The day the child realizes that all adults are imperfect, he becomes
an adolescent; the day he forgives them, he becomes an adult; the
day he forgives himself, he becomes wise.
– Alden Nowlan, Canadian writer, poet (1933-1983)
We, as parents, must take responsibility when our children discover us flawed, imperfect, even breakers of the rules of common behaviour we set as standards for them in their early lives.
Babies come into this world knowing very little. What they know from 40 weeks of listening in on the world they soon will enter provides them with some information, but we don’t yet know the amount or the degree of impact it has on them as children. Let’s assume that they have learned enough to make them curious about their new world and they have the beginnings of cognitive abilities by which they will learn more.
Many adults believe that babies gather information as they sense their surroundings for the first several months, even years. Eventually they assemble this data into a concept of what becomes their understanding of their world. This perception about babies is fundamentally wrong.
Babies devise a concept of their world shortly after they have enough information to make sense of it, which is not long after birth. The very act of making sense of it requires the creation of a concept. The concept gets revised as they add more data to their memory banks. Even as babies we believe we know what our world is about.
Throughout pre-adolescent childhood, most kids hold the belief that their concept of their world is the way the larger world is. If their parents satisfy their need for touch by caressing them, holding them and cuddling them, they believe that everyone in the adult world behaves this way. If their parents read to them, they believe that all parents read to their children, even when they discover exceptions to this in other families.
Babies and young children create concepts of their world based on the behaviours of their parents or others who care for them. As they grow and mature, they expect that new information will add to and confirm their concepts.
Most parents teach their children that some behaviours are wrong, dangerous or harmful. They also teach, either proactively or by example (as role models), a concept of right and wrong.
Some parents point out the mistakes of their children to them, but never admit to making mistakes themselves. Some even secretly break the same rules they set for their children. When an adolescent discovers this hypocrisy in the very people who have helped him form his concept of the world, his concept cracks or shatters. This begins the rebellious teenager phase that exists in some cultures (but not all by any means).
As he searches for others to help him to assemble a new concept of the world, he may turn to the easiest people to befriend. The easiest friends to make are those who have something to gain from the relationship, usually something that society considers wrong. The bad guys among their age group are always friendly toward their vulnerable peers. They have little trouble persuading a troubled teen to join them because the teen has nowhere else to turn (or so he believes). The troubled one gravitates toward one he perceives as a friend.
The bad guy always has a clear and positive concept of the world to present to the vulnerable one. This consists not only of a code of behaviour which seems to benefit everyone in the group, but a code that is internally consistent. That is, everyone in the gang or group adheres to the same code of behaviour and set of morals and everyone feels accepted within the group because they all share something very important to them.
They share a world view. It may not be a socially accepted world view in the bigger world, but each member sees it as consistent so long as everyone follows it. When the leader breaks the code, violates the rules, the spectre of hypocrisy looms again and some followers want to leave. However, most leaders maintain their position by following the same codes of behaviour as the rest of the group.
Eventually this group may find itself coming into conflict with the rest of the larger society. In the early years of adolescence, this bonds group members together. Eventually most group members find it impractical to maintain a distinct code of behaviour that is anti-social because it prevents them from breaking into the larger world of adults.
At that time, the adolescent sees the mistakes, the vulnerabilities and the failures of his peer group and holds it up to the same for his parents, for comparison. As Alden Nowlan said, that’s when the adolescent becomes an adult, when he forgives his parents.
For most young adults, that act of forgiveness of parents for being imperfect is enough to hold them together as a family for the rest of their lives. So they grow from there.
Some, however, will see their own faults and weaknesses in stark contrast to what seem to be strengths of others around them. At that stage they still don’t realize that the others have faults and weaknesses as well because these seldom show or are carefully hidden by most adults.
The more that adults see the weaknesses and failures of others, the more likely they are to see their own in comparison and realize that their own weaknesses, failures and faults are no worse than those of others people.
If they can then accept the weaknesses and failures of others because it’s in their mutual best interests, they can forgive themselves for their own.
That is the beginning of wisdom. Only the beginning.
If a person chooses to pursue wisdom with forgiveness as its basis, a whole new life lies ahead for that person. He can create a whole new concept of the world that is consistent, with the condition that some things can’t be counted on to remain the same. That is, it’s the nature of some things about life to be inconsistent, to change, to be uncertain.
A new concept of life with this as its heart opens up enormous possibilities. Life is as complex as it seems. Wisdom embraces it all and searches for more, prepared to accept that nothing is perfect.
The child has truly matured when wisdom is his goal.
Bill Allin, the author of this article, is a parent, teacher, sociologist, philosopher and life guide. He has failed and grown from his failures in each. Wisdom also comes through growing from failure to success. He distilled a wealth of information he learned from his decades of study of child development into a book for parents and teachers.
Learn about his book Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems from his web site at http://billallin.com