The Stages of Maturity
Certain medicines are designed to release their healing properties into the body gradually, a few hours at a time.
Certain changes in the human body, similarly, are programed to occur years apart in a person’s life.
At about six years, the child begins to lose his baby teeth, substituting for them new teeth that will be suitable to an adult body. Roughly at twelve years, he undergoes the traumatic physical, mental, and emotional changes that come with puberty. At about eighteen years his body stops growing, and he prepares mentally for adulthood. Women at more or less forty-eight years enter menopause, often accompanied by mental and emotional upheavals.
The changes people undergo in their lives are not only physical. There is the well-known “mid-life crisis,” for example. And there is the psychological need, around the age of sixty, to withdraw from outward activity. At thirty, or slightly earlier, people may begin at last to get a clear sense of their particular “mission” in life.
It has even been found statistically that certain mental abilities peak at different ages: mathematics and poetry, for example, during the late teens and early twenties; business acumen, in the fifties; philosophical insight, in the sixties and seventies.
The stages of life make a fascinating study. Various explanations have been offered for them. Astrologers, for example, relate the more significant of them to the cycles of Saturn and Jupiter: Saturn, for the cycles governing his outer life, including his life’s work; Jupiter, for his inner development.
It may be only coincidence, but the twelve-year cycles of Jupiter — six years of movement away from the point of origin in the horoscope or birth chart, and six years of inward return — actually do correspond to certain developments in a person’s life. If nothing else, they make a useful peg, at least, on which to hang our awareness of these developments.
In the life of a growing child, these stages are particularly noteworthy. For in the child’s psychological and spiritual development there are four clearly marked stages, at each of which it becomes natural for him to assume responsibility for developing the next basic “tool” of maturity that I’ve described above.
The first six years of a child’s life are taken up primarily with the development of physical awareness. The following six, until about the age of twelve, mark the natural period for developing emotional sensitivity. From twelve to eighteen, teenage rebelliousness is a natural symptom of a developing will power. And the last six years of these two twelve-year cycles, from eighteen to twenty-four, are the time of life when the intellect begins naturally to flower.
These four phases of development represent, as I said, the first two cycles of Jupiter in a person’s life, each with an outward followed by an inward flow. Thus, the outward flow occurs during the first and the third cycles: bodily awareness and control in the first, and growing affirmation of the will in the third. The inward direction occurs during the second and the fourth cycles: emotional awareness and refinement from the ages of six to twelve, and intellectual awakening in the fourth, from eighteen to twenty-four.
If the reader should want a less exotic explanation than the twelve-year cycles of Jupiter, he may look instead to the correlation that exists between these four stages of maturity and fundamental changes that take place in the physical body: the appearance, at about six years of age, of the child’s first permanent teeth; the advent of puberty at about the age of twelve; and the cessation of physical development at about the age of eighteen.
In whatever way one seeks to explain these four stages — even as convenient memory pegs, only — the stages are readily observable facts. Dismiss every theory, and the facts remain. They simply exist.
Friends of mine, who teach children the Suzuki method for learning to play the violin, have informed me that until the age of six their students are fully occupied with the sheer physical mechanics of playing. From six to twelve years, they are moved by the beauty of the music. And from twelve onwards, through high school, they labor determinedly at mastering technique.
The Physical Years
The first thing a baby needs to learn is how to cope with his body. At first he can only wave his arms and legs helplessly in the air. Then he begins to crawl, then toddle, then walk, and finally to run about enthusiastically. Even as late as his sixth year, the child is still physically awkward, colliding with things as he runs, dropping bottles if he removes their caps, and scattering food with his fork when feeding himself.
Beyond muscular control, the child’s first six years are a time of sensory awakening to the world around him. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, the tantalizing way things feel to the touch — all of these have, for him, an amazingly vivid reality. The rainbow colors of sunlight in a dewdrop; the distinctive tread of every member of his household; fragrant morning smells in the kitchen; the smooth feeling of clean sheets — these and countless other impressions flood constantly into his mind.
During these first years, then, with the child’s developing sensory awareness, he can be taught most easily through his body and through bodily movement.
Then, at about the age of six, he is ready to be instructed through the medium of emotional awareness. This doesn’t mean that he has been emotionally unaware until then — far from it! During his first six years, his subjective awareness may have seemed almost a cauldron of boiling emotions. After six, however, he comes to a time when it is possible for him to focus on directing and refining those emotions.
It is from this age onward, for example, that a child can be inspired to develop noble sentiments. This six-year period is a natural time for hero worship. It is also the best time, therefore, to offer him constructive role models — in legend, fantasy, history, and among presently living human beings.
The Willful Years
At twelve years, or thereabouts — that is, with the onset of puberty — the ego begins to assert itself more forcefully. With this assertion comes an awakened need to test and strengthen the will. The important thing, at this time, is to guide the adolescent toward the right use of his will power — that is to say, to use it expansively, not contractively. Especially important during these years is it for him to learn self-control. He should be encouraged to flex the “muscles” of his will power in constructive ways — not to try to dominate others, for example, or to prove himself in their eyes, but to learn that true greatness means being a bulwark of strength for others.
