A woman of my acquaintance one day, in an effort to break her two-year-old child of certain infantile habits, said to him, “Come on now, you’re not a baby any longer.”
The toddler looked up at her with a happy smile and replied, “But I like being a baby!”
Another friend of mine was once asked by her five-year-old daughter, “Mommy, what do you think about during the day?”
“Well,” the mother replied, “I think about you children, about Daddy, about our friends.”
“I don’t,” rejoined the little girl, quite seriously. “I think about me.” She paused a bit, then continued thoughtfully, “Why do little children think about themselves?”
Interesting conversations, both of them.
We assume that children have a desire to grow up. But even adults are prone to resist change. How much more so, then, babies, secure in the loving embrace of their mothers; or little children, more interested in themselves than in the world — what to speak of the vast universe?—around them.
And yet, even at such a young age my friend’s little daughter was able also to universalize her self-preoccupation, to expand her identity to include other children. She displayed an inclination that is present in everyone, including children, not only to cling to what they already know, but also to enlarge their horizons, if only gradually and by small increments.
Indeed, expansion is instinctive to life itself. The important thing to understand, especially where children are concerned, is that they need to be invited to grow toward maturity. The ever-expanding vision of reality that will be theirs during the growing-up process must be offered to them sensitively. Otherwise, instead of awakening their interest, it may repel them.
Even adults may feel themselves threatened by challenges that are too far beyond their present horizons. I well remember something I observed personally in this connection.
Of the diverse activities that engage a person during his lifetime, my own have happened to include the founding of a community. This village, in fact, during some thirty years of struggles and challenges, has managed to grow and even to flourish. But when it was new it manifested — as often happens with projects at their outset — few of the outward signs of success.
Sometimes, in those days, I would share with others my dreams for the community’s future. My intention was to inspire, but, to my astonishment, these dreams for the future proved more threatening, for many, than inspiring. From that experience I learned that people need to advance one step at a time instead of making a giant mental leap into the future. In our case it was gradually only, as our members’ familiarity with the experiment developed over the years, that they found themselves accepting the developments I’d described, and much greater developments, which indeed they embraced quite naturally and happily.
Some of the principles of right behavior may at first seem contrary to common sense. It seems like simple common sense, for example, to cater to our own needs even at the cost of the needs of others. Yet mature people have always endorsed unselfishness as more deeply self-fulfilling. If such a teaching, however, defies common sense in many adults, how can we expect children to embrace it easily? One even wonders whether the little ones don’t sometimes feel themselves lost in a wilderness of adult values.
A cousin of mine, as a child, was always getting into scrapes. He was physically very strong, and therefore always came out the victor. One afternoon he returned home with a torn shirt and a few bruises. His mother admonished him, “Don’t you know, dear, that when another boy hits you, you shouldn’t hit him back?”
“Oh, but Mother,” the boy replied self-righteously, “I never hit back. I always hit first!”
It isn’t easy to teach such a child principles that we may value. Their experience of life, so far, falls far short of our own. How can we encourage them to include others’ realities in their own? Precepts that can be taught to an adult may be difficult even to explain to a child. In fact, let’s face it, even adults don’t always take to them easily. (“So he’ll starve if I take his job away from him. What of it? It’s a jungle out there — survival of the fittest and all that. I gotta think about me.”)
The task of education is to attract children toward the ideals of maturity — that is, toward including others’ realities in their own. A child has a natural need to feel secure within boundaries already known to him. Fortunately for his own development, he also feels an inherent need to expand those boundaries, even though gradually, as he senses in himself the capability to push them outward.
Many of the fantasies of childhood, for example, though they may appear foolish in the eyes of literal-minded adults, are important to children. If a child believes in Santa Claus, for instance, don’t disillusion him. Take him step by step, and not in one sudden leap, toward an understanding of things as they really are. If he is guided sensitively, he will keep the priceless gift of imagination, without which no great achievements in life are remotely possible.
