Supporting Children & Teens in Discovering Life's Highest Values
by Michael Nitai Deranja
Chapter One: From Indoctrination to Experience
There is a precious, central strand that runs through all the diverse facets of childhood. Because of its subtlety, this strand can be hard to define, much like the blind men trying to describe the elephant. Some refer to it as moral development, others as spiritual unfoldment, still others as character growth, values clarification, or, as in the title of this book, simply "goodness." This strand, however, is more easily identified if we focus on a few of its key attributes like kindness, cheerfulness, courage, willingness, and self-control. It would be difficult to find anyone who would disagree with the importance of these qualities in a healthy childhood.
It seems exceedingly strange, then, that we find ourselves in the current situation where so many parents and teachers are at a loss when it comes to encouraging values in today's children. How many parents, in the name of open-mindedness, avoid passing on their moral principles to their children? How many schools, citing a fear of lawsuits or a narrow focus on academics, bend over backward to keep from bringing values into the classroom? How did we get to the point where a whole generation of children draws its standards of conduct primarily from television, movies, computer games, and popular music?
While on the surface, goodness may seem to be out of fashion, it takes only a little probing to see that current generations are not really so different from the forebears. Friendship remains on of life's greatest blessings. Truthfulness, however rare its appearance in the mass media, is still deeply appreciated in our interactions with others. Peace, as elusive as ever in the international arena, yet provides a timeless reservoir for personal renewal and well-being. It is not then a shift in our basic values that lies at the heart of our current confusion. What has changed, and radically so, is the context for sharing these ideals with our children.
It was not so long ago that the world consisted of many essentially separate cultures. During those times the question of how to share values with young people was relatively simple to answer. You gathered the children together in the local church, school, or other convenient meeting place and passed on the traditional truths of your society. Because everyone shared the same belief system, there were few, if any, objections, and life rolled along rather smoothly, at least on the surface. But those times are gone. Expanded opportunities for travel and the rise of mass media have brought about an unprecedented mixing of cultures. Societies that were once remote are now part of our everyday lives. Increased levels of interaction, however, inevitably foster comparison and questioning. No longer can educators merely pass on the teachings of a particular religion. No longer can parents assume that their standards are the only ones their children will be exposed to. For better or for worse, the pluralistic society is here to stay.
You may have heard the story of the woman who tried to organize a Christmas party in her office. First there were objections from the Jews about the emphasis on Jesus; then the Muslims pointed out that a party would conflict with their Ramadan fast. After being confronted with the demands for an organic, meat-free alternative from the vegetarians as well as a seemingly endless array of low-salt, high-fiber, no-cholesterol diets, the woman gave up and took the afternoon off on sick leave.
This woman's approach is mirrored in the reactions of many educators and parents. Faced with the onslaught of differing cultures and belief systems, our tendency has been to simply withdraw from the challenges of character education. Too often we have shown a willingness to settle for the lowest of common denominators, such as zero tolerance for drugs or innocuous discussions on the merits of justice and honesty. Although these approaches may avoid stepping on anyone's toes, they do so at the cost of helping our children become full, dynamic human beings.
Fortunately, we can look at this situation from a more promising perspective. Instead of bemoaning the loss of the "good old days" of simple, homogeneous cultures, we can view the pluralistic society as an opportunity for growth. For if we look more closely at the preceding era, we will begin to notice certain disturbing elements. When everyone belongs to the same church or ethnic group, the unquestioning acceptance of values encourages the thought that "we're right and anyone who believes differently must be wrong." Under these circumstances it is easy to view groups with differing customs as heathens or infidels who are best avoided, proselytized, or, when necessary, massacred. The accompanying self-righteousness and prejudice are responsible for the most sordid chapters in our history books.
