Children Education from a Buddhist perspective
Lama Tubten Shenpen Rinpoche - 25th September 2001 - Vienna / Shenphen. Rime.Tschö.Ling - Austria
We are going to talk today about children education from the viewpoint of the Buddha- Dharma
. This is not a 'traditional teaching', it is more a sharing of experience and understanding of how we could face some situations with children, as I have been involved in work with children since about 16 or 17 years.
It is quite clear that nowadays more than before there are various troubles arising with children, and there are quite some misunderstandings on how we can react as parents or educators. I believe that there is no miraculous solution, as every child is different, but there is some basic ground. Nowadays, through the school system, we tend not to perceive some basic troubles, some specific problem. May be because we tend to give to the school the full role of the educator.
I don't know how it is here, but in some country, the children go to school from 9:00 am to 17:00 pm. The first reflection can therefore be about children's rhythms.
The rhythm of a child
As I said, every child tends to have different habits, rhythms, personality, and when we think how we can respect them, the main educational problem that we meet is related to the fact that we expect all children to be much the same. That they look, behave in the same way, react in the same way. And clearly this leads to troubles and misunderstandings, leads to clear cases of intolerance, as everyone does not react in the same way, and as every child does not react in the same way. If we are meeting a child reacting differently, we are treating him as abnormal.
A lot of children in the US, nowadays even in Europe, are treated medically about hyperactivity. If we look well at the descriptions and symptoms that have been established, we find that what 30 years before was normal for a child is now a symptom for ADD.
Thirty years ago, with those criteria, I would have been classified as hyperactive! But nowadays, as such a child is brought into a system which has so high expectation about the children, that such a child is perceived as disturbed… most probably because he is disturbing! And being disturbing, there are various solutions that are brought up in order to calm down the child, up to the medicalization!!
We can wonder who we are trying to help by doing that? It appears to many eyes that it is more the system that we are trying to make happy. The teacher feels better when the child is calmed down. The child answers a bit more to the norms. It is a pity that such a child is exposed to medication with Ritalin® which is from the amphetamine family. We can make the correlation also between the facts that the inventors of Ritalin® have also set up the diagnosis of hyperactivity. But this is maybe another topic ...
One thing I found out quite often is how we are treating the children with regard to 'responsibility'… which is basically the same our governments tend to treat their citizens, but we can see it more accurately with children.
What is nowadays the space that we leave to the children to experience things by themselves? What is the space that we leave to the children to take decisions directly related to them? Almost none. At school, at home, in the court system, in the social system, there are many decisions that are taken without any consent from the children or any consultation of the children; while it is clear that we benefit of being aware of things into which we are implied, and we all benefit from being able to take some choice for what we are going to face. From a very basic point of view, with a few examples, when we just say to a child: "do this!" without further explanation, s/he may not always agree. While if you are giving him the explanation why it should it should be done and what are the consequences, he may understand it much better, and the decision is coming from his own side.
Rules, limits, and adult's rigidity vs. laxity
We should not as well fall down in the extreme of laxity; in which the child is the king of all, doing only what he wants. That limit between these two is quite often difficult to settle.
As the opposite to the extreme of laxity we can easily find the extreme of rigidity until even violence. There is as in many things a Middle way
to be found. I think a big part of the discussion in education goes back to the question "what kind of motivation we do have in dealing with the children, why we do have children, why we do work with children, what are our expectations from the work we are doing with children". Are we aware of the true needs of the children, or do we just want to do our job, or apply some rules? According to the motivation we have, the intention of our education, we may react in a different way. And when we start to think a little bit about that, we could make some comparison, or some research about different types of education. And we can see how the education is taken in the east and in the west for example; and to see how in the west some people have thought about the 'ideal education'. While I do not believe in only one valid kind of education, but in a variety of educational methods, we can have an ideal of what should be the best or perfect education, but according to each child we may have to adapt our views.
I would like to come back to the topic of 'motivation' and the way how we see our children. The deeper is our Bodhicitta motivation of Compassion
towards all beings in general, specially our kids, the 'smoother' can be the relationship with them.
But! Compassion does not mean laxity. It is clear that a child does need limits. It is not just that a child would appreciate limits or would wish by himself limits, but the construction of his mind does need limits. But where is the limit, how to apply the limit? Again, our compassionate attitude plays a big role. Is the limit set up for our own benefit or for the benefit of the child?
