You very often hear adults speaking about how important it is to teach children values like ‘kindness’, ‘respect’, ‘empathy’ or ‘honesty’. In schools all over the world you will see endless rows of colorful posters instructing children: “In our school everyone is equal!” “treat each other with kindness!” Teachers will give entire lessons to prevent bullying by teaching ‘inclusion’ and ‘empathy’ towards others. Parents will perpetuate the same phrases over and over to teach their child manors and values: “be nice to your sister!” “Play gently with the dog.” “In this house we share!” It is clear that parents and teachers alike pay a great deal of attention to teaching these kinds of values.
We think we say these things to teach children the ways and values of the world. But we really say these things because we assume that children are not born with a moral compass. We believe that it is something WE have to teach them. This gets validated when we see them yank the dog’s tail so hard that it yelps in pain, or when they exclude another child from a game for no apparent reason.
Although most of us would not admit it, on a subconscious level, we see children as ‘savages’ who must be civilized and trained to become decent human beings who can function in society.
Now, considering the current state of the world and the general demeanor of adult human beings, and how we treat the world, I would say that our parents mission to raise us ‘right’ has failed and failed hard. The same can be said for their parents and their parents’ parents, and so the list goes on. It is equally true for our children, but how can that be so? I mean, we’re busy teaching them all these values, yet the odds are that they will grow up to become cheats and megalomaniacs and liars and narcissistic assholes like the rest of us. Why is that?
The truth is that we cannot teach children values like ‘equality’, ‘playing fair with others’ or ’empathy’ because most of us do not even know what it means to live these values ourselves. Sure, we know what it means on a superficial level, but if we were honest with ourselves, can we say that we truly live equality? Do we play fair with others? And what does it even mean?
In traditional Freudian psychology the human mind consists of three levels, the “Id”, the “ego” and the “superego”. The Id is the instinctual, impulsive and childish part of us, the part of us that throws tantrums and screams when we don’t get what we want. It is the voice of pleasure and selfish desire. It is what our children represent. The superego is the parent, the voice of reason, the one who is able to suppress impulses and do what is right. It is the values and morals taught by society. The “ego”, the middle aspect, is the balanced part of us where we are at an even key balancing our impulses and our common sense, or if you will: where we are in a state of constant conflict and battle between the two more extreme sides of us.
As teachers, and as parents in particular, we access a role of representing the superego to our children. We see ourselves as representatives and gatekeepers of a moral compass that we believe we must to pass onto our children, and we completely disregard the fact that we haven’t developed this moral compass in ourselves. We completely deny the fact that what we are doing is not only deceiving ourselves, but also our children. We do so by pretending that we’ve got it all figured out, that we are examples that they can lean on and model themselves according to. We deny and suppress the parts of us that aren’t socially acceptable, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, it doesn’t mean that we don’t act them out and it doesn’t mean that our children do not see and pick up on the conflicted behavior that we portray. We say one thing and then do the complete opposite. And then we wonder why our children do as we do, and not as we say.
Let’s look at an example: many parents struggle with, and worry over their children spending too much time on tablets, smartphones or computers playing games or wasting time on social media. We give them ‘screen time’ as rewards for good behavior or doing chores. We control them, limit them, moralize their behavior on these devices. And yet, where do most of us prefer spending our time? Often on the exact same devices we so demonize when in the hands of our young ones.
We constantly tell our children to play nice with their siblings or friends, but how do we not treat our spouses, the people who are supposed to be our best friends and allies in the world? Do we not belittle, exclude, ignore, fight, demean and spite them? Maybe most don’t even do it out loud, but there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t, at the very least judge and condemn others in the secrecy in our own minds, and do so with pleasure.
The actual REAL values we are teaching our children (values being that which we prioritize and give importance to), are values such as suppressing the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, parts that we are a shamed of, instead of facing them and dealing with them in a responsible way. We are teaching them that what matters most is how others see us, not to have integrity within and as ourselves. We are teaching them that lying gets you out of trouble and that you can have forbidden pleasures and desires, as long as you keep them secret and suppressed.
So when we look at why our world is in the state it is in, when we look at each other in dismay at how our children treat each other, all we have to do is take a good hard look at one another and ourselves, and we’ll know why that is so. It all starts with us.
So often do we take values for granted as part of our society and of who we are, that they become nothing but empty words that we say because they make us look good (at least in the eyes of our own mind). But when have we ever actually asked ourselves whether we are in fact living the words we are trying to teach our children? When have we ever questioned how their behavior can be mirrored through us, not as the people we wish we were, but the people we are in fact?
If we truly want our children to become compassionate, giving, emphatic human beings with integrity and respect for others, we need to first develop these values in ourselves, not on a superficial level, but on a real, verifiable, practical level. To do that, we need to first understand what it means to be compassionate, to be emphatic, to be respectful; we need to examine our relationship with and understanding of these values and the words that represent them.
This is something that I would for one like to continue to work with, and together with the teachers who work with children and the parents who raise them, establish real, practical values that we can live and stand as real examples of to our children. After all, our future depends on it.
Watch this space to learn more or contact me if you are interested in getting started with this process.