A further shortcoming is the tendency to take values for granted. Moral precepts that are authoritatively and rigidly passed down from one generation to another gradually lose their vitality. Succeeding generations may pay lip service to their traditions, but they lack the depth of commitment and creativity necessary for adapting old ideas to the ever-changing demands of contemporary affairs. By contrast, social and cultural interchange forces us to reexamine our values and to realize they are not like stock items that can be stored on a shelf to be taken down on demand. Rather, it becomes apparent that values have real merit only when shared in a living, vibrant manner that reveals their life-enhancing potential.
Early in my life, I had the opportunity to compare the effects produced by two, radically different approaches to moral training. During my eight years at a traditional Catholic elementary school, I was exposed to countless hours of the old-style method of indoctrination, memorizing whole sections of the young people's catechism of beliefs:
(Question) Who made us?
(Answer) God made us.
(Question) Who is God?
(Answer) God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect who made all things and keeps them in existence.
(Question) Why did God make us?
(Answer) God made us to show forth his goodness and share with us his everlasting happiness in heaven.
And on and on . . .
Good grades in religion class could be had by anyone with a well-developed memory. But when it came to more personal issues like the motivation for being good, the bottom line was fear: in the big picture, fear of everlasting hellfire, and in more immediate environs, fear of the nuns' wrath. When I moved on to public high school, I was automatically freed from the lesser wrath. It took a few more years to escape the threat of eternal damnation, but when it did pass, all my formal religious training was swept along with it.
There was one incident, however, that produced a more enduring effect. Although I was too young to appreciate all its implications, the freshness and integrity of this event stood out in stark contrast to the other kinds of training I had received. The episode occurred during the winter term of my eighth-grade year, as my friends and I eagerly awaited the end of grammar school. Our sense of anticipation was heightened by heavy rains that made it impossible for us to work off our bubbling adolescent energy on the playground. With no access to a gymnasium, we began to congregate in the boys' bathroom, a place of relative freedom in a school run by women. One day someone suggested we match pennies, a simple game in which two people flip coins, with the winner keeping both pennies. In our advanced state of boredom, this brief taste of gambling caught everyone's imagination. It wasn't long before we were smuggling dice, cards, and poker chips into school. Inevitably, we were discovered and marched to the principal's office. After being chastised for the bad example we were setting for the younger children, we were punished with the loss of two weeks' lunch recess. In a school like ours there wasn't any extra staff, so the person assigned to supervise our punishment was Sister St. John, our classroom teacher. The unfairness of the situation for her was apparent to all of us; because of our misdeeds, she would have to give up her precious midday break. On the day our sentence was to commence, our expectations were for the worst. We all knew she had every right to be upset with us.
I can still picture Sister standing in front of us eight boys at the beginning of that first lunch recess, announcing that we would be spending the next two weeks together. Our imaginations had conjured up all sorts of distasteful consequences: writing "I will not gamble" five thousand times, sitting in silence for two weeks, going without food? To our astonishment Sister said that we had the choice of going through two weeks of hell or two weeks of something better. She then handed out copies of a play called "Pitch Black and the Seven Giants." The chance to perform the inverse of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" seemed an appropriate match for our current delinquent status, and we readily chose this alternative. Thus commenced two highly enjoyable weeks of rehearsals, capped by a performance for the rest of our class.
My friends and I were stunned by the whole incident. What had happened to the punishment? The sense of guilt and shame? The scoldings on the evils of gambling? I don't know if Sister really understood all that was taking place, but the end result was that her compassion and goodwill succeeded beautifully in lifting us out of a rather dark and negative state of mind. Later in life I came across a saying that captures the essence of her approach: "You can't drive out the darkness with a stick. What we need is light!" Perhaps she had sensed that our motivations weren't really evil, just an impulsive response to boredom. In fact, with the return of better weather, no one showed the slightest interest in gambling for the remainder of the year.
The experience affected me deeply. I absorbed the seed-thought that there might be more to religion and values than memorizing precepts from a book. Life went on through high school, college, and teacher training, and thirteen short years later I found myself on the other side of the teacher's desk.
