Dynamic tradition and children

“Tradition carries with it immense value—that’s why it persists generation after generation. But tradition that doesn’t evolve can find itself no longer fitting the world as it is today and can be destructive of human well-being.”
– Ari Nielsen

My wife’s father had clear ideas about what was the right and wrong thing to do: you use this particular credit card, because it gives the most cash back, you go to that college because it has the best reputation, and when you go to college here is a list of acceptable degrees that aren’t a waste of money.

Except, all his views are decades out of date and no longer true, because the world moves on. Slowly changing facts are often the hardest to deal with—when something is true for a few decades, we can lose consciousness that it can change. The number of planets, the consensus on the impact of dietary fat on health, the value of a college education…these have all slowly oscillated in various directions in the last half-century. Only now can I confidently say that I don’t know what these “facts” will be fifty years hence.

Tradition carries with it immense value—that’s why it persists generation after generation. But tradition that doesn’t evolve can find itself no longer fitting the world as it is today and can be destructive of human well-being. In evolutionary terms, we can think about this as the question of the useful pace of adaptation. The result of changes plays out over time, and we often cannot discover the impact of an adaptation purely via theory. Bringing this back to being a parent, we can map out two extremes: having a fixed idea of “what our children should do”, and the other end of the polarity, “anything goes”. 

If you have a long-term partner or a spouse, then neither of these is what a vibrant relationship looks like! Your partner is probably neither completely obedient to your ideas of “what they should do”, nor would you simply accept any behavior at all from your spouse. For example, if you like to sleep at night, and they like to play loud music all night, you would likely have a discussion about your preferences and work out how they can do what they want without disturbing you! Maybe…wear headphones?

Influence without compulsion is the key here, a dynamic interplay of two human beings who both have their own desires, but also desire connection with each other.

If you have children, how can you gift them with valuable tradition without creating fixed ways of being that become counterproductive when the world changes?

Live as you see fit and allow your children to live as they see fit. Enjoy the dynamic discussion about how to live, in its continuous evolution.

What does that mean for me personally? For me, the most important stances I take as a parent are a desire to connect with this wonderful human being, and a release of any expectations that what worked for me will work successfully for another human being, who has a different body, life circumstance, and desires.

With the release of expectations, I am free to live my life as I see fit and have confidence that the tradition that I demonstrate in my life will be absorbed, rejected, and modified by my child as appropriate to their circumstances. This also creates space for the inverse: the unexpected paths demonstrated by my child can influence me organically, causing my own evolution. We grow together. Each of us is both influenced by and influences the other.

The equal value in what is passed-down and passed-up.

My daughter passed this contemporary culture up to me a few years ago. I love it and have watched/listened to it innumerable times. I never would have encountered it on my own: The Muffin Song. I have discovered that she has no taste for some of my favorite music, but The Lamia is an example of an ancient (to her) song that she adores.

We’ve allowed the dynamic evolution much more broadly than that. My daughter did not go to school or homeschool (i.e., have a curriculum) for her first 13 years. She simply lived her life, as she saw fit, in our environment. No restrictions on screen time, diet, bedtime… But, by living my life with integrity, she could observe those patterns that were useful to her, and naturally rejected those that weren’t. Discussions allowed the adaptation. 

For example, there was a period when she often watched “one too many YouTube videos” and felt “off” afterwards. She brought this issue to us. We discussed, and she became more sensitive to “right dosage” in her case. After a couple of years, the issue organically went away, as she homed-in on the subtle sensations that predicted she had watched the right amount for her. If we had “solved” the issue by limiting her screen time, she would likely never have discovered her own deep subjective sense of what it meant to enjoy screens fruitfully in her case.

In conclusion, 

Human connection is primary. On that basis, the way you choose to live is naturally interesting. Some of the way you live will be absorbed, some rejected. This is a good thing—your tradition can evolve organically and appropriately, in non-prescribed ways. And, on the basis of truly having no preference in your heart for what your child chooses to do, you naturally have conversations about why you like to do what you like to do, why it works for you, and why it may or may not be a good fit for your child.

There is a meta-learning that accompanies this last point: the skill at determining which advice and guidance to explore and which to reject is a very subtle skill, and cannot be learned in an environment where guidance is compulsory!

See also:

Ari Nielsen, 2023, ‘Dynamic tradition and children’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/dynamic-tradition-and-children

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