I first heard the famous and, to my mind, most socially relevant song ever written, John Lennon’s “Imagine“, at the end of the movie The Killing Fields. I was 11.
It is a gut-wrenching film: the story of an American journalist and his colleagues caught up in the madness of the wars in Southeast Asia during the 1970s. I remember being sickened by the images of the suffering the Cambodian people endured under the rule of the brutal and fanatical Khmer Rouge. More than anything I remember how upset I was when I realized these things had actually happened. I had only started discovering the extent of the horror of the Second World War, the Japanese conquest of China and the Holocaust in particular. Seeing that humans had continued to commit the worst kinds of barbarity even after that horrible war made me feel true despair.
How could anyone be so disassociated from common decency? Why didn’t they feel the guilt and disgust which would have stained their hands? How could they possibly justify their actions, even just to themselves?
Cruelty in any form still enrages me. Even a single intentionally hateful word or action causes damage which is impossible to escape. As a victim of bullying in school I know how deeply that can scar you. The effects are longer-lasting than you expect. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how people can assume we, as a species, are somehow superior to all others. I don’t think a lot of elephants or lions or squirrels or even sharks, hurt others just because they can. We do, far too often.
When I was working toward my second Bachelor of Arts degree a couple of years ago I decided to write a paper on bullying in schools and came across a book I am sorry I had never seen before: Prejudice and Your Child by Kenneth B. Clark, the first black president of the American Psychological Association. This amazing, engrossing book confirmed through scientific study what I had already understood—prejudice is learned. It is not genetic or a destiny.
So, what did this mean for me and my children? I know they can learn, that autism is no barrier to acquiring either an open mind or a hateful attitude. All children absorb what they see and hear, with special attention to those adults whom they like and admire the most. They can’t differentiate between “good” and “bad” unless someone teaches them.
My boys are asking me all the time now, “Mommy, is that a bad word or a good word” to know what they can and can’t say. They ask if people are nice or mean, and if they are making good or bad choices when they ask for more snacks or when they want to play certain computer games. This weight of responsibility is new because until now they didn’t care as much what other people thought. The influence of others, especially friends, is now important. Deciding which way to steer them is never easy.
The saying “learning is a lifelong journey” keeps running through my head. Should I monitor them more closely to stop them from ever making a bad choice or should I allow them to learn from mistakes? Which will have a lasting impact? How do I explain the fine lines between “good” and “bad”? Will what I say clash with what their teachers and friends say, causing them to be frustrated? My beliefs are mine, the result of 43 years of being alive and the specific experiences I have had. Am I free to influence them beyond small questions or should I let them figure out all the details, whether social, religious or emotional, by themselves?
We do not live in a bubble so I know I can’t stop everyone else from having an impact on how my boys think. Whenever I speak to someone else’s child I am aware that what I say will stay with them and wonder if it will have a positive or negative affect. The influence of school and peers has already started to overtake my own.
I think the only answer is to be mindful. It is the bedrock of Buddhist teaching, this heightened awareness of everything we do and say. We have to balance them in such a way to maximize the positive and minimize the negative. We have to remember that there is the immediate impact and the long-term impact. Everything we do or say radiates out into the world around us. People carry a memory of what they hear and see and the effect it has can be almost invisible at first and come back later more strongly or vice versa. No-one is immune to the consequences. Managing them requires mindfulness on the part of the speaker/actor and others.
We need to teach children to remember that what they say and do is important for everyone and for themselves. Each of us carries our own emotional and psychological baggage created by our actions and words. We need to teach children to see past the immediate and think as the other. They must try and understand how others will receive what they say and do and how it will impact them. They need to consider how they want to affect their world. How do they want things to go from this one moment on? Learning is not just formulas, grammatical rules and facts, it is an emotional connection with others.
Teach the children you know how to connect, how to see others as ourselves. Teach them to love, to listen, to reach out and give more than they get. They will find the kind of comfort and safety that only a deep, mindful connection can create. It only comes from practice, at every occasion which presents itself. There is no book that can teach this to children. Every person around them can show it, every day, in any gesture, word and tone, how to live a better, more empathetic life.
I imagine all the people sharing all the world, living life in peace. Don’t let a single opportunity to emphasize the positive pass you by. The children are watching.
Thoughts or comments? Leave them in the comments below. We love to hear from you.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Aurimas Adomavicius.