There are also different ways to apply them: just to enforce a rule, or to explain largely enough the meaning of a rule. A child is very sensitive to that sense of justice. Therefore, before to apply a rule, it appears to be extremely important to explain the rule clearly enough. We are talking clearly here about rules that are for the benefit of the child, not rules we are imposing simply because we feel tired or do not want to be disturbed by the child after a certain time.
Something as well important: once a rule has been explained and precisely clarified to the child, it is important to make it to be applied. This is important because we are asking the child to do something, and the child must see that when we say something, there is an application of the rule and there is a consequence of the rule. The consequences that the child will learn are an important basis for the construction of his own psyche.
And we find often the mistake in the application of the rules. One day we come back home and we are happy and in a good mood, then the child is able to do more than usual, able to cross those limits, without us acting against; and the next day we are tired and exhausted, and then our reaction to the child's crossing of the limits will be much stronger, perhaps even violent. Doing so does clearly create confusion in the mind of the child, because he does no longer know where exactly is the limit. That understanding of coherence in behaviour is very important.
Coherence applied to the rules, the limits, and also between the people who are responsible for the application of these rules and limits. As we do perceive sometimes the mistake of one parent allowing something, while the other one does not allow it, and the opposite. Thus, there is somebody trying to apply a rule, and the child has already understood that there is another possibility, so he/she is going to see the other parent or educator, and is asking for the same thing in order to see whether the answer will be different. This is also very confusing for a child because he does not know again where is the limit. He then learns that he can play with it. Somehow, in that way, the grown-ups are completely loosing their role of showing the example, what has to be done and what has not to be done.
Being an example
This is the second point I would like to emphasize on: the notion of 'giving an example'. This is most probably the most accurate way to transmit a message or a behaviour to a child or a group of children. This has also been very well understood by the general education, the TV and publicity. As sometimes the child may not be able to find an example at home or in another structure, then he may rely upon media, such as TV. It is of course not the whole TV that is to be condemned, but some parts of it do play a role in this respect. And if it is not directly the TV program that is the cause, it may be the difficulty sometimes to show the child what is good and what is bad in the examples shown through such media. It is clear that if we want the child to apply a certain number of rules, then the adult which is in charge of the child has to do the same. It is not possible to apply "Do what I say and not what I do!" - which is quite often the case. Thus, the child does not understand why the adult supposed to be an example does act in a way that is forbidden to him. For example, if we expect our children to be calmer and quieter, but sometimes explode in anger, concerning them or some other topic, then it is difficult to expect amelioration in the temper of the child.
The sense of being a good example, practising ourselves what we are teaching, is fundamental. Of course this implies a certain amount of work on ourselves. This is why this is sometimes difficult to do and therefore some people have given up the wish to do it.
Making personal experiences
There is also a field that is not always well appreciated, this is personal experience. I found out that in many cases we are overprotective about the children. The motivation behind might be good since we want to prevent harm to the child, but we are also taking out the possibility to learn. Of course there is a limit to find as an adult about which kind of experiences the child may be able to go into, and where it would be necessary to find another way to explain it.
As a quick example, we could talk about when a small child is coming close to a place where something is very hot. Now, we tell the child not to touch because this is burning. I am not talking here about something extremely hot like melting torch, but the glass of the oven in the kitchen for example. There are two different approaches now in this situation, after having told the child that this is hot. Most people tend to take the child away from the glass. The second approach would be to accompany the child in making the experience of the fact that the glass is hot. Because anyhow, at one point or another, the child has to learn how hot it is and that it has to keep distant from it in a situation when we are saying: "Be careful! It's hot". What means hot for a child if we are just telling him that it is hot?
Another quick example with children that are a bit older, concerning knives. In holiday camps, I always found three kinds of attitudes concerning the knives, two opposites and a middle one. One attitude was to withdraw all the knives. The opposite would be to let everyone play with knives without control. The middle way would be to teach the children how to use a knife. As anyhow, at one point or another, it will have to learn how to use them, with or without us. Without us, it may more easily meet some painful experiences, while if we are teaching how to handle knives, in which direction we should cut the wood, and in which direction we should not move the knife, then we may be more beneficial for him. But this takes time, and often we do not want to spend so much time, so the quickest solution for us is to take out all the knives, but not necessarily the best…
There are many other examples like this that I could take out from the holiday camp situations, where we are overprotecting so much that we make it impossible for the child to make his own experiences. This can lead not only to a lack of experience, but it can clearly lead to a difficulty in the construction of the personality in the child. As we are all growing out of the experiences we are able to make.
