical. If I asked Q, in such a scenario, “How would you feel?” she would respond “It wouldn’t bother me at all.” And that would be true. It wouldn’t bother her, because she’s different. Her circumstances are different (she has the edge of being older) and her personality is different (she’s more sure of herself and less sensitive).

Are we teaching our kids enough about difference?

In a conversation recently, I told someone that I think one of the most important things we can teach our children is this: Not everyone is like you, and that’s OK. Not everyone shares the same background, solves problems with the same approach, looks at things through the same lens, or responds with the same complex combination of emotions. It’s not about a right way or a wrong way. It’s just about different ways.

When I think about the Golden Rule in the light of our differences, I start to question its value.

Don’t get me wrong—empathy is an absolutely critical skill to teach our children and to make sure they practice. The world is short on empathy, so we need to help our kids step outside of themselves.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t give them the idea that they can accurately imagine how someone else might feel in any given situation. Suggesting that’s the case implies not only that everyone is like them, but also that it’s the “right” way to be. If you personally want a how-to macrame book for Christmas, do you decide that would be the best gift for everyone on your list? Umm, probably not.

The Golden Rule with an important addendum

So what am I going to do with my new suspicion of the Golden Rule? Well, I’m definitely not going to declare it useless and throw it out. I’m just going to sprinkle in lots of disclaimers whenever I pull it out of my parenting tool kit.

“Imagine how you might feel if you were in her place, my daughter, but also remember that no one else sees the world exactly like you do.”

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  • Beloved Spear

    It’s an important clarification, not because the Golden Rule requires modification, but because we are such radically self-centered critters that we can misinterpret even such a seemingly simple thing. What you’re saying is implicit in the rule. Presumably, we want others to take our perspectives and our feelings into consideration when they do unto us. That requires them to get to know us a little bit. It’s that relationship-building that makes the love ethic so radically healing and transformative.

    I think you may be shortchanging empathy here, though. If you’ve bothered to get to know someone…particularly someone who is radically different…then you gather awareness of their inner life. It’s not complete, but neither is it just empty imagining.

    It would be interesting to read your thoughts on the moral ambiguity you seem to be expressing here. Is there no “right way?” Are all differences equally valid?

  • xmartinj

    True empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, that can still be incredibly self-centered.

    Knowing and understanding the affected party is critical. An empathetic meat-lover wouldn’t put steak in front of a vegan.

    It seems like the nuanced advice for children should be “How does that make him/her feel?” and then “Would you like him/her to make you feel that way?”

  • ed cyzewski

    This post is “golden.” wink, wink.

    Yeah, it can be shocking sometimes when you think you’re doing something that will help someone and you find out that it has only made things worse!

  • Maureen

    check out
    Very cool org who created a Charter of Compassion based on the Golden Rule.

  • Sara

    I really liked the point you made in this post. It is very true that we don’t teach our children enough about understanding and respecting differences.

    I really liked how you adjusted the “Golden Rule” and ended your post with this sentence:

    “Imagine how you might feel if you were in her place, my daughter, but also remember that no one else sees the world exactly like you do.”

    Excellent point and well taken:~)

  • jessica

    very true. I’m waaay more sensitive than my older sister. WE look at the world very differently. Sometimes I envy the fact that she is way less empathetic than I am. Being that way can be very depressing.

  • Kristin T.

    Beloved Spear, that’s exactly right—because our tendency is to be self-centered, we’re likely to take a great maxim like the Golden Rule and muck it up. And I agree with this, too: “It’s that relationship-building that makes the love ethic so radically healing and transformative.” The problem is that we can’t always take the time (or we might not have the opportunity) to get to know every person we pass on the sidewalk or in the line at the grocery store. And with some people—even friends and co-workers—we might not have much luck getting into their mind and hearts, no matter how hard we try. We’re left to fill in the blanks. As adults, we have a broader perspective to draw from, but it’s easy for kids to assume every family and each mind and heart are like theirs. (And yes—getting to know people who are radically different is SO important. My previous post is about that, in many ways.)

