Supporting Children and Teens in Discovering Life’s Highest Values

This article is excerpted from For Goodness’ Sake: Helping Children and Teens Discover Life’s Higher Values, by Nitai Deranja, founder of the first Living Wisdom School, Nevada City, CA.

It is easy to embrace the idea of nonsectarian spiritual values when we focus on a few key ones: kindness, courage, willingness, self-control, honesty. Who could disagree with the importance of these values or attribute them exclusively to any one religion?

In the joy we feel in helping others, the sense of satisfaction that comes from doing our best, and the peace of mind that results from telling the truth, we experience how much these values improve the quality of life.

As our world grows closer together, we can readily see that these values are part of everyone’s heritage, regardless of religious background, and offer a basis for emphasizing the oneness of the human race. On an individual level, they contribute mightily to a sense of self-worth.

A transforming experience

During my eighth-grade year, I had a chance to experience the transforming effects of one such value: compassion. The end of the school year was approaching but, due to heavy rains, my friends and I couldn’t use the playground. So we began to meet in the boys’ bathroom, a place of relative freedom in a Catholic school run by women.

In our advanced state of boredom, we started matching pennies, a game in which two people flip coins, with the winner keeping both pennies. Soon we were smuggling dice, cards, and poker chips into school. Inevitably, we were discovered and marched to the principal’s office.

After being chastised, we were punished with the loss of two weeks’ lunch recess. Our classroom teacher, Sister St. John, was assigned to supervise our punishment. Since this meant giving up her precious midday break, we expected the worst: sitting in silence for two weeks; writing, “I will not gamble” five thousand times.

Compassion and good will

To our astonishment, Sister said we had the choice of going through some unspecified eighth grade equivalent of “hell,” or something “better.” She then handed out copies of Pitch Black and the Seven Giants, a play with a “reforming” message. We readily chose the play, and thus began two highly enjoyable weeks of rehearsals, capped by a performance for our class.

My friends and I were stunned. What had happened to the punishment? The sense of guilt and shame? The end result was that Sister’s compassion and goodwill succeeded beautifully in lifting us out of a rather dark and negative state of mind.

The experience affected me deeply, and I absorbed the seed-thought that there might be other motivations for being good than fear of punishment.

A Master is not sectarian

This seed began to sprout with my involvement in the first Ananda Living Wisdom School in 1972, which was envisioned as spiritual, non-sectarian, and open to all. But I wondered: “What did ‘non-sectarian’ mean?” My own parochial school experience had left me so distrustful of spiritual indoctrination that I hesitated to share even the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda with the children.

When I took this dilemma to Swami Kriyananda, his answer was brief and to the point: “Nitai, what could be more nonsectarian than a master?” Soon after, I came across an important article by Yogananda:

Educational authorities deem it impossible to teach spiritual principles in public schools because they confuse them with the variety of conflicting forms of religious faiths. But if they concentrate on the universal principles of peace, love, service, tolerance and faith that govern the spiritual life, and devise methods of practically growing such seeds in the fertile soil of the child’s mind, then the imaginary difficulty is dissolved.

Encouraged, I began having classroom discussions on such values as honesty, kindness, and cooperation. We also read books about people who demonstrated these qualities in their lives. The students were developing a good intellectual understanding of the concepts, but, unfortunately, their behavior remained unaffected.

Then a remarkable thing happened. One morning it snowed.

Snow is unusual at Ananda, and I’d have been a complete ogre not to go along with the children’s pleas for a special recess. I stayed inside watching from the window, enjoying the exuberance of their play. However, in a few minutes there was an inadvertent shove, then a wayward snowball, and the whole class was angry with one another. I rang the bell and called the students in.

An impromptu swearing-in ceremony

After a calming-down period, we sat on the carpet for a discussion circle. We had previously been discussing the quality of cooperation, so I said: “Anyone who wants to go back out will have to take a pledge to practice cooperation. If you behave otherwise, you’ll have to come back in.”

