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April 05, 2019 Friday 12:03:01 PM IST


3rd Eye

Parenting, as practised now, is mostly done on a hit-or-miss basis. Parents act out of good intentions. They follow what is known to have been done. This also means that they do not make good enough efforts to understand what becoming a wholesome human being means. Even in putting together a jigsaw puzzle, there has to be a rough idea as to what the final shape needs to be. How can parenting be purposive or helpful, if we do not understand somewhat, if not clearly, what being human involves. For, after all, the over-all purpose of parenting is to help one’s child to become a full-fledged human being.

A brief word, in passing, on the importance of ‘fullness’ in respect of being human. I believe that the main difference between an animal and a human being is this intuition of, and thirst for, fullness. An animal, for instance, is never seen to be troubled in self-awareness. What could this mean?

Consider this. A dog chases a hen, let’s say. The hen, not being of the broiler kind, takes to its wings in the nick of time and perches itself on the branch of a tree nearby, just out of reach for the dog. We don’t see the dog, ‘frustrated’ in its bid, looking frustrated for returning empty handed from the chase. Now consider this. You make a speech. You are keen to impress the audience. You fail to. You return home and spend hours thereafter brooding over it. So, there is a difference in being human, after all.

Awareness of self

Traditionally, we have assumed that the main difference between us and animals is a special sort of awareness. Animals too are aware. But their awareness is limited in scope. An animal is aware of itself, for example. It is also aware in a limited way of a short range of the given location. But no animal is aware of a location as it is not, or as it can be. Humans alone are. An animal is also aware of another animal. A cow can recognize a fellow cow as cow. It can recognize its calf. But no cow is aware of cow as a species. We are not only aware of ourselves as individuals, but also aware of the species to which we belong. In being human, it is extremely important to be aware of, and sensitive to, the species. But for this, there would have been no ethical ideals or requirements. We would have been like other animals, wholly free from the demands of conscience.

In rearing our children, therefore, we need to lay special emphasis on making them progressively aware of humankind. This could make some of the readers feel sceptical about the feasibility of doing it. Wouldn’t it be too much for children to be aware not only of themselves and their siblings and other members of the family but also of those beyond?

We do so because we underestimate children. Have you ever wondered about the mystery of how a one-year old infant learns, entirely by herself, to stand up? And what does walking involve? It involves learning to cope with the force of gravity in a practical way. We are able to stand up, as also walk, because of gravity and because we learn how to cope with it. I doubt if even 50% of parents on planet earth are aware of gravity. That doesn’t matter because, in the mystery of creation, the mechanics and dynamics of gravity are written into the logic of life. So, no one needs to train a child to stand up! Every child learns to perform this miraculous feat through own efforts!

But this holds good only for the physical aspects of our existence. As regards the social, intellectual, cultural and spiritual aspects of our life, we need to be nurtured and enabled to acquire the relevant skills - soft or hard as the case may be. In this, parenting, as I have been arguing over the last couple of years through this column, has to play an enlightened and creative role.  Parenting needs to focus, far more than it has done hitherto, on aspects especially important in the formation of a human being. 

It is universally agreed that thinking is basic to being human. When Malayalis get exasperated with someone who is underdeveloped in acting sensibly and appropriately, they call him a ‘buffalo’ (poth). It is a very insightful abuse! We don’t want our children to be classified in a similar fashion. Hence the following thoughts.

Beyond existence

To think is to go beyond one’s immediate individual existence and interests. It is, as the Bible says, to ‘do to others what you would that they should do to you’. This teaching is common to most religions. I am not so certain if parents bother to bring this emphasis into nurturing their children. Most of us as parents take the opposite route. We make our children the sole incumbents of the centre of our universe. In the process they grow up not only as idols but also, sad to say, as (God forbid) potential animals. This is not what I am saying. This was said by Immanuel Kant some two centuries before me. He said that children growing up in affluent homes are likely to be more humanly deprived than the less privileged ones. We could do our children greater long-term justice by taking this observation seriously.

The range of a person’s thinking depends on how far from our own self he can reach. If I remain self-centred, I remain also crippled in my capacity to think. Helping children to overcome their selfishness or self-centredness is, therefore, a necessary investment parents need to make into training them to be good students. It is important to realize that there is a connection, as Aristotle said, between the character of a person and his freedom from selfishness.

A student who shares his knowledge or educational resources with other children proves a better student in due course than one who keeps everything to himself. Why? Intellectual riches, said Bertrand Russell, are not like material resources. If you have ten sweets and you distribute them equally among four other friends, you will be left with only two. But if you share an idea with ten others, you are not left with one-tenth of that idea but the whole idea, now become clearer and better understood. Elie Wiesel, the prolific author of Holocaust literature, said that the only question that his mother ever asked him, on his returning home from school was, “Did you ask a relevant question today in the class?”. She wanted Elie to enrich the classroom experience for all students.

The second aspect that parents could pay attention to is that of developing and strengthening the will of children to act according to their best intellectual, spiritual and moral convictions. I have dealt with this in an article last month and shall not, hence, dilate upon it. The will holds the key to the energy of character. At the same time, the will, if not trained properly, can be a source of mischief for the individual and for others.

Role of emotion

A third aspect in the formation of your child is emotion. The chief of all emotions is love. Love is the secret of a person’s growth towards greatness. We are as great as the objects of our love. We can recognize three kinds of human beings in this respect. First, there are those who love things. They are happy when they are given gifts. Second, there are those who love human beings. They are happy in being loved and in being able to love. Third, there are others who love ideas. The last is the rarest category. The point to note is this. Those in the third category can love people and things, though in appropriate proportions. But those in the first category cannot love people and ideas.

Parents could help their children by filling their world with less of gifts and objects of desire and more of people and ideas. I am not referring to high philosophy here. Genial insights into life that a child can remember for the rest of the life will do. In my experience this is done best with children through stories. I’d recommend Aesop’s Fables as a case in point. Plenty of moral fables are readily available on the Internet. Some of our ancient tales are very helpful. Incidentally, Tolstoy collected several of them and used them for teaching students in the school he started in his estate, Yasnaya Polyana.

Of all starvations in this world, I believe, emotional starvation is the worst. Physical starvation kills the body.  Emotional starvation kills the being. Its deprivation could endure beyond time.

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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