Culture and Counterculture

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in a person by doing the actions” – Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea

Respectful behavior and language is one of the goals we all, parents and teachers, desire for our children. The work of the individual in this area is often more acute at the Elementary or Adolescent stages when a larger exposure to popular culture and bank of potentially colorful language is at their disposal. Rude humor is now so mainstream that it’s almost unnoticeable and profanity so common that it’s barely profane. These older children and young adults, understandably, enjoy trying on these elements of culture and, at the same time, are tasked with making good choices for themselves and those around them. How do we help equip them with the education and experiences to filter the culture and make choices that will help them to connect with their own greatness and positive potential? We know that the first step is always to examine our own modeling, but we can also mindfully offer counter energies to the culture with mercifully simple and enjoyable ingredients. A few avenues for families to consider:

Time Outdoors: Having time to just be in the world is essential. A weekend hike, with devices tucked squarely away, gives the opportunity to step out of our routine and just notice the natural world. As we feel our smallness before nature, we are gifted with perspective on our cares. Children love to explore and climb outdoors, rain or shine, and unearth the smallest insects as well as try to move the largest logs. Children who love nature grow into adults who are mindful of our essential relationship with the earth and are capable and inclined to incorporate environmental stewardship into their future choices.

Physical Fitness: A team sport provides both exercise and also opportunity to engage interdependently with others. Even the most gifted player cannot succeed without the coordination of her team. Individual sports challenge us to the task of incremental self-improvement, even if it’s just by a few seconds. When an activity is new, there is opportunity for the whole family to step outside their comfort zone and be novices together. My daughter, who loves to jump rope, has taken our family into a world of learning about jump rope tricks and creating nightly moments of hilarity as we try to master different movements. The well-being we feel when our bodies are healthy and the larger life lessons we learn through our physical effort directly carry over to the rest of our endeavors.

Volunteering, Community Life, and Service: Giving back is essential to learning how to take other’s perspectives and needs into our own awareness. Most children in our community have all they need or more and a potential pitfall is that consumption becomes the currency of our social relating. Vacationing together is lovely, but so is helping a friend paint a room. The practical life curriculum in the classrooms and the children’s participation in the care of their home environment are the base of service. Whether bigger efforts through a community organization, or smaller efforts such as picking up litter on the street or taking a meal to a sick friend, keeping others in mind is key to the feeling of social belonging and responsibility. Time and again, those who give generously of their time report back an overall higher sense of mental well being. If empathetic action is a core value in the family, stronger are the skills of ‘response inhibition’ or self-control when it comes to choosing their own words and actions. When we understand we belong to one another, we are more thoughtful with our choices.

Music and Art: Singing, dancing, and art have been a part of all humanity for good reason. The arts provide joy, insight, beauty, challenge, and movement. Playing or singing music or dancing together feels good because we create a moment of shared connection. An art or craft such as learning to knit, for example, gifts us with the connection to others working with the material and challenges the knitter with the endless variations and intricacies of yarn and pattern as well as the reward of a finished creation.

A perhaps counterintuitive upside is that these endeavors support not only positive social behavior but intellectual functioning. Through these efforts, the tools known as executive functions (attention, inhibition, discipline, reasoning, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, working memory) that help young adults meet the lower parts of our culture with a critical eye are also the components of fluid intelligence. The child’s work is to build these skills through exploration, curiosity, creation, trial, success, and error. The adult’s work is to provide boundaries, support, guidance, and feedback. Working together with healthy doses of patience, trust, and love, we can strive through our repeated actions toward Aristotelian virtuous excellence.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School