There is a core philosophical dilemma that today’s parents face, and it is in serious ways, the most significant dilemma they may ever be faced with resolving.
One side of the dilemma is the need our kids have for intellectual training and development, which includes the use of technology and the critical role that having competency with it plays in today’s world.
This need exists because the world we live in has grown far more sophisticated and advanced, and being positioned to successfully engage in commerce and in most career paths, requires a relatively high level of intellectual and technological sophistication.
The other side of the dilemma is the possibility for true aesthetic growth and development, and the depths of personal, emotional, spiritual, and relational maturation that becomes available to those who have this.
By aesthetic, I mean quite literally the quality of life that comes from being sensorially aware, awake and attuned via the five senses – literally the capacity to fully experience being alive in all its wonder, splendor and diversity – and the sense of imagination, creativity and magic of life that belongs implicitly to those who live this way.
To me this is where real intelligence, intuition and brilliance emerges from.
(I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s quote: “If you want your kids to be intelligent, tell them fairy tales. If you want them to be really intelligent, tell them lots of fairy tales”)
The way modern society has evolved, it has become difficult, if not impossible, to have both, without either losing something of enormous consequence (as one 17 year old client of mine said to his father about his SAT preparation, “Dad, it sucked out my soul!”) or placing extraordinary demands on parents to provide the requisite experiences to their kids – a demand in time, energy and serious resources (like investing in bringing someone like me into their kids lives, a service few invest in until they are in crisis).
Intellectual growth now takes place almost exclusively in schools and behind screens. Aesthetic growth is left to parents to instill through experiences they offer their kids and the space they create for it to be nurtured, when they have the time and in some cases, when they have the interest which sadly, some just don’t.
Either way, the growing presence of school, homework and dependence upon technology consumes more time than ever. As one parent said to me recently, “It feels like school and homework have taken over our home life. We all look forward to vacations now.”
As oversimplified as this may sound, it is nonetheless true:
Our schools have become degree factories, intent on creating high testing achievers with off the charts intellect. No Child Left Behind only amplified a direction schools were already inclined towards anyway. It succeeded in making it almost impossible for teachers to teach anything of the aesthetic, to the extent that it even can be taught or developed in a classroom. No Child Left Behind certainly succeeded at one thing – in leaving a whole chunk of Childhood behind.
With rare exception, for most parents in today’s world, a “Good School” is one where drive-by shootings are highly unlikely and advancement into elite schools and careers upon graduation is highly likely.
That requires generating the right numbers, scores and stats – and the students become the vehicle for this.
“On one hand they tell us go out and be somebody real,” said one high achiever at an elite private high school. “Then in the same breath they say, just make sure you do a bunch of BS to stack up your college resume too, even when it really has nothing to do with who you really are and is only to make you look good. It’s all such bullshit and most of my friends see it too.”
In spite of all the lip service the elite high schools pay to being about creating well-rounded, critically thinking young adults, the reality for most of them is that they base their status (and high tuitions for private schools) on who goes where once they leave there on the prestige scale, not on the quality of impact their graduates make on the world, unless that happens by chance.
The elite colleges, are equally as one-dimensional. They are not about making the world a better place, they are about having more financially successful graduates whose career success boosts their status and their endowments. Again, the teachers in these institutions who actually do care about more than tenure and test scores, get screwed just as the students.
I know this statement is so generalized as to be easily dismissed, yet I challenge anyone to disprove it. Even the teachers and administrators in these schools will tell you the way it is. Just ask them they way I have.
There was a time in history where intellect was equally developed outside of institutions, and elders all assumed the responsibility for preparing the next generation.There are ways to blend both the intellect and the aesthetic, but with rare exception, that just doesn’t happen now.
I am reminded of the Jewish tradition that came from the Middle Ages of “The Tisch” (literally “the table”), where old and young gathered around the table each Saturday to engage in discussion and debate about the moral, legal and ethical considerations of the day.
Go back even further and tribes gathered around the council fire with their young, to share the stories that shaped the morality and meaning for each upcoming generation. They created experiences and challenges that ensured they not only understood the ideas, but were actually able to live them.
Back then, the fate of the tribe literally depended upon them being able to apply what they were learning.
Now, most of what kids learn in school barely matters that much in real life, at least not until they are in the mid-20s and actually doing something that matters – and our kids know it and resent it.
My own upbringing was filled with invaluable hours of stories and dialogues with my Grandfather, each designed to address the larger questions of life as I was ready to address them at each stage of my own development. (The photo below was taken in 1987 at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Thanks to a note my father sent WGN TV in Chicago, Harry Caray that day on live TV said, “Three Generations of Cubs Fans are here today. The Leiken’s. Ben, Larry and Jeff.” That picture sits in my office to this day.)
My Grandfather recognized the role (and responsibility) of an elder to engage me at the age when it would have been most challenging for my parents to do so because of my yearning for autonomy. Some very forward thinking parents hire me to do the same for their kids, preferring to select the role models for their kids rather than letting pop-culture do it for them.
My last conversations with Grandpa were when I was 24 – almost 18 years ago – and yet I still recall the points he made with me (mostly through stories) and the values he imparted, and they remain with me even as I write this today. They helped shape the man I’ve become as a father, husband, friend, mentor, citizen.