Again, a child needs to know what his limits are; he is unhappy if he receives no guideline at all. To be told, “No, you may not cross the street unattended,” may invoke in him an uncomprehending disagreement, but it is a necessary guideline nevertheless, and the very firmness of the limits it imposes will give him a sense of security.
The child must be allowed to expand his understanding at his own pace. He should be encouraged, but never forced, in this direction by his adult mentors.
It would help, however, to find one, all-encompassing explanation for the bewildering number of precepts he needs to learn as he grows up, one single principle that he will recognize as a constant.
He may not quickly understand the need, for example, to include others’ realities in his own. He may not easily perceive the benefits to himself of being generous to others. He may find himself merely bewildered by the — again, to him — incredible suggestion that, when hit, he shouldn’t hit back. And in teaching him each of these precepts, it may be difficult to get him to memorize them, presented as each one might be, separately and without any relation to other precepts.
What is needed is some simple “Unified Field Theory” (for lack of a better term) applied to human behavior; one that will avoid that common, but minimally effective, explanation, “If you don’t do as I say, you’ll get a walloping!”
And in fact there is such an explanation. It is one that can serve well for all the stages of a child’s journey toward true maturity, and is equally relevant for adults.
For, regardless of any other motivation, there is in all striving one overriding consideration. Though true equally for adults and children, it is easier to discern, usually, in the life of a child. For the child’s motivations are less easily hidden by other considerations: “What will the neighbors think? Will devoting energy to my family damage me in my career? Will smiling at my customers, regardless how I feel inside, boost my income?” The child’s motivations are seldom so complex.
What people really want, at the heart of everything they do, is quite simple: They want to avoid the experience of pain, and to exchange it for the experience of happiness. This simple thought was, to the best of my knowledge, expressed first by the great Indian sage, Paramhansa Yogananda. We could therefore name it (though he himself never did so) “Yogananda’s Law of Basic Motivation.” Put in the simplest terms, this is the Law: The twofold goal of all human striving is the avoidance of pain, and the fulfillment of happiness.
Why, for example, does a grown-up seek employment? First, because he wants to escape the pain of hunger and financial insecurity; second, because he wants to find happiness — whether happiness in the work itself, or happiness through the things he expects to be able to afford once he has a steady income.
Why do people climb mountains? Is it only “to get to the top” (or, like Hillary, “because it’s there”)? Why would anyone want to get to the top of a mountain? Quite simply, because the climber has it in his mind that at the top lies, for him, some kind of fulfillment — in other words, happiness.
And why do people resort to collecting — as a recent bulk mailing invited me to do—“artistic replicas” in silver of emblems on the hoods of automobiles in the early nineteen-twenties? All, one assumes, to escape what must, for some, be the intolerable agony of not owning such a collection, and, on the positive side, for the sheer ecstasy of possessing one.
It depends simply on what desires you’ve cultivated in your heart. “Le monde,” as the French say, “où l’on s’amuse.”
Within the vast panorama of human desires, however, there may be seen certain types of behavior that receive universal approval or disapproval. Whether climbing mountains or collecting emblems is viewed favorably or unfavorably depends entirely on the individual’s point of view. It has been well said that there is no accounting for taste. When it comes to traits of character, however, mere taste is not the point. Kindness vs. cruelty, generosity vs. selfishness, calmness vs. nervousness, cheerfulness and similar positive attitudes vs. negativity and moodiness, sharing the credit vs. claiming all the credit for oneself: There lies at some level in every human being, even the most egocentric, a recognition at least that a choice is involved in each of these cases, and that this choice can be crucial in a person’s life.
The choice is in fact more crucial than most people realize. Whatever the trait under discussion, the issues concerned can be explained with perfect clarity in these simple, basic terms: By right behavior, a person (a child, in this case) will avoid pain to himself; even more important, he will increase his own measure of happiness.