For example, it has been found out that children who were not able to crawl often on the floor while baby had more often language and coordination problems, like dyslexia. This may not be the unique cause of it, but it seems that researchers have pointed out that the incapability for a child not to explore space with all his body may lead to such kinds of problems. Most of the time, children do not crawl enough because the parents are afraid of dust, dirt, or that the child would hurt himself somehow on the ground.
Thus, let's here keep in mind the 'right to experience' of the child.
The schedules of the children
Another point concerns the schedules of the children. It is often met that children have a very tight schedule: from standing up in the morning until going to bed in the evening, every hour, every half an hour, they have to do something which is precisely defined. From this time to this time, they are going to school, then piano, music, and after that, they are going to Judo, and then art, painting, then they have to dance, then they have to go home to eat and to take a shower, and then they have to go to bed!
This timing has two major mistakes. The first is that the child is not spending any more time with his parents. The second is that the child is not bored any more. While there are also some research studies showing that boredom is not bad: when the child seems to be bored, it is the time where he is integrating what he has learned and what he has been in contact with. When the child finds some space where he is apparently doing nothing, it is not something that has to be fought against. When the child is apparently not doing anything, first, he can integrate what he has experienced in the past, and second, he finds some space for a kind of creativity. It is an adult problem to have difficulty to face the boredom of the children. As adults often fear to be alone, to be bored, therefore we tend to project this feeling on the kids. But it seems that a child does need that space.
Let's keep also in mind this idea of a 'right to be without clearly stated activities'.
Question: While talking about the boredom of children, is this specific to each child or can one give general advice on how much spare time should be left to the children?
Answer: I do not think that it is possible to apply the same scheme to all the children. We have to be aware to let the child express himself, in a quiet way, not necessarily in an activity planned by the parents. Sometimes we may also ask the child which activity he wants to do and how much time he wants to keep for himself. It doesn't mean that we have to do all the child wants! Just to be more aware of his needs.
All that field of education is very much related to our motivation, how much we are willing to bring the best to the children. Better we want to do, the more we need time for them, and the more concentration is required from us. In brief, more work. Therefore, we have to clearly meditate on the benefits of doing all that in order to give the best of ourself.
Once in a holiday camp, we had a big discussion about using harsh words. A group said we should not act upon harsh words, because it would not change anything, since those children were coming from places where they are saying bad words, and they will go back to such places and continue to say bad words. Some other people were saying that for each word we have to apply a punishment. While the middle way seemed to me to be the best: namely, to notify the child that a harsh word has been said, that it is not a nice word; and even if he has a strong habit to use this word, it could use another word instead. This requires quite some energy to do so. Because first of all it is required from you, as an educator in the camp, to always have one ear open to hear these words. Whenever you are doing something, whatever you are doing, talking, doing an activity, one part of you, one type of awareness will tell you, "Ah, a harsh word there!" And then when you notice that, you turn round and say: "What did you say?" without the need to be rough or to be violent or whatever. It is just about the fact that the child becomes aware of it.
It appeared that by the middle of the holidays in the camp the children had already acquired an understanding of what word is nice to be said and which word we have to be careful about. As another way to help, we just taught them how to replace a bad word by another word that starts with the same syllable, but ends up as a common word. It is difficult to give an example here, because it would inevitably be a French one. If we take an English example which might be understood and if we think about the most common English bad word, then the way to teach the child to replace the word, is that it starts with 'shi...' but then ends with '...eese' (for "cheese"). And slowly we make the child aware of it, to know that there is another way of behaving apart from the one he is used to. As whatever is the social background of the child, it is always important that it has an opening toward other possibilities, other opportunities.
We had as well a discussion about how to show affection to a child. It was a holiday camp with children coming from difficult families, and it was said by some that it is not good to show them affection, because usually they don't get affection at home. Thus, if they get it at the holiday camp, they may feel bad when being back home. I tend to believe that it is always good to show to a child that there is also another type of behaviour, so that later he can make his own decision, following the one he wants to follow.
