Preparing the child for the path, not vice-versa (1/8/18)

We have taken note before in this space of the importance of parenting that “prepares the child for the path rather than the path for the child.” Today I want to look more closely at a basic building block to that preparation: tolerance. To put it bluntly, the path any one of us has to travel in life contains suffering, from everyday disappointments to major setbacks. We have to learn to recognize, allow for, and accept this inevitability or we risk greatly magnifying our suffering by resisting and resenting it. We adults can greatly assist our children in the acquisition of tolerance if we make a conscious effort. In infancy, much of the suffering is with the physical growing pains of basic body regulation. This is, of course, a time of maximum parental attention to smoothing the path. But we also have to be able to acknowledge our limits, to put up with the difficulties of not knowing what baby needs. We also, through careful attention, can begin to sense when to let the infant “cry it out.” Thus begins the first rudimentary step of the child internalizing the capacity to self-sooth in the face of adversity. Once the child becomes ambulatory, we have to tolerate that there will be falls, bumps and bruises, so that the toddler learns to tolerate the same. Once language is there to help, we can point out the requirement of tolerance, such as that there are others in the family with needs and desires, which have to be taken into consideration in everyday functioning, so one’s own personal gratification will have to wait or be modified. In elementary school, hopefully with the educators’ help, the diversity of peer group needs and values supports the acquisition of a sense of fairness: that all have a voice, that you don’t have to agree, that you can argue constructively and make room for difference, but that you’re not always “right” and you’re not always going to “win.” By the teen years, if this progression has gone well, we can hope to see tolerance morphing into a felt moral code, including, by the way, a clarity about what is intolerable in a tolerant society. Tolerance, that is, is not passivity in the face of wrongdoing. Except for major injury or illness, much of our day to day suffering will result from our highly social and often frustrating connections to our fellow humans. That is where our tolerance is most regularly tested. So we might heed Voltaire’s injunction: “What is tolerance? We are all steeped in weaknesses and errors: let us forgive one another our follies.”
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