Bodily awareness during the teen-age years assumes new meaning, and must be channeled healthfully, especially into sports and other vigorous forms of exercise. The teenager must learn also how to channel his physical energies creatively, toward worthwhile activities of various kinds, depending on his own nature.
This is a time in the developing child’s life when his energies can with equal ease rise or sink in the scale of spiritual “lightness” and “heaviness.” Without proper guidance, he may become contractive in his feelings, consequently dwelling too much on himself and his own problems, if he is naturally introverted; or entering into intense ego-competition with others, if his nature is outgoing. Properly guided, however, these years can develop into a wonderful period of active and practical idealism.
Those adults are mistaken who write off the teen-age years as a period to be merely survived — if possible! I even wonder whether much of the problem that children face during their teens is not due to the powerfully negative image projected onto them at this time of their lives by adults.
It is painfully evident, especially to parents, that adolescents are no longer the sweet, innocent, trusting, and — dare I say it?—cuddly children of yesterday. Infants — indeed, the very young of all species — have something beautiful that, to everyone’s regret, they lose as they grow up. It isn’t merely their small size. A baby elephant, after all, is already larger than an adult human being. Rather, it is the trust we see in their eyes. They haven’t yet learned to suspect the intentions of an indifferent or hostile world.
Jim Corbett, the famous tiger hunter, did his favorite hunting with a camera. One day he was lying in a tree on a platform, called in India a machan. He had his camera ready, when he saw a grown Bengal tiger stalk a kid goat. At some point during the tiger’s advance the kid heard him and turned around. Observing this unknown but enormous creature, it tottered over trustingly and began to sniff at him with curiosity.
Well, how could the tiger finish his attack? On the other hand, what was he to do? He rose from his crouch and, to save face, allowed the kid to sniff at him a few moments longer. Then, with great dignity, he turned away and walked off into the jungle.
The sweet innocence of infancy is lost not only in human beings, but in all animals, when they reach the age of sexual maturity. Parents — mothers, especially — cannot avoid a certain sadness in the loss. (I’ll never forget my mother’s response when, at the age of forty-five, I gave her a birthday card that showed a big bruiser of a man with a large, stubble chin chewing on a cigar that stuck out of the side of his mouth. He was dressed in a little sailor suit with short pants, and held a balloon in one hand. The message below the picture read, “Happy birthday, Mommy, from your little boy.” How delightedly my mother laughed! It so aptly expressed her own secret attitude toward us boys.)
Nevertheless, adolescence inevitably brings on a change. The thing is to do one’s best to make it a good change. Of vital assistance in this regard is to project positive expectations onto the teenager.
Proper training during the first twelve years, and proper reference, later, to the values learned during those years, will be a great aid in turning this third six-year period into a time of real development toward maturity.
The Thoughtful Years
At eighteen, finally, the child is ready to give full attention to developing his intellect. Much more than a time of learning to reason cleverly — a skill that he may indeed have already shown by the age of three!—this is a time for learning to reason clearly — that is to say, with discernment and discrimination.
At twenty-four, there may not be any obvious biological change to suggest that, the six years of intellectual unfoldment having ended, the young adult is ready at last to enter the world of grownups. In fact, college usually lasts only four years, after which a young man or woman is expected to get out there and shoulder adult responsibility with everyone else. From my own observation of young people at that age, however, I am inclined to recommend that they not be forced out of the learning mode until they actually turn twenty-four.
Some children from very early in life may be more naturally inclined toward feeling, will, or reason. An intellectually gifted child, for example, may reveal the gift of reasoning almost with the first words he utters. And an infant of naturally strong will may make his wishes unmistakenly known in the cradle. There have been many brilliant people, however, even geniuses, who never achieved the equilibrium of true maturity in their lives, being perhaps physically inept, or emotionally immature, or whimsical in the exertion of will power, or even, in their very brilliance, blind to many fundamental realities. Such people are, for these very reasons, not completely successful as human beings. Again, there have been many people of great will power who yet lacked the ability to feel sensitively. Examples of similar imbalances are to be found in all the four stages of maturity.
Whatever the child’s intrinsic ability, then, it would be wise not to deprive him of his natural development through these four sequential stages. While giving recognition to his intellectual needs and gifts, for example, remember also that a six-year-old is still a child, and that other aspects of his nature must be brought to maturity if he is ever to live a full, and fulfilled, life. The four stages should each be given its due importance during the growing years.
The Adult Years
Adults, too, have their twenty-four-year cycles of development toward true maturity. Education doesn’t end with graduation from formal schooling. The first twenty-four are meant to ground them in the essential tools, but after that much work remains.
The next twenty-four years, more or less until the age of forty-eight, are for giving back to the world in a material sense what the person has received during his growing years.
The twenty-four after that are for withdrawing to some extent from the battlefield, while coaching the younger ones in the knowledge he has gained in life’s struggle.
The remainder of his life, from more or less the age of seventy-two, is for concentrating more on sharing his acquired wisdom with others, as opposed to sharing his practical knowledge (which may in fact, by this time, be growing obsolete anyway). This is also a period during which a person will seek to prepare himself, if he is wise, for passing life’s “final exam.” It is a time, ideally, for meditation and contemplation of the eternal verities.
These cycles of adulthood might easily make the subject of a book. An elaborate treatment of them would be out of place, however, in this book, dedicated as it is to childhood education.