This I Believe

Michael - Chicago, Illinois
Entered on August 29, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: children
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What happens to us as we older?

Well, obviously, a number of things happen to us as we grow older–some good, some bad, and some that just are. But the “happening” or change, for lack of a better word, in which I’m interested, is how it is that we lose the values we had as children.

Think about the values we learned as children–don’t hit your neighbors, share with others, clean up after yourself, don’t take things that don’t belong to you without permission….How is it that along the way we lose these basic values in the name of maturity?

How is it that we learned that it’s OK to hit your neighbors, at least “under certain circumstances”? Or that it’s OK not to share with other people because competition is somehow virtuous and the “American way”? Or that’s it’s OK not to clean up after yourself because it’s too expensive or inconvenient or the magic of economics will somehow “clean up” after us? Or that it’s OK to take from other people, as long as we have some sort of rationalization for doing so?

Look at the values we had, the values we were taught as children, and look at values that have been ingrained in the majority of us as adults. How did we become so perverted? What happened to us? And how did it happen? How is it that we expect more of children than we expect of ourselves? How is this not a sad commentary on all of us and a sign of one of our greatest failures?

Of course, when I say that we “hit” our neighbors as adults, I’m speaking somewhat metaphorically. Most of us don’t literally “hit” our neighbors, at least not usually.

But, unfortunately, we do far worse things. We drop bombs on our neighbors. We torture and abuse our neighbors. We cage our neighbors in prisons like animals and execute them. Yet, as children, we knew these things were wrong.

As children, we knew it was wrong not to share our toys with others. Yet, as adults, we have yet to recognize that sharing far more critical things, such as food, housing, and health care has any value at all. Or even sharing something as simple and “free” as love. As children, we knew if we spilled our milk that it was wrong not to clean it up. Yet, as adults, we don’t think it’s important to clean up after ourselves when we spill toxic waste into the environment, endangering the lives of people and other living things, or that we should even do something as simple as make the effort to recycle the trash we generate daily. As children, we knew it was wrong to take things from other people without their permission. Yes, as adults, we think it is acceptable to take entire countries away from their inhabitants.

So how is it that we arrived at this terrible transformation for the worse? For most of us, the transformation likely didn’t occur out of nowhere all at once. More than likely, the transformation occurred slowly over time, as a series of small compromises, little lessons we learned that taught us that our childhood values didn’t work in the “real world” and that we had to give them up in order to survive.

I apologize if I sound as if I’m promoting some Wordsworthesque idealization of childhood; that is not my intent. I do not believe that children are naturally “innocent” or “virtuous,” whatever those things mean. I am not trying to suggest anything at all about the nature of children themselves. What I am interested in are the basic values that parents teach their children, and these positive basic values come from adults, not children.

Why do parents teach their children these values? We cannot help but wonder why parents would teach their children something that they, more than likely, believe will inevitably become corrupted and in which they no longer believe themselves. Are parents trying to give their children a delusional, positive, romantic view of the world, so long as the corrupt world will allow.

Though I’m sure many parents want to give their children positive world views, I don’t believe that this is their primary motive for teaching their children these values. I believe that parents teach these values to their children because they believe them to have real-world utility and purpose. The evidence for this utility and purpose is obvious–look at the world we live in, and look at the world we could live in if everyone followed the values commonly taught to children.

Fortunately, we don’t have to become children again to employ the values we teach children. Remember, these values come from the adults who teach them to children, We simply need to realize that if these values are worth instilling in children, then they are worth retaining and employing ourselves.

Undoing many of the compromises we made along the way will not be easy, but we can succeed if we are willing to try. We only need to be willing to accept the hurt and pain that come from making ourselves vulnerable–like children. We may chose not to “hit” other people and be “hit”‘ in return. We may chose to share with others only to be robbed or, at least, to have the kindness not be returned. But, in general, these things will likely not occur, and people will respond positively to our “childish” values, and, as a result, our lights will shine a positive and transforming force upon the world. And, like resilient children, we will survive the times we are hurt.