“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in Kindergarten,” – a familiar quote from a book by Robert Fulghum identifying some early lessons learned and how they could – or should – be applied to adult life.
Some of the lessons mentioned, “share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, don’t take things that aren’t yours,” have a familiar ring. Parents try to teach those things early on.
The idea in Fulghum’s book is to show how the things children learn when they are young, we need to carry over to the way we live in the world as grown-ups. The problem is that many of these lessons go against strong feelings that we struggle with. For example, “share everything”. Do you really want to share everything? Don’t you have some things you don’t want your children to play with? Children, too, have prize possessions that they don’t want to share with a sibling. So “share everything” may be too simple to expect of our children.
How about “play fair”? Isn’t the game more fun when you win? Have you ever had the impulse to cheat? What helps you overcome it – if you do? Knowing that it is “wrong” is only the first part. Young children don’t yet have the concept, but even when they get it, they still have to overcome the strong wish to win that most of us have.
Then there is “don’t hit people”. That seems obvious. No one wants to be hit back. But how about feeling so angry about something someone does that you would like to sock them. And haven’t we all had the feeling now and then of wanting to give our children a good slap? As with the impulse to cheat, we sometimes have to work hard not to act on those feelings.
“Put things back where you found them.” If only! Are you a put-awayer or a leaver- outer? How about your mate or partner? Is one person messy and the other a neat freak? That can cause some friction when people live together. So what do we do when children don’t put their toys away?
The point about all these rules and instructions we’re always giving children is that in adult life we still struggle with many of them. The reason is that what seem like basic, simple things are often really quite difficult. They go against what feels like our own self-interest, or whatever we would most like to do at the moment.
From another vantage point, following these “rules” and going against what we want at the moment is really in our self-interest. We are all social animals and the ability to live together more, rather than less pleasurably is definitely very much to our self-interest. And guidelines on how to live and what to do remind us that others also have needs and feelings to be considered.
It takes time and effort to help children understand the underlying reason for all the do’s and don’ts. Becoming aware of how we ourselves are handling them can help us understand what it is our children have to master in themselves. It can enable us to be more compassionate in the way we give corrections to our children while they work to overcome the impulses we may still be struggling with. It can also help us be less judgmental of behavior that is all too human.
Perhaps the truth is that everything we need to know we are still learning.