    Regarding a right way/wrong way approach, I think I wasn’t clear enough in this sentence: “It’s not about a right way or a wrong way. It’s just about different ways.” I’m not saying there is no right or wrong way to treat people—certainly there is. What I’m saying is there’s no right or wrong way to *be* as a human being. One person was created with a more logical mind, another is more intuitive; one is extroverted to the core, another is introverted. No person is more right or wrong than another, as long as they are being the person they were created to be. Does that make sense? Is there still “moral ambiguity?”

    xmartinj, very true—we can only fully express empathy if we know the person we are interacting with. But then I run into the same problem I explained to Beloved Spear, above: We simply can’t know everyone in that real way. If my kids see someone who is homeless, is empathy not important (or even impossible) because they don’t have the opportunity to get to know every homeless person we see? Or do I still ask “how do you think you would feel?” Your nuanced explanation (“How does that make him/her feel?” and then “Would you like him/her to make you feel that way?”) is great, I think, and reinforces how we often present the Golden Rule in a flawed way. :)

    ed, yes, it can be shocking, when your motives are pure and you’re trying to make something better, not worse. That describes much of my first marriage, actually. My ex-husband and I were wired completely differently. Not only did we have a hard time understanding each other, but we fell into that “my approach is clearly better” trap. If I had learned about “difference” the way I describe in this post, it would have helped a lot, I think.

    Maureen, I’m so glad you shared that link. What an important document and way to view others. I do think compassion is the key to a better world.

    Sara, this is interesting: I think I’ve done a lot to help my kids understand many of the more visible/obvious differences in the world (regarding ethnicity, religious belief, etc.), but I haven’t done such a great job talking to them about how their school friends and even their sisters—who seem just like them on the surface—are different from them. That’s what I’m hoping will start to shift with my new approach to the Golden Rule.

    Jessica, yes, even biological sisters raised in the same family can see the world in very different ways. :) But think of it this way: Your life might be more emotionally exhausting, but by being empathetic, you are probably having an important impact on many people in your life. I hope you can embrace and love that part of who you are!

  • Pace Smith

    I like the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

    I agree with you that the Golden Rule is problematic; we even wrote a story about that in our book. “Joan and Larry’s Example: The Flaw in the Golden Rule”:

  • Kristin T.

    Pace, ha! The Platinum Rule! It’s just right: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” It’s also trickier, because you have to take the time to figure out what that is. It’s like doing some solid detective work. (Also, I can’t believe you’ve written about “the flaw in the Golden Rule.” Makes me think we’re onto something.)

    And for anyone who’s still following these comments, I was thinking yesterday about how well the gift-giving metaphor that I used in my post works when you extend it (particularly in light of the things Beloved Spear and xmartinj were pointing out). Not only do you not want to buy gifts for others based on what you would like best to receive, but discovering the best gift for someone requires that we take the time to really know them. In general, the better you know and understand a person, the easier it is to buy them the perfect gift. In an odd way, gift-giving can be a form of empathy.

  • Pace Smith


    Yeah, it’s definitely trickier. That’s why the usual error is so common. I think the flaw in the Golden Rule is ridiculously important. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the entire book is about that.

    And your comment about gift-giving reminds me of a very useful application of the Platinum Rule: love languages. A common case of the usual error is to assume that someone else’s love language is the same as yours, so you try to express affection the way YOU’D like to receive it instead of the way THEY want to receive it.

  • Ron Simkins

    Read this a few days late and many of the comments are already in the direction I am going, but maybe this is a bit different.

    Kristin, I think your insight is one of the cardinal insights of interpretation, not just of the Bible, but of all communication. If it is to “grow with us,” it has to be with an ever enlarging contextual field. As you point out by using your daughter’s example, what would you want specifically, soon runs out of usefulness as the context broadens. Then, we have to say, “Not would you care about this specific behavior, but what about the attitude behind it — how would you want your sister to respond to what you do specifically care about, perhaps drinking the last soft drink without asking if you would like to split it, etc.?” I think many of us never move up the contextual ladder in our relationships with friends, mates, and family. And, it is a shame, if I am still giving my wife chocolates for Valentine Day after several years just because I would like chocolates for Valentines Day. I have grown a little if I ask, “Would she rather be taken out for supper on Valentine’s Day?” But, I have grown even more if I can apply the Golden Rule and realize that she doesn’t really care much about Valentine’s Day at all, and instead ask, :What really is a special treat for her?” etc. The more we grow the more the Golden Rule becomes not about me, but about who the other person really is. Jesus understood this quite well in the Gospel accounts of how he applied it in respoonding to other people by doing for them what he would like done for him in the biggest context of all — what we all wish is that other people OBSEVED US CAREFULLY ENOUGH and KNEW US WELL ENOUGH TO KNOW WHAT THAT REALLY MEANS.

  • Ron Simkins

    Kristin, I love the way you make me think about everyday life and how I am, or am not, living it.

  • Kristin T.

    Ron, this is absolutely true: “…what we all wish is that other people OBSERVED US CAREFULLY ENOUGH and KNEW US WELL ENOUGH TO KNOW WHAT THAT REALLY MEANS.” Human desire (and Jesus’ reality) in a nutshell. Thanks so much for your honesty and willingness to always dig deeper and be more honest with yourself and others. I’m so blessed that you not only do that at our church fellowship, but also here on my blog.