Last week over an intense conversation about a moral issue, one of my teen clients teared up when suddenly he considered what his Grandfather would think of him and the decisions he’d been making. I am never surprised to find that those who have this innate sense of connection with how their actions effect others, also had lots of the same kind of conversations with loving elders as I did while growing up. I also am never surprised to hear that those kids who don’t have this moral conscious, do not have these relationships in any seriously meaningful way.
What relationships do many kids now have with elders?
Nowadays, kids watch Sponge Bob, Gossip Girl, CSI and porn.
They Facebook, WOW, IM, text and eat In-n-Out because their parents are often too busy to cook a meal, or they are too busy doing homework to help when the meal is being cooked.
All the scents, tastes, subtleties of the aesthetic go un-experienced, including feeling the warmth from the stove, the sound of the dishes being unstacked from the cupboard and placed symmetrically on a table – the patience it takes to let the stew simmer until it is just perfecto… and the palpable experience of just sharing the space with others in a very personal, very human way.
The average family in America now that is electronically wired (meaning computers for all) spends 4 minutes together a day of uninterrupted time. My guess is some of you reading this have already stopped to look at a text message that came in since you started.
It takes more than 4 minutes a day to raise a child to have aesthetic awareness, to have real intelligence, to have a sense of magic and awe about the possibilities of the world we live in.
It takes far more than SAT scores and AP classes to instill in young people a sense of love of learning, curiosity about the unknown and an appreciation for the aesthetic. SAT and AP classes may boost intellect, but they do little to promote true intelligence. (Over 80% of top students cheat on a regular basis, mostly as a means of survival amidst the competition and the volume of work that leads to burn-out).
Its no wonder so many of them are so disconnected, so self-absorbed and so damn lost.
It is no wonder so many of them drink, smoke and disappear into virtual reality on their machines, with no hesitation and no apology.
It gives them a sense of being alive in some way other than the dull, flat, one-dimensional reality their brains have entrained to (the average teen in America spend 6 hours a day staring at screens). Anything to escape the stress and boredom of modern schooling, and the deep sense of disconnect that is pervasive in modern society – the kind of disconnect that simple companionship with others will not resolve because what they are disconnected from isn’t people, it is life itself.
(Any parent who has watched their kids go into tailspin depression after spending a summer at camp where they felt connected and alive, know exactly what I mean.)
Parents hire me to help their kids solve their problems. They also hire me to help them solve their kid problems. What I really do is not just to help them solve problems, but to help them truly thrive – to really live.
I am extraordinarily good at it when given the chance to do it my way:
To introduce them to a way of life that is exciting to wake up to each day… to reconnect them and reengage in them the sense of awe, potency and magic contained in the experience of being fully alive… Doing this lays the groundwork for finding real love, living with real intention and ultimately, living with genuine passion … (the real kind, not the woo woo fluff fluff kind that fills the best sellers lists and makes people feel good. I’m talking real passion that goes like this: “Something you love enough you’d suffer for it – as much as it takes”).
This is why it can’t just be done in an hour a week in an office and why I am continually in contact with my clients as life is happening, and often, where their life is happening (since I started writing this I’ve answered two midday calls from a high school senior needing help getting centered to make a critical decision, and responded to two texts from a high school junior who wanted to share good news about an accolade he earned this morning – all before 11am on a weekday, all while sipping a cup of amazing tea, playing with my daughter every few minutes and giving my wife a hug when I get up to take a break…).
It is also why I use all their “problems” as a means of teaching them how to live life where these kinds of things not only aren’t problems, they typically don’t even come up… and why so many of the times before I give them the answer they seek, I tell them 45 minutes of insights, perspectives, examples and stories… stories… and more stories… because as Einstein said, I want them to be intelligent – not just soulless bored machines who can solve problems and then return to a mundane existence in front of their TVs, video games and superficial, self-absorbed, hedonistic approach to sexual relationships.
It’s about living an aesthetic life, merged with intelligence, blended with intellect… and helping them to do so before it is too late and their brains get hard wired into one-dimensional hell, and their soul’s get so jaded as to become resistant, or worse, indifferent.
Which leads me back to the crisis we face as parents.
We want our kids to thrive. And we want them to succeed in a competitive world. We want both, but we have a predominant system we submit our kids too, that only serves the latter.
We want them to have real joy, real love and real adventure. We also want them to be practical.
We want them to be idealistic, to dream big. We also want them to be “realistic”.
The problem though is that the price they are paying to be successful in competitive world, with practicality and while being realistic, is sucking the very soul out of what it is to lead an aesthetic life – the kind of life that so many of the most substantial humans to ever live, lived.
By achieving this modern success, many parents are sacrificing in their kids the potential of the real kind of success our world may really need.
For me personally, that is too great of a price to pay. My wife and I have already resolved this issue for ourselves and how we are raising our daughter. It is far more work to parent this way, but the price of not doing so is unimaginable to us.
My question is, are others resolving this issue for their own kids? Are they even thinking about it?
Just like our kids need us, we need each other. We sure as hell don’t need more homework and school stress.
The question I’m endlessly grappling with, is what do we need and how are we going to do it, and who is going to join us on our journey?
PS: That is why the ones who go the distance with me constantly say it is so hard to describe what it is I do when they talk to others about it. They just keep saying, “You have to experience it.” As one 17 year old client in Chicago said to me, “I can’t explain what it is you do. All I know is that every time I get off the phone with you I feel quieter, calmer, more focused and more positive about my life and where it is heading. And it is changing me into a person who lives this way. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am free to be really myself.”