Teach Your Children Well?

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams,
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by.

Anyone who has been a parent (or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle) knows how hard it is to “teach our children well,” how frustrating it is to helplessly watch young people make the same mistakes we made. There is a memorable passage from Willa Cather’s One of Ours in which an older man tries to warn the young Claude against a bad marriage:

He found himself absolutely unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. The only way that Claude could ever come to share his secret, was to live.

“The only way …was to live.” That is the answer we come to, isn’t it? The only teacher is experience, and yet we wish we could prevent their mistakes, their heartbreak. And Claude does end up broken-hearted.

Of course, these days, we often find ourselves learning from the young. Technology is the best example; we are forever having our computers and digital televisions fixed or explained by someone far younger. I don’t mind; they know the language and I am grateful to have a translator. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether our technical and cultural laggedness does not make young people assume we have nothing to share. Because on issues of the uses of youth, on the dangers of dayspring mishandled, I do so wish I could spare them “heart-breaking disappointments.”

There were other eras when the youth held knowledge the old did not have. As education and literacy started to spread in 18th century England, younger members of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher. Families often gathered by the fire to be read to by the young. At the same time, increasing literacy and the proliferation of books meant that the memory of the elders was not as important as it had been. One could get an almanac with planting times, rather than relying on Grandpa’s experience.

So, in the face of all that, what do we have to teach? Of course, the old person has always served as a memento mori for the young – a living reminder of how (unless science comes up with a cure for aging and death) they will end up, given time. Time. The fourth dimension. We have gained experience over time, and have lived long enough to know how it is when passion is spent, the consequences of decisions (or the failure to make decisions), what is harvested after a long and punishing season of plowing and planting. As we are running out of time, it is time we want to give the young experience of, but it is not easy. Where I feel this lack most is in environmental issues; our generation participated in enjoying the resources of this world without taking account of what would happen over time. Now we know and weep. But more on the old and the environment in another post. And I might note that while we are interested in teaching the young about the consequences of time, they are interested in how it feels to live without time.

This week we have all been learning from the young students from Parkland as they march on Washington, believe changes can be made, refuse to be taught acceptance or pessimism, and insist on grasping the present moment. Bless them. They have learned from us, but not as elders – they have learned from our younger selves, our actions in the sixties and early seventies when we marched against the Vietnam War, rallied against segregation, burned our bras, and didn’t trust anyone over thirty. And they have much to teach us about remembering.

Graham Nash finishes his song by admonishing the young to “teach their parents well”:

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s, the one you’ll know by.

This week’s story, “Any Help She Can Get” gives us a younger person whose desperation forces her to learn from the very old and the very young. May we all be open to the wisdom of age and the vitality of youth.



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