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Fostering Wisdom in Children (and the Rest of Us)

With the Head and the Heart

Fostering Wisdom in Children (and the Rest of Us)

By Vicki Garlock

Some decades ago a friend of mine, a college senior way back then, was attending a conference at a large, distinguished university of “pre-faculty” students, collegians who hoped to pursue a higher-education vocation in the next few years. The three-day gathering culminated in a large banquet, some final comments on the benefits of professordom from several university presidents, and a question & answer session. Feeling overly precocious perhaps, my friend raised his hand and was recognized: “For three days we’ve been hearing about high salaries and long vacations and all the accompanying benefits. About the good life we can count on. Any chance, though, in this higher-ed hierarchy where knowledge is so valued, that we might somehow attain wisdom? Is that part of the process?”

Three times the president at the podium tried to respond but ended up tongue-tied. A colleague stepped up to the microphone and replied, “Sure, we’d like to know how to attain wisdom. But we don’t know how! So we hope for the best.”

That’s a rather unsatisfying response considering that humans have been contemplating the notion of wisdom for more than 4,000 years. Like the tree nymphs of the ancient Greek forests, wisdom entices and enchants while remaining steadfastly ephemeral and elusive. Is wisdom something we impart? Does wisdom develop over time? Or do we simply uncover the wisdom that resides deep within us? For those of us who raise, educate, and mentor kids, fostering the development of wisdom seems inextricably tied to how we define it. 

But maybe we’re missing the forest for the trees.

One glimpse of wisdom comes to us from ancient Egypt where we find two trains of thought. The first is that wisdom is divine. The second is that wisdom is passed down by elders. Take Ptahhotep’s collection of maxims for example, written in about 2400 BCE and directed at his son. Ptahhotep, a high official in the Egyptian court, endeavored to share the learned advice of his ancestors who had, in turn, been privy to the sagacity of the gods. The instructions include notions like: avoid gossip, follow your heart, lead through kindness, learn by listening, practice generosity, and be content with what you have. There’s also a fair bit about following God’s commands and recognizing God’s beneficence when feeling self-congratulatory about wealth, power, or success.

Funerary mask of Amenemope – Photo: Wikimedia, Cairo Antiquities Museum

Funerary mask of Amenemope – Photo: Wikimedia, Cairo Antiquities Museum

A millennium later, again in Egypt, the scribe Amenemope offered a similar set of instructions to his son: work hard, remain humble, respect everyone, avoid abusing power, and honor divine will. If all this sounds a bit like the Biblical book of Proverbs, there’s a reason; Egyptian influence on Israel and Judah was particularly strong when parts of Proverbs were compiled.   

This view of wisdom continues to resonate today. The Little Red Book of Wisdom by Mark DeMoss, for instance, includes chapters on honesty, recognizing that money isn’t everything, thoughtful listening, seeking the advice of one’s elders, and honoring the role of God. Countless blog posts, readily found on line, also offer “words of wisdom for your children.” They include many of the same maxims – be honest, be kind, follow your dreams, and be grateful for what you have. Interestingly, much of this guidance is offered with the caveat, probably recognized by Ptahhotep himself, that even if kids don’t appear to be listening now, they well may appreciate the advice when they are older.

This ancient view of wisdom is reflected in current psychological research where wisdom is often described as the confluence of specific emotional, personality, and cognitive factors. (See this article for an overview of current research in the field.) Emotional characteristics include empathy, self-control, and an ability to deal with ambiguity; personality characteristics include reflectiveness, humility, and a willingness to learn.

Cognitive factors, which seem to be emphasized in many current models, include a long list of reasoning abilities, such as mastering the pragmatics of life, making good decisions even when given imperfect data, knowing what you know and what you don’t know (formally called metacognition), and adeptly handling contradictory information. Again, however, nearly all of these psychologists seem to agree with the underlying assumption that wisdom develops over the course of one’s life, and even then, only a small percentage of adults manage to behave wisely in a consistent way.

An Alternative Vision

We find an alternative view of wisdom, though, when we turn to the sacred texts of the Eastern traditions. There we hear that wisdom stems from knowing one’s self, recognizing our interconnectedness, and letting go of attachments.  

One who knows others is intelligent. One who knows himself is truly wise.
     – Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33, John Mabry translation

Arjuna: Tell me of those who live established in wisdom, ever aware of the Self, O Krishna….

Krishna: They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart … when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self.

– Bhagavad Gita, excerpts from chapter 2, verses 54-55, 64-65, Easwaran translation

Just as a rain-cloud would settle the dust that’s been raised by the wind,
So all conceptions come to rest when one sees clearly with wisdom.

Aññakondañña Thera (Thag 15.1), translated by Andrew Olendzki

The Wise Child

Shelri Dölpo Rinpoche, a Tibetan tulku – Photo:  Daniel Reid, Cc.2.0

Shelri Dölpo Rinpoche, a Tibetan tulku – Photo: Daniel Reid, Cc.2.0

It is telling that in these traditions the door is a bit more open to the sagacious child. Several Sikh gurus were enthroned before the age of 15. Guru Har Krishan, for example, was given the title at the age of 5 and died at the age of 8 from smallpox when he contracted the disease while healing others during an epidemic.

Perhaps the best examples of wise children come from the Tibetan Buddhist tulkus (keepers of the lineage). In the West, the Dalai Lamas are the best-known exemplars. In that lineage, the Dalai Lama is recognized as the incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. When the tulku dies, it is the responsibility of the other senior lamas to find a successor, which literally means locating the reincarnated child. The search is guided by hints, signs, dreams, and written instructions that might have been left by the tulku. What is fascinating and decidedly non-Western about the whole thing is the assumption that the reincarnated tulku is a child. For example, the second Dalai Lama identified himself as such at the age of 3, and the third Dalai Lama was offering daily discourses to the monks at age 10.

Nowadays, being identified as a tulku usually sets the child up for years of teaching and training, but all of it is underscored by the overwhelming sense that the child is holy, special, and already wise. We find countless stories about child tulkus being able to remain calm, peaceful, and still during ceremonies that last for hours; about the extraordinary glow they emanate; and about the match between their personalities and those of the deceased tulku.

This entire set of beliefs makes many in the West as uncomfortable as the thin mountain air where these practices originated. (See this article about a young boy, identified as a reincarnation in the 1990s in Seattle, for example.) But I suspect some of that unease stems from Westerners’ long-held thinking about what wisdom is and where it can be found.

Photo: Hopefestivalvi.com

Photo: Hopefestivalvi.com

All of this raises the issue of how we might foster the development of wisdom. Psychologists suggest things like adopting an open mind, providing a safe space where children can explore doubts, encouraging values clarification, and discouraging self-centeredness. Parents suggest things like teaching your child to be kind to others, providing a supportive learning environment, allowing your child to experience consequences for actions, and modeling “wise” behavior.

Interestingly, this is probably what the monastery monks would say, too. On the one hand, it’s all a bit reminiscent of the 19th century riddle about trees falling in uninhabited forests. Whether or not trees make a sound largely depends on how one defines “sound.” And so it seems with wisdom: much of what we think about it depends on how we define it.

On the other hand, each of us seems to hold, deep within us, some kernel of wisdom. Perhaps it’s part of our genetic code. Perhaps it’s part of our collective subconscious. Perhaps it has simply become culturally engrained following thousands of years of considerable thought. The origins may not matter much. What matters more – even if we haven’t been identified as a reincarnated tulku – is discovering ways to grasp the kernel, in ourselves and in others, so we can lift it up, nurture its growth, and magnify its reach.