“I understand that there is evil in the world. I also know about mental illness. I am not naïve or ignorant. But really, what happened?”
I was told this story last week by a friend who sits in a women’s circle with me. She cannot remember if she read this or heard this, so I have no reference for it except for her telling.
There is a tribe that chooses to discipline adolescents and adults in the following way. When someone acts badly, against the tribal codes or norms, or against what is considered appropriate moral behavior, the elders of the tribe form a circle, shoulder to shoulder, and the person is put in the center of the circle. For three days straight, the elders tell the person about all of the light and goodness they see in this person and know about this person. For three days the person is not allowed out of the circle. They must hear over and over again, about the light and goodness that is inherent in them.
What would happen if we raised our children like this, refusing to attach ourselves to bad behavior and negative traits and instead, called out the light in them? What would happen if we surrounded them with the wisdom and insight of elders and grandparents? How would things change if we treated other adults like this when they fall and when they falter, surrounding them with the wisest and most conscious people whose job it would be to call out the light in them? And perhaps a deeper question still: Would we, could we allow ourselves to hear all of the good in us being called forth? What would happen if over and over again we opened ourselves to knowing about the Divine light in ourselves and expected ourselves to act in the world with this knowing.
Roll back in time with me about fifteen years. The shootings at Columbine High School have just happened. I am terribly upset about Columbine. Having been a public school educator, it is easy for me to put myself in the position of the teachers in that school. I also have a friend doing a psych internship in a neighboring town to Columbine and I hear that she will be brought into this situation to provide mental and emotional triage. I am very emotionally invested in Columbine. I am tuned to the news, as everyone is. I listen hour after hour, day after day, waiting for someone in my profession to say something important, something that would help, something that mattered or made some kind of sense. I hear nothing. It upsets me and I feel hopeless and helpless. I call the radio stations and ask for an interview. Please let me speak to this, I say. I am not granted an interview.
And then one morning, the alarm goes off at 5:50 am and NPR is playing. I am groggy, still in that state between waking and sleeping when I heard the following statement. “Children become responsible adults by spending a lot of time around responsible adults.” I sit straight up in bed, grab my glasses, and turn up the sound. I want to know who said that and how I can hear more. I hear nothing except that it is a statement from an anthropologist. Not a psychologist, mental health professional, minister, or teacher. An anthropologist just said the most important thing said all week.
Children, until they are fully functioning adults, need to spend oodles of time with responsible adults. They need to be in the company of the generations above them. Older siblings, parents, grandparents. Teachers, preachers, and parents who are not their own. Repeatedly the experts tell us that children’s privacy needs to be limited. Rather than isolating children, which is our culture’s common practice, we should be engaging them in intergenerational activities and responsibilities. Sure, children, teens, and young adults need time with their peers and time alone. But that should not be the majority of their waking time. New houses now boast having “children’s wings”. In these houses, the children have their own section of the house, totally separated from the rest of the house. The wing has bedrooms, media rooms, beverage refrigerators and snack bars, bathrooms and any other accoutrements that might be deemed fun. The children never have to interact with adults. What will happen?
Here’s my truth. After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, and most recently the Boston marathon bombing, my first question was, “What happened?” I understand that there is evil in the world. I also know about mental illness. I am not naïve or ignorant. But really, what happened? How is it that children are allowed to behave badly and a community doesn’t react by saying, “No, you are not that, (bad) you are this (good).” When our own children have problems, our reaction, and the reaction of our community should be to surround the children with as much support, help, guidance, discipline, and protection as possible. We must help them find their way to the Light. We must mirror their own light to them. Shoulder to shoulder, for as many days as it takes, the elders must surround, protect, and point the way.
There was a preserve in Africa where all the elephants had been hunted and had become extinct. It was decided that the area was once again safe for elephants and the powers that be had a group of male and female adolescent elephants shipped to this preserve. The elephants almost immediately ran amok. They were killing each other, destroying the land they needed to live off, and generally creating chaos. The solution: grandparent elephants were brought in. Within a few days, the elephants were again behaving like elephants.
Let’s stop acting shocked and start dispensing the wisdom that we have, that we know, but that we keep ignoring. Children learn to be responsible adults by spending a lot of time with responsible adults.
Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min., has been a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage & family therapist and spiritual director for over twenty years. She blogs at messymarvelous.