The Words that we share with children can be Life-changing


New Year’s resolutions have always confused me. Some years they never get further than a passing thought, and at other times they serve as productive earmarks for the year ahead.

This year I have decided to conscientiously focus on a thought for the day as a point of reflection. Some time back, a friend introduced me to a site that, every morning delivers an inspiring and thought-provoking ecumenical quote —www.gratefulness.org. This international nonprofit organization’s mission statement is to provide “the gentle power of gratefulness, which restores courage, reconciles relationships, and heals our Earth.”

A pleasure to receive, these quotes reinforce a notion I have long held about education: the words we give to students and are mirrored in behavior help build character and can be life-changing. This is one reason almost all religions and philosophies rely on words as teaching tools. Valuable lessons are imparted through using such great works as the parables of Jesus, the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, words attributed to the Buddha, the sayings of Mohammed, and so many more.

Some of the teaching quotes I love are taken from the Hasidism, a Jewish movement that was started in the 1700s in Eastern Europe. Knowing little about the actual theology of the Hasids, my affection for the wisdom stems from my former accountant whom I always referred to as the Eminent Mr. Berkowitz. I bestowed upon him this title because he related to all with tolerance and respect for individual differences. I first met Mr. B. at the stationary store I frequented on Court Street in Brooklyn where I purchased supplies for my learning center. The store seemed to be elegantly chaotic, and whoever did their books must have understood the organized chaos that was my bookkeeping. I am forever grateful to the owners for passing Mr. Berkowitz along to me.

Mr. Berkowitz, a member of the Chabad Lubavitch, was not only the best accountant in the world, he was also a marvelous teacher. He loved that I had established a day school for students who were failing to thrive in traditional settings, and asked if he could come and meet them. He was deeply respectful and never challenged their traditions, and by qualifying that they were his beliefs, imparted some words of wisdom.

The Hasidic Proverbs, taken from the Book of Proverbs in the Jewish Bible, contain such beautiful instructions for how to have a life well lived as: “To give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth, and to understand an allegory and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.”
As with Golden Rule, to which the Proverbs share their essence, these short guides are at once complex and simple, and as such can provide fuel for deeper reflection on how man treats his fellow man and himself. For someone to be able to open those possibilities for students is a true talent.

”One who looks for a friend without faults will have none” — Hasidic proverb. Teaching the young how to be accepting and respectful of individual difference is a gift. Petty disappointments can ruin wonderful friendships and no one friend will ever meet another person’s every need, but cultivating relationships with people who have different experiences or cultural backgrounds builds a lifetime of tolerance.

From childhood to the present, I have always been interested in culture. Holidays became a special joy in my neighborhood as I grew to understand and respect different environments and traditions. Differences of opinion can be encouraged and valued as one learns from the ideas of others. If reinforced in the home, these values also can help reduce the epidemic of horrific bullying in this country.
In homes or classrooms where one-upmanship is practiced, bullying and honing in on the perceived faults of others has fertile ground. One parent told me of her son who had recently changed schools. He came home from his new school, shocked that no one laughed at him for not knowing an answer. In a few short months this young man has turned from someone disgruntled and hating school into a thriving student. An atmosphere that lacks prejudice, and where competition is only with oneself, cultivates the wisdom of the Hasidic proverb and leads to a happier and diverse friend-full life.

The Hasidic proverbs are much like those of other traditions and especially beautiful to me are also those of the Sufi, a mystical dimension of Islam. Consider this gem: “A donkey with a load of Holy books is still a donkey.”

This is a meaningful proverb to teach to children and for adults to remember. Arrogance and grandiosity have little to do with actual accomplishment. I was guilty of this as a teenager. I wanted to show others that I was well read, so I went to the library and after taking out a stack of classics, would walk around town making sure the titles showed for all to see. A common practice in classrooms and families as well is to over-praise a child. From this, children may grow to perceive that they are better than others. On a small stage, this may not be challenged, but as the world of the child grows and he/she meets real competition, many falter. It may be better not to build up someone and in time, let them come to acknowledge their own gifts.

”If words come out of the heart, they will enter the heart, but if they come from the tongue, they will not pass beyond the ears” — Abu al-Najib al-Suhrawardi.

Learning to discern what is real from what is phony is an important life tool. A good friend is one who is not afraid to be honest, offers criticism when necessary, and has the best interests of a friend at heart. Using words of wisdom as a springboard to build values, and encouraging students to think more universally are practices sorely missing in our education system and in many homes as well. Most of us are aware of the statistics and how our schools are failing. One cost-effective way to build mental acumen and create deeper insight is through the inclusion of global proverbs and words of wisdom.

”Asking good questions is half of learning” — attributed to Muhammad.
In thinking about this article I have particularly chosen to focus on traditions that are less frequently discussed in schools, and along with more familiar traditions, can enhance learning and respect for the beliefs of others. What better way than to introduce the young to the wisdom of different traditions.

As the 2008 winner of the TED (www.tedprize.org/karen-armstrong) prize, Karen Armstrong eloquently states, “All the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.” Her emphasis is on the transcendent importance of compassion as exemplified by the so-called Golden Rule: “Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.”

By broadening the spectrum of knowledge to include the essence of traditions through words of wisdom we may, at last, build tolerance and the groundwork for peace.