As with many teachers, my motivation for entering the profession was to help children become better people. From the start I could see that an exclusive focus on fractions and vocabulary development wasn't going to satisfy me. Students might get high grades in language or math, but could still be insensitive, untruthful, or lacking in courage. What kinds of adults would these children become, and why should I invest so much time and energy for such limited results?
I'd received no help in this area from my education classes at the university where the only reference to values had occurred under the heading of "classroom management," a code word for getting the children to do whatever the teacher wanted. On my own, then, I struggled to address what I came to call the "how-to-live" parts of my children's lives. I began by leading discussions on such values as honesty, kindness, and cooperation. We also read books about people who demonstrated these qualities in their lives. The students were developing a good intellectual understanding of the concepts, but their behavior made it clear that something else was needed before they could integrate these values into everyday life. I had to admit that I wasn't doing much better than the nuns had done with me. And then a second remarkable episode occurred. One morning it snowed . . .
Snow is unusual where I live, and I'd have been a complete ogre not to go along with the children's pleas for a special recess. I stayed inside watching from the window, enjoying the unbounded exuberance of their play. In the space of a few minutes, however, the scene shifted dramatically. First, it was an inadvertent shove that landed someone on the ground, then a wayward snowball hitting another child in the face. Within minutes the whole class seemed to be angry with one another. I rang the bell and called the students in.
After a calming-down period, I asked everyone to join me in the middle of the carpet for a discussion circle. "Can we go outside again?" someone asked. "Only on one condition," I responded, reminding everyone of the topic of cooperation we had been discussing. "Anyone who wants to go out in the snow will have to take a personal pledge to practice the quality of cooperation. The moment you behave otherwise, you'll have to come back in." Everyone, of course, wanted to get back to recess, so we had an impromptu swearing-in ceremony as students solemnly pledged to cooperate with one another. When they returned to the playground, at first there were a few nervous glances in my direction and some overly polite interactions, but gradually everyone settled into good, wholesome, cooperative play. Even the architecture was affected. Whereas during the first recess squat, box-like forts seemed to have been the structure of choice, now the children were helping one another create soaring, elegant palaces.
After about half an hour, I signaled for recess to end. We re-formed our discussion circle, and I asked which recess they had enjoyed more. Every hand quickly went up in favor of the second one. When I asked for ideas on why the second recess had worked so well, everyone agreed that the practice of cooperation had made all the difference. If I had any doubts about the power of this incident, they evaporated as I watched the children maintain their cooperation over the ensuing weeks and months.
Here was the alternative I had been searching for to take values instruction beyond the realm of indoctrination. First with Sister St. John I had witnessed the transforming effects of her compassion. Now my students had discovered how the quality of cooperation could make their recesses more enjoyable. Clearly, it was direct, personal experience that made it possible for children to appreciate why they should incorporate positive values into daily life.
My challenge, then, has been to explore the possibilities of using an experiential approach to values, one that emphasizes intelligent observation as opposed to unquestioning acceptance. In pursuing this goal, I have had the benefit of a uniquely supportive environment. At the Ananda Living Wisdom School, for more than 30 years there has been a group of parents, as well as a broader community, committed to providing their children with a spiritually inspiring education that avoids the pitfalls of dogmatism and sectarianism. In this laboratory-type situation, I have had many opportunities to experiment with finding ways to share values with elementary students and, in more recent years, with teenagers. In addition, through raising my own son and daughter, I have had the opportunity to apply these insights to the more intimate realm of parenting.
This book presents the fruits of these efforts. In chapter 2 under such headings as peace, trust, and courage, are the games and other activities that have proven helpful in working with children, primarily with 5- through 12-year-olds. Chapter 3 shows that these activities can also work with teenagers, but only when integrated into programs that meet their more expansive needs. Chapter 4 examines such underlying issues as the origins of values and their place in human experience. Chapter 5 addresses the crucial topic of overcoming restlessness in children and teens, and Chapter 6 offers suggestions for building healthy adult-child relationships. It is my hope that you will use this book as you would a collection of recipes: useful in getting started, but giving way eventually to your own creative efforts.
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