We had an impromptu swearing-in ceremony as the students solemnly pledged to cooperate with one another. Back in the playground, there were a few nervous glances in my direction and some overly polite interactions, but gradually everyone settled into wholesome, cooperative play.

Later, when I asked the children which recess they had enjoyed more, every hand quickly went up in favor of the second one. Everyone agreed that the practice of cooperation had made all the difference. If I had any doubts about the power of this incident, they evaporated as I watched the children maintain their cooperation over the ensuing months.

Feeling the effects of behavior

Here was the alternative I had been searching for. First with Sister St. John I had witnessed the transforming effects of her compassion. Now my students had discovered how the quality of cooperation could make their recesses more enjoyable. Clearly, it was direct, personal experience that made it possible for children to appreciate why they should incorporate positive values into daily life.

I began using games, role-playing, and other activities to help them gain their own experience of the different values-to enable them to feel the effects of positive and negative types of behavior. This was the beginning of a non-sectarian, spiritual foundation for the school.

A “service adventure” to Mexico

The humorist P. G. Wodehouse wrote, “There is always a fly in the ointment, a caterpillar in the salad.” In our school the “caterpillar” was puberty.

As the children reached the teenage years, a different approach was needed as restlessness and boredom began to threaten the foundation of good character developed in their younger years. No longer was it enough to learn about values within the confines of the school campus; teens needed more challenging scenarios.

The solution was “service-adventures,” the first of which took us to a Mexican orphanage where the students spent two weeks immersed in a lifestyle completely foreign to them. This new context provided many opportunities for them to renew their appreciation for such qualities as calmness, kindness, and truthfulness. As the trip progressed, their better qualities again began to shine forth.

When we returned, the students had changed in lasting ways. They were more accepting of younger children, more open to adults, and less competitive with one another. With the haze of discontent lifted, here again were the young people I had watched grow up as cheerful, exuberant children. (And who later matured into thoughtful, responsible young adults).

The turbulence of restlessness

For most children, the greatest obstacle to the discovery of values is restlessness. Restlessness can be caused by emotional trauma or an unhealthy diet. But the most common problem is over-stimulation from too much exposure to videos, computer games, music, and TV.

Helping children calm the turbulence of their bodies and minds enables them to develop the sensitivity necessary for an appreciation of values. With children (and adults) the best tools for achieving this are yoga, meditation, and introspection.

One experience stands out in my mind. I was leading a group of teens through a series of calming yoga exercises. One girl, however (the most restless person in the class), seemed untouched by the practices. To help her, I came up with a little experiment.

At the end of the next session, I asked everyone to remain on the floor while I came around to test each one by gently moving an arm or leg. I explained that the flexibility or limpness of a limb would be a good indicator of the student’s level of relaxation.

As I made my way around the room, all the students were relaxed until I came to the girl. When I lifted her leg slightly and then released it, it remained suspended in the air! Somehow she’d never connected the concept of relaxation with a physical sensation. With a little extra help, she finally got the idea.

The words “fairly shine”

Non-sectarian spiritual values are the jewels of human existence-Cheerfulness. Forgiveness. Courage. Even-mindedness. Concentration. Patience. Integrity. Sensitivity. Trust. Cooperation. Sincerity. Will Power. Peace. Compassion. Self-Control. Enthusiasm. Honesty. Love. Joy. The words fairly shine on the printed page.

Working with children has enhanced my appreciation of how these values improve the quality of life for both adults and children. How can anyone overcome difficulties on the job without perseverance? How can parents respond effectively to the needs of their children without empathy? How can a person stay out of debt without self-discipline?

Just as it is crucial to understand the laws of gravity and acceleration before one can become an engineer, so also is it essential to develop qualities like cooperation, cheerfulness, and concentration before one can hope to find success and fulfillment in life. Indeed, these are the qualities that enable one to meet life’s countless challenges.