Once we had the same discussion about children coming from India or Russia, namely whether it is really fruitful to move children from such an environment, such a social context to another one, because once they go back home, they may feel lack. The answer is the same for me: it is better that children get aware of what can be in better.
Question: In order to educate children, it is first of all necessary that one educate oneself. How do I educate myself?
Answer: Yes. That is a large topic. I think at first it is important to open our mind to various possibilities. We have to understand that the most often met type of education may not necessarily be the best. Also, the education we received may not have been the best of all. Thus, we have to be aware, to reflect about how it would be best to answer in front of this or that situation. It mainly depends on our capacity to analyse a situation. In many situations we do not think about it, we face different facts, and we react in a very emotional and instantaneous way. Thus, there is a big work that has to be done on ourselves, generally and especially when we are in charge of children, about how to approach our various emotions and how to react to different situations. I would say it very much depends on which path we decided to take. From my point of view, I can mainly talk about how to educate oneself from a Buddhist point of view. And from that Buddhist perspective, a meditation on Bodhicitta and a meditation on how to have an appeased mind in front of any kind of situations are two aspects to work on.
I think if our motivation is at the best for the benefit of the child, we may make fewer mistakes, but as we are often caught by our emotions and a series of personal troubles, then it is often difficult to distinguish how to act and how not to act. Therefore, meditation is very important in order to put everything down, in order to be able to analyse it. It is a long work. It is clear that although the main topic is children, where it touches the personal process, this is a process that cannot be accomplished within a short time; but what is the most important is the wish to start this progress, the wish to get some knowledge about different educational ways, and to get advice from people who have more experience in this area.
Question: What can I do when my pupils do not act according to the rules that were fixed?
Answer: Rules have to be very well understood by the children; what is their goals, why they are set, etc…Well, once we are convinced that we have explained the rule well enough, that we have gone deeply enough in order for the rule to be understood, then we have to act in a firmer way. This stricter approach is clearly an approach that has not to be done out of personal anger and without any violence. But, nevertheless, a small tap on the buttock has never killed anybody.
The limit has to be clear. And if this limit is crossed voluntarily, a consequence has to appear. We can start by various types of little notifications, as for example, in a classroom, when I was teaching a few years ago, we started to use little crosses on the blackboard. If you have to notice one mistake or something in the behaviour, then you mark one cross; and the child knew that when there are three crosses, then something would happen. Of course, the sanction has to be in accordance with the mistakes. At home, it can be a few minutes less playing with Gameboy®, or some time of TV less, or one dessert less; always on things which are not necessary for the life of the child, the 'extra' things. To punish a child by sending him to bed without any meal is not a good way to punish a child. But not eating a dessert is not harmful, or missing TV for one day doesn't harm.
Question: I did not well understand the point about violence; did you say that if the children are doing something that runs against the parents, one should never apply violence?
Answer: For me, violence is something that comes out of uncontrolled emotions. Nevertheless I do think that in some cases, from time to time, if a child gets a slap on the buttock, it is a way to state clearly the limit. This doesn't have to be with violence at all!
This is not an applicable solution for all problems, but it may happen. We should not feel guilty about that if we have thought about carefully, and if our movement has been done with compassion. I must say that in some cases, children were even looking for that. Not to act at all is, or could be understood as, a sign of no-interest, no-love.
In the holiday camps, I had a lot of troubles with one child; well, because I'm very reluctant to use any punishment. But once I gave him a small slap on the buttock, and once we discussed about after, our relationship has been very nice.
Let the child do everything he wants may often be interpreted by the child as a lack of attention. While, without any violence, to set up rules and to apply them with justice, is clearly a way to take care of what the child is living. and to prepare him for living with others.
Question: Sleeping is important, but once I have brought my child to bed as a punishment. After a fight, I sent him to bed, and finally he fell asleep. He slept then until next day. But it seems the method is not really ideal, right?
Answer: If he slept, it might have been good, since he was in need of sleep. I am not here to tell you what is 'the' ideal method; I cannot say something is completely good or completely bad, because it clearly has to be based on a specific child or a group of children. I am for example rather against slapping the children into the face, but if it takes place once in front of an emergency situation, it is still not the end of the world.
