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November 07, 2019 Thursday 12:07:35 PM IST

Happy-Wise Parenting

3rd Eye

Our age prefers being smart to being wise. Wisdom sounds tediously old fashioned. Yet it is in the scales of wisdom that life weighs us. Smartness fades over time. Wisdom, like wine, improves with age. Parenting is the inter-generational nursery of wisdom.

In theory, no parent wants his or her child to be unwise. But it is doubtful if parents would want wisdom to hinder their children’s chances to blaze the tracksin the rat race of life. This, despite the fact that nearly everyone emergesa loser from this furious chase. There is a reason to this obvious fact going unaddressed. The consequences of parenting begin to surface after the horse has gone well past the stable. This rules out remedies and throws the door ajar for regrets. Wise parenting is the panacea for this louring, and avoidable, tragedy.

Individual assets

Even parents who are indifferent to nurturing their children in the ways of wisdom wish earnestly that they should remain, somehow, happy; ideally, lifelong. Even so, a vast majority of them do notrecognize the connection between happiness and wisdom. (In Greek thought, only the virtuous are entitled to happiness.)As a result, those who try as best they can to keep their children happy overlook the need to inculcate in them the capacity for cheerfulness, which belongs to the essence of being human. Broadly speaking, the assets of an individual comprise three categories.


1.      Who a person is. This includes factors like qualities of mind, heart and soul, education, creativity, intelligence, health, capacity for faith in life and hope.

2.    What a person possesses, his earthly, material gains.

3.    What a person seems in the eyes of others: his reputation, public image, social standing etc.

Of the three categories, the second and the third, with which human beings are currently most obsessed, are of specious and unstable relevance to human happiness. We need, hence, to examine the first category - what a person is- in relation to its relevance to wise parenting.

Let us consider an example to be clearer as to what this involves. Suppose, you are in a resplendent garden, abounding in exotic, many-coloured, fragrant flowers. It rivals the best in the world. But what’s the use, if you suffer from colour-blindness and anosmia, or inability to smell? The garden is a riot of colours and a feast of fragrance. But it means nothing to you. You are self-exiled from the sweet wonderthat the garden is. External gains, in themselves, cannot become means of personal enrichment. There has to be a relationship of reciprocity between you (the subject) and what you own (the object). The locus of richness is within you, not without. Cervantes could write an immortal masterpiece - Don Quixote- while languishing in prison; whereas a billionaire cheat, who robs citizens via banks and swells India’s non-performing assets, may only be a lump of mental vacuity in his outlandish mansion.  

There is a parallel between the body and the inner being of a person. Physical disabilities have their existential counterparts. Life is a garden, abounding in sweetness and goodness. But how does it benefit me if I am, by nature, sullen and cheerless? It matters a great deal to the garden of my life whether I am an owl or a nightingale in it. Seen in this light, an important fact emerges. It is stupid to chase wealth and victory in the world without developing the capacity for respecting the goodness and greatness of life. It is like increasing the size of the garden and adding more exotic flowering plants without addressing one’s colour-blindness and anosmia.

Dimensions of personality

Some thinkers assume that this is a pre-destined disability, and nothing can changeit. That is, some individuals are programmed to be sulleneven amidst the banquet of life. There are habitual kill-joys. Also, blessings turn into banes and snares in the life of those who are not equipped to handle them prudently. To attribute this entirely to fate is to foreclose discussion on it. If the essence of personal nature is indeed inflexibly fixed and irremediable from birth onwards, religions and moral philosophies are superfluous. What is certainly true is that re-orienting human nature does not lend itself to short-cuts and quick-fix solutions. A child is not an empty slate (tabula rasa) - as Locke assumed- on which parents and teachers may write what they please.

I have found Immanuel Kant the most helpful in making sense of this pivotal issue in human nurture. There are, according to him, two dimensions to human personality. The first comprises the individual as progressively revealed through actions and attitudes. Kant calls this the phenomenal (or, empirical) dimension: the aspect in which an individual is accessible to others as existing. The second is inaccessible to others, and is known only vaguely even to the individual himself. This is the essence of his being. A human being is free, according to Kant, only in his essence; whereas in the phenomenal/empirical dimension, all human beings are unfree. (Rousseau’s dictum that man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains, applies to this aspect.)  This is, admittedly, a sketchy and inadequate picture of what is a complex argument in Kant. I allude to it nonetheless to insist that if parenting is to be wise long-term, it has to devise means and interventions for influencing the essence-formation of children, which is just about the most challenging task parents can undertake. This explains why supernatural help is traditionally invoked in this process. Put simply, parenting is, like it or not, a spiritual undertaking, and it may not be carried out well enough without resources and insightscorresponding to it.

