As parents we often wonder whether our children’s upbringing is going in the right direction. In such moments we can envy sportsmen and sportswomen – by checking the times achieved you are able to see how successful a competitor you have created through training. You might say parenting lacks such support and means of verification. That’s not quite true.
Over half a century ago scientists conducted an experiment where they placed a sweet in front of young children and told them: you can eat it now or wait for fifteen minutes and you’ll get two – a second one as a reward. Those who managed to hold out for that hellishly long quarter of an hour, achieved more later in life than those who didn’t.
Today this test is called the Stanford marshmallow experiment and the web is full of shots of poor kids training self-restraint and postponed satisfaction – for that is what it essentially is; someone who at the age of five or six sets themselves a goal and is capable of waiting fifteen minutes will undoubtedly also be more successful later on than someone who wants everything instantly and at once. The important things in life don’t tend to fall from the sky unless you are stuck in a desert and it begins to rain.
So this might be a way of testing the success of the way you are raising children when they are young. What about slightly older children and adolescents, kids at secondary school?
We often come across news of some teenager mistreating their schoolmates and then the parents call in the lawyers, followed by accusations left, right and centre, or a silence of fear which is even worse.
Social networks now allow teenagers to have their say and a few days ago I read a message by one such accused youth who first hit out at everyone, cursing and swearing, then explained that he behaves as he does because he has every right to – for he lives in a luxury apartment whereas those complaining about him live in hovels.
It was as if the teenager’s answers were from an entirely unrelated film to the questions; he gets asked about his behaviour, and he responds by listing a possession to which he has no other claim than that he was born into it.
An otherwise clearly intelligent youth was totally incapable of comprehending the question – how is this possible?
In 1976 Erich Fromm published a book which sets the key question even in its title: To Have or To Be? In it he asserted that, ever more often, consumer civilization does not differentiate between the two.
This is why I am suggesting an experiment that you can work on with your children from a very early age and repeat it often. (If you only begin when they are teenagers, you will inevitably have difficulties putting things right.)
Make your child describe themselves and their achievements. This should lead to a conversation about what they have achieved or made themselves, what they have learnt and have a command of (so being). If they begin by listing a car bought by their father, a flat bought by their mother, a phone bought by grandmother (having), then you have most certainly missed the point when it comes to their upbringing.
At least by the time they are teenagers they should clearly comprehend the difference between being and having.
Let me convey a conversation between a pair of older teenagers that still brings a smile to my face.
In a bar a guy approaches a girl.
He, ‘Hey babe, do you know who I am? My father is (so and so) outside I’ve parked my (some expensive car) and I live in my (father’s) large apartment.’
She, ‘Oh, poor you!’
She leaves and he stares after her in shock.
If your personal description contains only what you have been equipped with by others, then you need to look for a partner who is looking for equipment and not you. And a warning: you’ll need to stay satisfied with this all your life!
That, however, is difficult. World literature is forever full of stories of princes who are suddenly concerned with whether their chosen one loves them for what they are not just because of their wealth. They disguise themselves as poor and start anew – in the end it usually emerges that they were worthy of love. What is true is that they first had to become someone, not just a collection of something.
If you are content with merely the equipment your parents have provided you with, then all you have to make sure is that they regularly update it in order for you to remain the coolest person in town – for you are only important in as much as the stuff you have is important.
I think it was already Plato who wrote that a part of us always knows the truth.
If you are bought a black belt in karate, a part of you will know exactly the limits of your capabilities so you will only ever fight the most anorexic schoolmate. If you trained for years and passed your exam the first time round, then you were also educated in the process and your being has moved on from mere having. You would thus consider beating up a poor schoolmate deeply shameful and humiliating for both you and your surroundings.
If the young person say that they dealt in drugs or cryptocurrency, that they gambled, traded… you can certainly get an idea of the psychological profile of the person. If they tell you that they own the most expensive car and add that they received it for their birthday, then you don’t know anything about them. It sounds paradoxical but we answer the question of how we acquired something with what kind of person we are.
Someone who has had everything given to them is unable to describe themself. And what we cannot articulate does not truly exist but subsists as a hazy, translucent entity, as a kind of delusional ghost of consumerism.
Their own vagueness chafes a person who has had everything given to them. They still feel that they need to prove themself, establish themself, confirm their existence without objects.
Without self-restraint and unaware of postponed satisfaction, they find a single quick mode of existence – violence.
They hit a schoolmate so that at least for a moment others see them as a person and not just as a mobile collection of objects.
In short, if everything else requires too much effort, you can always become a bully.
Photo: Emma Goldsmith