In any case, I do think that if a sanction has been taken, it is very important to have a discussion about it later on with the child. If the sanction was correct, according to a rule that has been broken, I am not talking about apologies, but about discussing it.
Question: I wanted to ask about religious education, especially according to the fact that in my social context I do not share the same religious beliefs with most other people around.
Answer: The best way to teach a child about a spiritual path is by giving an example. If the child sees us doing our practice, behaving in a good way, generating compassion or whatever else, he might understand that there is some good in it and he will be willing to join it by himself. This might be much better than somehow forcing a child to learn some prayers by heart just because we are thinking he should know them!
Question: Shall I then put into question what I do not personally believe, but what other people have brought to the child?
Answer: It is not a question to counteract, but if the child brings up the topic, one may give your opinion. One can say that some people believe in these ideas, but that you do not believe so. Like that the child becomes aware of another possibility to think. Do you hesitate to give your opinion if your child asks if you like tomato sauce? Religious believes is as well part of the life.
Question: Related to the previous question, if this happens in a fundamentalist environment - which can be found even in places where one would not expect it - can't this bring a kind of problem to the child? If the opinions of the parents are very different from the opinions of the rest of society, maybe the child may feel isolated?
Answer: I think that, from very early age, a child is able to understand that there exist different opinions, different ways to behave. One should not take the child as somebody unable to understand this. He can believe in one way and not necessarily show it in a certain environment. As we do, as adult, on some occasions! Sometimes we are in some non-spiritual environments, and we just do not show any signs of spirituality. But this does not change what we think. The main point is that the child has to be aware of it. He may have his opinion, but his opinion may not be well seen in that context, in that particular place, so he may better not bring it out obviously.
It appears to me that often we do not take a child as what he can be. Not voluntarily, but maybe we should think that a child is able to do more things. In many traditions and cultures, a child from the age of seven and onwards is considered as being able to take many decisions about himself. In the Tibetan society, a child of that age was, is considered as able to decide whether he wanted to enter a monastery, or whether he wanted to become a doctor (amchi). And I don't believe that there is a big difference between a child's consciousness from Tibet and a child's consciousness from Europe.
Question: I am happy to hear that, but do these children, when they decided to go to a monastery or become a doctor at seven years of age, also keep on their path also later? Or do they give up later?
Answer: Yes, they keep on many times. But this is also given in the freedom of the mind that one can decide differently later. For example, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, even if you become a monk as a child, and if you then reach teenage or become an adult, if you feel that you can no longer follow this path, it is perfectly allowed to give up this monastic life. From the very beginning, the Buddha
has given for monks and nuns the possibility to take and give back one's Vows
three times in one life.
When we are really aware of what a child tends to like very much at that age, it is quite common that we find a similar engagement later on. But in the type of society that we have in the west, we never give a child that type of decision; and I tend to consider that there is a big loss of time and of capacity of acquisition in the child due to that attitude.
Question: But we could wonder where would we have such space for such decisions? In Tibet maybe there was space for such decisions, but where in our society would it be possible to act like this?
Answer: I do not know the various situations in the whole world, but in France, one has the possibility to teach one's own child oneself, or to choose the institution; scholarization is compulsory, but not to go to school. Thus, one has to prove that the child has received a 'normal' type of education, but he has not necessarily to attend a school.
And there are many parents willing to choose a better education to their children. But they don't "do the step". They think it is too difficult, may be also too different. And it can be quite difficult alone. Why not those parents join together their effort?
The important point to get here also is that one should not do that in order to "alienate" a child, to close him into a type of belief. We can wish that our child takes what we do consider as the best way of life; yet, we cannot forbid him or her from being in contact with others, with the society.
And, for example, I've often taken care of children, even children who decided to follow Buddhism and even to be monk. To them, I am not teaching especially meditation, practice and prayer. I am doing such things myself, and if they decide to join me for this, then they do it. If they ask by themselves, they get the explanations, but I am not putting in their mind such information by any forceful means.
Question: This is very good for the development of the child.
Answer: Yes. And that is the opposite of what is usually done at schools. Fortunately, some teachers nowadays understand that and try to apply the normal program through more educative method, but generally speaking, it is not the case that personal creativity is encouraged.