Spirituality and religiosity

Spirituality needs to be distinguished from religiosity. Religiosity of every kind limits itself to dogmas, rites and rituals that have little to do with the human essence. Transacted entirely in the external world, they address only the empirical realmof human existence. Spirituality, in contrast, pertains formatively to the essence. Limitations of space allow us to examine this theme only in a suggestive fashion.

1. While religion is a sphere, at best, of restricted movement  (where individuals are kept mostly as spectators), spirituality, like life itself, is a domain of continual movement and dynamism. ‘Life’, wrote Aristotle, ‘is movement’. The Holy Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind which blows. Cessation of movement denotes death. Yet, as cultures become sophisticated and unnatural, sedentariness (or minimisation of movement) becomes prestigious. The universal- the God-appointed- form of meaningful movement is work. Work that benefits others is service. Parents are dangerously misconceived if they think they do their children any good by sparing them the need to work even for themselves, as is increasingly the case. Life survives because of the ceaseless work or movements encoded in the body. Our vital organs work ceaselessly. When they become sedentary, life is imperilled.(Obesity is an emerging childhood curse in India).Yet, we assume that it is good for our children to not work at all. “The Son of man,” said Jesus Christ, “has come not to be served, but to serve.” Or, a life devoid of work is parasitic.

2. Work, fortified with a spirit of service, has a healthy,formative influence on a child. It locates his personality in dynamism, as against sedentary indolence. The resistances, or difficulties that a child encounters in the course of working,strengthen his will power. Work also, as Gandhi believed, develops one’s intellectual powers. Above all, work plays a beneficial role in the moral development of a child. One who eats his bread in idleness, said Leo Tolstoy, is a thief!

3. Wise parents help their children to realize that their treasures need to be within themselves. Here, too, Jesus Christ provides a valuable insight. Only the treasures that thieves cannot break in and steal and rust cannot corrupt should be desired. Only inner treasures are of this kind; for no external riches are safe from the ups and downs of the world. Inner treasures pertain to the essence of an individual’s personality. They mark the difference between individuals. The same external event, for example, affects two individuals in contrary ways for this reason. Parents, by training children to think of the external world as the only source of happiness - say, in the form of receiving gifts from others- unwittingly condition them to be dependent on external circumstances. This breeds lurking anxieties and insecurities in individuals; for no individual, not even the richest and the most powerful, can have assured control of external circumstances for long.

4. The highest pleasures a human being can experience relate to the mind and the spirit. They are determined internally, even though they are invoked by external circumstances. If these dimensions of the inner core of personality are undeveloped, whatever stimulations or sources of enrichment there exist in the external milieu willfall flat on the individual. The educational application of this idea is easy to see. Getting children admitted to the best of schools and colleges won’t yield desired dividends, if the foundation is not laid, through parenting, for their becoming keen learners. As John Milton, the English poet said, you can only take a horse to the river, but not make it drink water.

Formative phase in focus

I am aware that my treatment of this vasttheme is sketchy. I venture to offer it to my readers because of my faith that they will build further on this bare foundation. My limited intent here is to raise awareness among parents concerning a vital aspect of parenting that, I believe, now suffers neglect. This has wide ramifications and serious consequences. By the time a child is eight years old, her formation, in all essential aspects, is nearly finished. How we nurture children during this formative phase should be a matter of concern. Rather than stay hamstrung by contemporaryassumptions and fads, parents need to be open to benefiting from relevant insights and resources incurring the risk, if need be, of seeming old-fashioned. If human beings are metaphysical not less than physical - else, what is there to distinguish us from animals?-it makes sense that spiritual insights complement natural resources - including reason, which is the ‘light of nature’- in the upbringing of our children so that they become, as a prayer has it, good citizens alike of heaven and earth. 

Dr. Valson Thampu

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

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