I spent a large part of my childhood in Colombo. Every time I visited my relatives, they were keen to know what life was like for us in a foreign land. My cousins listened with wide eyes when I would tell them about celebrations, foods and experiences. They asked for photographs, and we produced the little 3×4 blurry black and white prints where everything looked the same!
Our children live in a vastly different world. We are now interconnected in ways that were previously saved for the movies. We know the lives of those in the farthest villages through an internet that even lets us enter pyramids or go deep into the seas. Life presents opportunities at every step, far more than we can fathom, and sometimes handle.
Growing up in this human maze, our children face competition at every level. They apply to the same universities as thousands of others. They vie for the same jobs that are available across the world. So intense is the competition that doing well is simply not enough. Which is why so many highly qualified graduates who’ve spent years pursuing higher education are driving cabs to make ends meet, struggling under the burden of loans and falling prey to the frustration and depression that results from disappointment and disillusion.
And then there are also those who’ve succumbed to the urges of an emotional self that co-exists within each of us. This self is the epitome of greed, and well fed in our day and age where we glorifies power, pretense and plenty. And it silences the other self – the meaning seeking part of us that ensures morality, intuition and wisdom. This disconnect between the two is the birthplace of cheating, corruption and every unethical means to get ahead.
It almost seems as though we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is a third way though – one that brings us back to our responsibility as parents. The very first relationships our children develop will affect then for the rest of their lives, for better or for worse. What we as parents do in their early years will go on to determine whether our children grow up to be conscious and conscientious citizens of the planet. Or not.
The reason is that in childhood, the brain develops parts of itself where values, beliefs and habits are encoded. These parts are connected to our gut through one of the most primary nerves that meanders through our body and conveys messages back to our brains. When values are practised and reinforced, our children develop a gut feeling that keeps them in check long before the rational brain has had the chance to justify their actions to suit their purpose. When there is no other jury out there, it’s the one within us that keeps us on the right track.
So what are the values that we as parents should cultivate in this competitive world?
Humanity and Compassion
As human beings, we are capable of untold acts of goodness. But we’ve also got the capacity for much evil. Our rational brain that enables us to stop and think before reacting, is both a place of Machiavellianism and virtuosity. Our actions depend on how well we’ve trained our muscle for empathy and compassion. The old legend of the two wolves of the heart is indeed true. Of the wolf of love and that of hate, the one that grows stronger is the one we feed. In an increasingly global world, our ability to expand our compassion beyond the boundaries of a few close friends and family is what will help us connect, cooperate, and become stronger.
Growth over Achievement
We are all works in progress. When we place an emphasis on achievement, we glorify perfection and downplay the benefits of failure. This feeds fear, fuels the stress response, stalls risk-taking and growth, and leaves our children ill-equipped to handle set-backs while maintaining their belief in themselves. Research out of Stanford University shows that if we were to emphasise growth instead, we would allow them to see mistakes as opportunities for growth. They would be less judgemental, more open-minded, and more motivated to learn from mistakes and work towards their full potential.
Creativity and Courage
Never in human history have we witnessed the current pace of change. Our best guesses come up empty when we try and foresee the world 10 years down the road. To equip our children with the best chances for survival and success, we have to nurture their creativity so that they are able to adapt to changing circumstances. We have to let go of our own beliefs regarding success and encourage out-of-the-box thinking, the willingness to take risks and the desire to experiment with their skills and talents. Our children are naturally creative, and courageous in adolescence – our role is to cheer them on while ensuring their safety.
As parents, all we really want is for our children to be happy. By valuing compassion, creativity and growth, we help our children find their gifts and then give them back to the world. And that is the path to true happiness.