“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in Kindergarten.” This is an often quoted line from a book by Robert Fulghum in which he identifies some early lessons learned and points out 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 are trying to teach those things even before kindergarten, although they loom larger when children are learning to function with others in a group.
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. Actually, I have found that it works the other way around. If we look at the way we live together as adults, the things that are important to us, the things that bother us, the conflicts that arise and the way we do or don’t resolve them, we can discover a lot about teaching our children “how to live and what to do and how to be.”
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, or something you would prefer that someone else not borrow? Children, too, have prize possessions that they don’t want to share with a friend or sibling. So “share everything” is too simple and may be unfair 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-away-er 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?
“Don’t take things that aren’t yours.” Women sometimes complain about sisters who “borrowed” their clothes. Children sometimes “borrow” things from school or from a brother or sister. They often “take” things that another child was playing with. Is that taking things that aren’t yours?
The point about all these rules and instructions we’re always giving children is that in adult life we still struggle with many or most 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. The meaning of some of this thinking will take a while for them to be able to grasp. Neither is it helpful to get involved in long explanations for everything we ask them to do or not do. So we use “do” and “don’t” as short cuts, basically asking children to just do what we ask of them.
Becoming aware of how we ourselves are handling these do’s and don’ts can help us really 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 started to learn in Kindergarten – and are still learning.