What are the most important things we can teach our kids? These days there are a lot of possible answers. Obviously, STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) often lead to lucrative, stable careers; they seem to be tickets to “the good life,” or so we’re taught. Languages are helpful. You can’t go wrong with basic computer programming skills.
But in a world where people seem increasingly unkind, dishonest, greedy, violent and sexually immoral, we might want to reconsider an emphasis on that old standard called wisdom. Obviously, we can’t make anyone wise. Still, we can at least expose our children to wisdom literature and hope it takes root.
Collectively we know we need to emphasize wisdom and good behavior. We’ve just become shy about being specific in our instruction; sounds too much like religion, perhaps. So we offer students platitudes without foundations: “be nice,” or “don’t tolerate intolerance.” Instead of this very clear statement: “Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37. (Which adds the wonderful idea that the reason not to judge is that we have reasons to be condemned ourselves.)
In fact, it isn’t ultimately the responsibility of schools, but of parents (and family groups, cultural and faith communities) to teach wisdom. And I fear that many parents have abdicated the authority required to teach wisdom. Knowing their own failures, they (falsely) believe it’s hypocrisy to teach truth to their offspring.
So, they don’t talk to their kids about wisdom. Worse, adults rarely read to children now. If they do, the books aren’t scriptures or foundational stories from our (or any) moral traditions, with their millennia of insight. They aren’t fairy tales, myths, and legends, with their embedded wisdom passed down for eons.
Thus, kids are frequently “educated” in wisdom (if at all) by cartoons, movies, and television shows; by social media, performers, athletes, websites, talk-shows and pop culture icons instead of their parents, or the wisdom of the ages.
Maybe we don’t teach wisdom because it might have the unimaginable consequence of making some children (and adults) see that their behaviors were bad and should be better. (“A wise son brings joy to his father but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” Proverbs 10:1) Wisdom literature is full of the idea that we aren’t (contrary to popular opinion) “perfect just the way we are.” It suggests that we all have a ways to go, and that we can grow in insight, humility, love, courage, sacrifice, and kindness. (“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.” Proverbs 18:15)
Another benefit of the pursuit of wisdom is that properly taught, it takes our minds off of things petty and transitory, and tells us that money, power, sex, food and other tangibles aren’t the only things to live for. Wisdom calls us to higher pursuits, in this life and sometimes in the next. As such, it disempowers those who would manipulate us by offering us things or position. A man or woman who is busy searching for truth and righteousness is harder to bribe, blackmail or tempt. (“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Proverbs 22:1)
An education in wisdom reminds us that there are times to feel guilt; to know that we have failed to live up to a higher goal and should try harder. And that our actions may be conducted in secret but almost always have public consequences. (“He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself.” Proverbs 6:32. “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” Proverbs 21:23.)
I grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition; that’s the wisdom I learned. I’ve absolutely violated its precepts, but always regretted it when I did so. Among the many things, I’m thankful for the fact that I heard and read words of wisdom over and over as a child, and continue to now as an adult.
You, dear readers, come from many wisdom traditions. Whatever our backgrounds, the wise share common themes. Celebrate these truths and share them. Especially with the children.
In the end, character is more important than material success. Furthermore, one day the kids may become politicians or entertainers.
Wouldn’t it be nice if they were wise too?
Edwin Leap is an emergency physician who blogs at edwinleap.com and is the author of the Practice Test and Life in Emergistan.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com