The search for wisdom is so highly valued in the Bible that Christians, others too, often ask, “How do we get wisdom?” It’s a perennial question and a particularly urgent one in the context of raising and educating children (see, e.g., the book of Proverbs). It occupied the minds of baby boomer parents (maybe not as many as it should have!) and it is now pressing in on millennials with kids.
Of course we know two answers right away, that we can get wisdom from the Bible and through prayer. But not everyone prays or reflects on Scripture. And even if the do, there is also an overlooked way in which everyone gets wisdom, even those who don’t pray and read the Bible. Here is some food for thought on this, which may help parents prime the pump.
We get wisdom from childhood, through a process as simple as it is profound. That is, for the most part early on, our wisdom simply grows up with us and in us. We don’t manufacture it or study it as a school subject, and we don’t spend much time thinking about it. We absorb it throughout childhood. It develops in us, and we in it, as a singular part of its development in the history of the family, community, and culture in which we live.
Perhaps the best analogy for the way we “get wisdom”(Proverbs 4:7) in this sense is found in the way we come to speak our mother tongue. We simply “pick it up” as we go along, by hearing, by imitating, by others correcting us. Long before we go to school to “learn English” from textbooks we are already using it with considerable fluency. By the time we begin to study it from books it is such a second nature to us that the way it comes across as a subject to be learned makes it seem strange, like algebra.
We develop in our wisdom in the same way. We pick it up, we absorb it, as we go along. Yet the analogy goes further. When we come across products of other wisdoms – Indian music, African medicine, Chinese architecture – our initial response is commonly like hearing a foreign language for the first time. We say, “How peculiar!” We take it for granted that our products are the normal ones and that the others are odd or even abnormal. This feeling can persist long after we know that the other people naturally regard their products as normal and ours as peculiar or abnormal.
So in the normal course of our formative years, we do not formally learn our wisdom; we absorb it, more or less uncritically, as we go along. It develops in us largely within our homes and through various significant others and authority figures with whom we interact: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older siblings, baby sitters, and perhaps Sesame Street and other sources. It’s not long before we are absorbing it from friends and neighbors, our teachers, rivals and enemies, sports and religion, radio, television, film, the Web, social media, the blogosphere, and much more.
But there are two things I want to point out about this process. One is that, although these sources have their own spokespersons and expositors, we are not absorbing each source’s wisdom in its entirety. Nothing even close to that. Instead, it’s done piecemeal. Each of us, from childhood, takes whatever we do take and we give it a particular imprint from our own individual circumstances and personalities, just as we all have our own handwriting. Slowly, what we have absorbed becomes a part of us – from here, there, and elsewhere.
The eyes of our minds are continually and imperceptibly gathering additional tints to their lenses, so our own wisdom – our own a way of seeing life and living in it effectively – is developing in us. Eventually, this absorption process gives us highly developed instincts for responding selectively to the world around us, such as in determining what is important or unimportant. It is our wisdom.
And we notice its distinction from that of others. For instance, by the time we are confronted with the way of seeing and living (the wisdom) of a different culture, much of it may seem so alien that we cannot imagine how any reasonable person would think and act like that. Some of it just gets explained away as being archaic or special or aberrant, or it is ignored or overlooked because there is no place in our minds to put it.
The second thing is this. And it’s as crucial and it is vital. The process of absorbing wisdom from childhood is not just about being taught and relying on obvious facts (don’t touch a hot stove; don’t play in the traffic) or overt moral values (don’t lie; say you’re sorry; be honest). The process is also subconscious. In fact, it is the absorbed, subtle influences and attitudes, the non-taught ones, that can be the most powerfully influential in the long run, and thus the most difficult to identify and change if they are wrong, for they come to us in childhood like the Gibeonite embassy, as if from far away, in disguise, unnoticed until it is too late.
An illuminating illustration, and one with far-reaching ramifications across the spectrum of everyday life, is how children get wisdom from parents subconsciously; that is, the parents don’t realize what hidden values, ideas, and attitudes they are imparting and the children don’t recognize they are picking them up.
Are the children, for instance, raised in a home where they get to see their parents arguing, or do the parents hide their fights from the children? If the former, do the children get to see the parents make up afterward? If so, how that is done will also influence the children. Or are the children left hurting and further bewildered because the parents kissed and made up privately, so the children don’t know that a reconciliation took place or how that was accomplished? And if the parents hid their fights, what has that said to the children as they get older and their own arguments arise?
We are not talking about one-off incidents but patterns of various kinds of parental behavior that betray hidden values, ideas, and attitudes that are rubbing off on the kids. So, to continue. Is an atmosphere of honest questioning fostered in the home, or do the children see in the parents an unapproachableness here? Or if a child pushes it questioning too far, in hopes of a satisfying answer, is he or she then impatiently fobbed off: “Just do what I say!” Or: “That’s just the way it is.” Or: “You’ll understand when you grow up.”
What topics are discussed at the dinner table? What topics are taboo? Does the family ever eat together? What do the children see their parents regularly spending money on, and how much money do they see them spending on these things? What kind of entertainment do the children see the parents enjoying on a regular basis? Is there any pattern of activity in which a child gets involved with a parent in helping the poor, the needy, the aged? Do mom and dad ever admit their mistakes to the children? What is the parental attitude toward religion, politics, the children’s friends, school teachers? How are people of different races treated?
I remembered growing up working alongside my dad in his auto repair business. He was known as “the car doctor,” and you won’t believe me when I say that he began to teach me about cars and car repair starting when I was nine or ten years old. But it’s true. And by the time I was sixteen I was glad of it, for I was earning lot of money as a mechanic! But that’s not what I want to call attention to here. I just needed to say that to get to this.
Year after year of working with my dad in a very public and busy auto repair shop in Detroit, I was able to watch how he interacted with people of different races. I put a lot of hours in at that shop, many days a week, especially during school breaks and the summer months, and I can’t recall ever seeing even a hint of racism in my dad. What I absorbed was his respectful manner of talking to and getting along with all sorts of people. He ended up with regular customers of different races, and in Detroit. Although I can recall my mom saying, “We try to get along with everyone,” neither of my parents ever sat me down to talk about “race issues.” I simply absorbed his peaceable values and attitudes about race throughout my teenage years. What if he had been a racist?
Again, absorbing wisdom is not just about what children are taught. The questions posed above are just several of many that parents need to struggle with for their children’s sakes. Subtle influences are loaded with powerful implications for the shaping of a child’s wisdom. Parents whose children are not home-schooled may not have as much influence over what goes on inside the classroom as they might like, but they do have control over what the children absorb in the home.
(Part of the above was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, chapter six.)
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Cayusa, Nidhi M, and Cesar, respectively (permissions from Creative Commons)