The most important skill to teach your children

child in front of school window in Cambodia

As a parent we all have our views on how to raise children (ours of course, but those of others too sometimes). Child education is a bit like religion: we believe this or that is the best and probably only decent way of teaching them how to walk, to eat properly, to be polite, to write, etc.

Yet, all these skills are useless without the most important of skills, which is to make sense of the world around us. What do I mean by making sense? I mean the capacity to decipher the political and societal choices we make as humans, the capacity to never take something for granted or eternal, but to always remember it is people that make choices about how we live, how we think and how we evolve as a species on this Earth. It is about seeing the fine thread of the matrix, to speak in Wachowskian terms.

What’s really behind statistics?

Here is one concrete example which I’ve come across recently in my readings and which I tested with my children. It usually starts with figures or data. Remember how we always think data is factual, objective? Well, think again.

Today on the planet between 1.3 and 2 billion people do not have access to medicine. These are stats from the World Health Organisation (WHO), so let’s assume they’ve been collected in a credible and scientific way, and that we can trust them as reflecting reality. Now let’s put this figure in parallel with a figure from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO): there are 1.6 billion forest-dependent people who rely heavily on forests for their food, fuel and medicine. These 1.6 billion people overlap greatly with the 1.3-2 billion people mentioned earlier. But in one statement it is said they don’t have access to medicine, and in another one, that forests provide them with medicine.

Making sense of contradictory statements

The first assumption we need to clarify is what lies behind the use of the word ‘medicine’. In the first statement medicine is understood as modern, Western medicine. In the second statement, medicine is understood as traditional medicine, usually extracted from plants found in the forest. So the apparent contradiction between the two statements disappears when ones understands that there are two different forms of medicine.

My kids aged 6 and 10 had no trouble following me up to here in the explanation. They understood perfectly that forest-dependent people use plants for healing, and they had no problem comparing it to the medicine they know here in Europe, with vaccines, drugs and surgical operations. What they didn’t know, and which I explained to them, is that most molecules used in modern drugs come from plants, and that these natural remedies had often been known for centuries (and in the case of some plants millenia) before the invention of modern medicine.

With this new piece of information at their disposal, they were able to understand that the two statements were just two interpretations of the same reality. Almost 2 billion people still rely on natural remedies to heal themselves (in addition to other forms of healing such as shamanism), and these remedies are available for free in the forests they dwell in. And yes, these people also do not have access to modern medicine, due to the remoteness of some of these locations, but also the cost of modern medicine.

Nobody contests that the existence of the latter has dramatically contributed to increasing people’s life expectancy in the Western world, yet it is by no means the only, nor the most important factor. Chine traditional medicine, a complex and comprehensive medical system, has been around for almost 5,000 years, and is still being used by millions of Chinese. Yet it is not what has contributed to a longer lifespan for most Chinese people in the last two hundred centuries (well, not counting the the rather deadly Maoist period…).

Letting your children develop their own world views

My older son then asked me the question I knew he was going to ask when I mentioned that the natural remedies found in the forest were for free. “Why do we want people to buy drugs from modern medicine to heal themselves when they can get the same effect from a plant available for free in the forest?”

Good question. There we were, with two conflicting world views and a 10-year old trying to make sense of it. The point here is not to push into one or the other direction, that’s not your role as a parent. You’ll do your kids a favour if you let them do the thinking and the coming to a conclusion. Just give them the tools and they’ll figure it out for themselves.

My son reacted in an unexpected and wonderful way. He did not adopt my personal and more radical world view that we need to protect forests so that forest-dependent people can continue to live the life they’ve chosen and so that we can also benefit from their wisdom when looking for new molecules to heal diseases using modern science. He simply mentioned free will, the importance for each society to decide how they want to live and be healed, and how stupid humanity was by imposing a choice between two forms of medicine when you could benefit from both.

So please, next time you teach something to your children, teach them to think for themselves instead of unconsciously imposing your world view on them. Give them the facts, the popular wisdom, add the controversies to the mix and let them make sense of it all, with your patient and affectionate guidance. Sooner then you think they’ll surprise you with their wisdom!

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