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Could a 13-year-old have morality to disagree with their family's unethical business practices, while those are the norm in their society?

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I am very bad at writing children characters in my stories, I always make them either too "dumb" or too developed. Currently I am in need of believable child +- 13, boy or girl.

Requirements:

My desired kid would be born into landed gentry, connected to nobility but no title bearer. He is privately tutored in economy and trade as his family operate warehouses and shipping company. The era is Industrial Revolution.

Question:

Could a child (+-13) develop high sense of morality to disagree with family's unethical business practices like slaves and working children, despite being it norm in society? Could this trait be inborn or must be developed by external forces, like private tutor who secretly enlightening him. (If this is unrealistic thinking for a child or too heavy to comprehend, do not be worry to tell me, I will find another solution)

Why should this post be closed?

2 comments

Hi Prahara. I edited the titles of both your questions to try to better summarize each question, as well as clearly set them apart. If you feel that my edits changed your intent in any way, by all means do feel free to edit further. aCVn about 2 months ago

nope, love it. Thanks Prahara about 2 months ago

2 answers

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Well, first, the scenario you posit is a bit unusual. During the Industrial Revolution (on which I did my MA many moons ago) many of the men who made their money in trade and industry at some point sold their companies to live like landed gentry. Landed gentry status was the desirable form of wealth and social prestige. Trade and industry were a lower class activity. Thus we have Eliot's reference in The Wasteland:

He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.

The suggestion being that the silk hat of the gentry fits ill on the head of a millionaire who made his money in industrial Bradford.

Not to say your scenario could not have happened. There were doubtless many variations and combinations, but going into trade was generally considered a step down for the gentry.

But 13, and the teenage years generally, are typically years of high moral certainty and simplistic moral thought. The idea that one's parents and their activities may be immoral comes very easily to a teenager. The scales have fallen from their eyes, as they begin their necessary separation from their parents, and they are full of the disillusionment that comes with realizing that the parents you have worshiped in childhood as infallible demigods have, in fact, feet of clay. The real parent the teenager sees seems like a betrayal of the ideal parent the child believed in, and the teenager, still believing in their own saintly virtue, is slow to forgive the betrayal.

But beyond that, it is a well established convention of literature to create children who speak with greater sophistication and perception than is typical of children of that age. The child in such works is really there to represent the voice of innocence. A novel is a lens, not a window, and you are under no obligation to create a psychologically or developmentally accurate portrait of child. (Consider Scout Finch and Holden Caulfield as two examples of literary children with a facility for expression well beyond that typical of their years.)

3 comments

Thank you very much for explaining that it is completely fine to have fully conscious teenagers and perfect "lens, not a window" portrait. I would just like to add, that severing ties with their business, when entering gentry, to clean the taint of trade were not expected from landed gentry during industrial revolution. It was very common to keep stocks in their enterprises, often putting their heirs or side branch of family in charge. Heritage was often in form of stocks. Prahara about 2 months ago

Also: Wow! I have double major from modern history and literature! That is awesome to see that experience writer like you did same studies as I did!! Prahara about 2 months ago

@Prahara, yes. The snobbery around old money vs new is important to bear in mind, but we are dealing with a period of over 200 years of rapid social and economic change, so attitudes and practices certainly changed very much over the course of the period. You can certainly find whatever you need to suit you story somewhere in that period. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

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Setting aside your specific case, which I'm not qualified to comment on, I'll address your general question of a 13-year-old opposing family and the broader society's ethics. I have no particular expertise in history or sociology here; this is just what I've observed.

Sure, this happens quite frequently in other ways -- consider teenage religious rebellion, which is sometimes just "rebellion" but sometimes actual disagreement with the ideas the child was indoctrinated into. The more a set of values or ideas is presented as "just how we do things" and the less it's presented as a reasoned outcome, the more susceptible it is to challenge.

However, that questioning needs a seed, a reason for the teen to doubt. That seed could be exposure to the negative consequences of the value -- for example, seeing the harsh effects of slavery on someone who, as it turns out, is more human than animal after all. It can come in the form of reading or hearing new ideas from credible or loud sources -- the tutor you mention, influential friends, a prominent member of society who questions those values too, people the teen meets at summer camp (I realize your character doesn't have summer camp). It can come from reason, if the setting is right -- parents who teach a child to be analytical, scientifically rigorous, or curious can have that come back to them in unplanned ways. (This was my experience with religion as a pre-teen and teen.)

Without a seed of some sort, I would posit that going against one's culture as a teen would be vanishingly rare. We in the ultra-connected 21st century are used to encountering people and ideas very unlike ours, and even we can be slow to adjust the assumptions we take to be universally true. When your character's whole world is the local culture and whatever outside news filters through it, the character is going to need some sort of "hook" to start thinking differently.

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I'm not sure that it would be all that rare. It seems a likely part of the moral development of every individual to rebel against the moral failings of the parents, even if it is only their failing to meet the standards of their culture. But cultures are never monolithic. Consider St.Francis rebellion against his family and his abnegation of its wealth. That said, until the recent past, the voices of children and adolescents are virtually a closed book to us. We have no record of them. Mark Baker about 2 months ago

@MarkBaker with the poor records we have it's hard to tell, but people also didn't used to be as mobile as they are now, so that probably led to more pressure to conform too (you're stuck with these people or, alternatively, the consequences of being expelled are severe). Plus you need something to push you past usual teen contrarian attitudes into action. Monica Cellio about 2 months ago

I decided to combine both ideas here... First I will go for natural rebellion to "annoy parents" which brings this character into circle of absinthe sipping avantgarde friends, which will makes him later adopt these ideas as his genuine agenda. Prahara about 2 months ago

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