Another point that we could raise is the influence of food. We are in a society valorising quick and sweet food. The quick food brings a lot of stress that does not promote a good digestion. And in order to eat quickly, we cannot eat a big variety of food. And promoting the sweet addiction seems to bring a lot of troubles.
The fact that obesity is spreading all over the world is obvious. Also, we can see a direct correlation between the amount of sugar a child is eating and his hyperactivity. Thus, instead of putting a child under Ritalin®, one could perhaps reach a very positive effect by cutting two thirds of their daily ration of sweets and coca cola. Not to talk about - this would be a too long subject - all the different colorants, conservators, and genetically modified food. Well, we can just think about the effect it may have on the development of a child's brain. Not to mention the hormones we are directly eating via the meat.
Question: What influence does this kind of food contents have on the mind, on the brain?
Answer: For the genetically modified food, we lack experience and time to see in which way it may have negative effects. Genetically modified organisms bring in our body some alien component. Those genes allow to keep a tomato three time more without it perish, but once incorporated within a human genetic material we don't know the result! Those genes are coming from animals and plants; what alien information they will give us? In which way it will slowly modify our organism? We completely don't know. And it's where the danger is; and it's where the perversion of those who use such techniques for their profit is.
As far as some of the colorants are concerned, it seems that they have a biological effect on the development of some process. Some of these products do interfere with the hormonal system, and some have been proved carcinogenic.
Question: There are research results about the energy body of biological food that cannot be found with food that was produced far away from biology.
Answer: Yes, I do believe that. From the energetic point of view, we can say that there is a difference between a plant having grown from some nutritive liquid or in earth. Earth doesn't only contain what the plant needs for its growth, but contain and give certain energy.
Question: Do we have to see the influence of food mainly via the brain, the body, or directly on the energy body?
Answer: Both. According to what we are talking about: colorants, sweets, hormones, do have a direct influence on the body, and the way they are produced, raised, may have an effect on the energy body.
Question: Is it a hindrance for meditation if somebody has too much weight?
Answer: We should define what is overweight first. As half of the women believe they have overweight while in fact they are not; and this mainly, I believe, due to the influence of publicity, and its way to pretend that beautiful is thin, exhibing anorexic women. But if we are talking about real overweight, from an energetic point of view, it slows down some processes. Not to talk about the various physical problems taking place due to overweight that may disturb meditation, as heart diseases, pain, feeling of heaviness, etc…
Question: Looking at the Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants, there seems to be a rather broad range of possible weights...
Answer: The Chinese Buddha has to be taken as symbolic. It is clear that the big belly of the Chinese Buddha statues is not a realistic representation of the Buddha, but a symbol. Look rather at the Indian or Nepalese statues; they seems closer to the reality :-)
Question: I am still thinking about how to react to rule violations by my pupils. I am giving violin lessons, and it is difficult for me to imagine that I start giving taps to my violin pupils...
Answer: First of all, I do not believe in the slap as a 'good' punishment. But your position is quite tricky in the sense that you have to teach children who maybe have not themselves decided to learn that. If they really want themselves to be taught playing violin, then you could tell them that if they don't respect the time you give them you will no longer teach them. It may also be simply the case that you give the child the responsibility to take a decision about what he wants to do or not. It may be also that so far you didn't find the way to catch their interest? Of course, it's always better to find other solution than any form of violence.
Well, one has to be convinced that a child needs the limits, and that we have to show what are the limits. This may be tricky and it may not be easy, but we know that in many cases it helps the child to fix these limits. Without such frame, a child's psyche might find big difficulties to develop nicely.
I might have forgotten two third of what I would like to tell you :-)
As you can see this is not a subject that can be completely analysed within two hours; but just if we understand the consequences of the educational process, it becomes clear that this is a topic to meditate on more and to analyse it more carefully.
Our compassionate motivation must prime in any cases. We should keep in mind the child's right to be responsible, the right of experience, the right to get some free time, as those rights are important for the developmental capacities and the creativity of a child. Giving an example by our own attitude is also something that we should think about, as this may require a lot of work from ourselves; but we may also easily understand that this is important. We cannot ask a child to do something that we are incapable to apply in our own life. Also keep in mind the notion of firmness in front of rules and taken decisions; even if it's important also to make the difference between anger and emotional reaction on the one hand, and firmness on the other hand.
Thank you, and good night :-)