There is a spectre haunting the world. Go to any dinner party, any gathering around the barbecue, any place where adults gather, and the conversation is just as likely to turn to the problem of children these days.
They can’t spell, they can’t add up, their noses are buried in their electronic devices, they can’t speak in complete sentences. Worse, they have no resilience, no sense of proportion. Their grandfathers stormed the beaches of Normandy, they collapse if they don’t get the cinnamon sprinkles on their latte; robust debate was the meat and drink of a previous generation, now people find they can’t sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner with family.
Is this just another example of how each generation always thinks the next is weak and fragile? Do the anecdotal stories of young men who can’t get themselves off the couch, and young women crying when their boss corrects their spelling indicate something fundamental has gone wrong?
If it has, the first question is: What has happened? And the second, and more important question is, what to do about it?
So, what has gone wrong? Much ink has been spilt on this question, but the basic answer is that people have forgotten who they truly are. They have lost connection with the limitless consciousness within. As a result, there is a rise in fear and insecurity in society.
Hence a bright, intelligent, capable young man or woman can go to pieces over something minor. They lack the depth of self-knowledge and the emotional literacy to deal with the normal ups and downs of life. Their confidence is egg-shell thin, and cracks at the smallest opposition. There has been a hollowing out from within.
So what can we do? Let’s look at a few suggestions from the ancient wisdom traditions.
Plato (the ancient Greek philosopher), tells us that children should be cured of self-will by three years old, and fear by six. He tells us that the natural discipline and guidance of the mother first, and then the father as well, will do this. This implies that if there is no such focused intervention then the child will be left in a state of weakness. They will be spoilt, wilful and inwardly anxious.
Another tradition says that children need love and discipline, both in a balanced measure, neither too much nor too little of either. If too much love is given then the child becomes wilful and spoilt; and if too much discipline is applied they become hard and resentful.
Young children are full of faith. So said Shantananda Saraswatī, the Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath in the latter decades of the twentieth century. This means they will accept whatever the loving adults in their life – parents, teachers – present. So, he said, make sure the children receive rich, beautiful, useful, truthful information. But he also said that up to the age of ten, the basic principles of life should also be instilled. This is actually the more important part of a child’s education and upbringing.
What are these basic principles? Every culture expresses them in its own unique way, but they are common to all cultures: don’t lie; don’t steal; love your neighbour as yourself; reverence a power higher than yourself; live a life that is careful of your own needs but also those of others around you; hard work and diligence reap their own rewards; respect those who came before you; leave something beautiful for those who come after you.
These principles can be expressed in other ways, but all appeal to a fundamental reason, goodness and common sense.
These basic guides for life need to be communicated with love and discipline to young children. This is enormously effective in building confidence, strength, courage, resilience, compassion and the other cardinal virtues in the young.
After ten-years-old young boys and girls are ready to start applying these principles to the problems and issues that life throws at them. They are still under the care and guidance of loving adults, but they must now begin to fall down and pick themselves up.
These are the simple ways to give the next generation the tools and the platform on which they can build a life that is unique to themselves, is a credit to their parents and teachers, and is a source of strength and even wisdom to others.
Let’s take this even further.
While the basic principles of life must be imparted, and the child cured of self-will and fear, there are also a few basic life-lessons that are extremely useful. One is that things don’t always go your way, you don’t always win, things don’t always come easily. If a nervous mother is fearful of her child’s unhappiness, and seeks to remove all challenge, all painful experiences from her child’s life, she will produce a weak-willed fragile adult.
A human being has a physical body, of course, but he or she also has a mental, emotional and a spiritual dimension to their being. Challenging each of these levels in the right way – physical exercise, mental problem solving, emotional tests and even spiritual training, all build strength.
Were these essentially simple prescriptions to be implemented in an intelligent and consistent way, then the barbecue conversation might begin to turn on how strong, resilient and admirable the next generation is.
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