Goodbye childhood, hello adolescence!
If you just turned thirteen it may be the most important date in your life. When hormones kick in bodies change – you’ve heard all this. What you may not have heard is that minds can change, too. Minds and selves, so different that what they see out there and in here is hardly recognizable.
That’s how it was for me and my classmates when we were thirteen. Kids fresh out of grade school and Sunday school. Challenged by adolescence, one of the biggest transitions of our lives then and thereafter. While we were also adjusting to Phillips Academy at Andover, then an all-male preparatory school with a no-nonsense approach to education. With a world of opportunity for character development, too. We were destined for four incredible years of education and growth that would put us all in the best universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge, the rest of the Ivies, and more.
But we didn’t know it yet. All we knew was this thing called childhood was over. We were adolescents. Instead of reading Justin Morgan Had a Horse (1945) now we were reading The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Anticipating a strange new world: the mysterious, sophisticated world of adults. Where safe passage through ambiguity -- the murkiness and deviousness of human motivation -- was by no means assured. We were intrigued, scared, ambivalent. That’s how it was. That was adolescence.
What’s life all about anyway?
We could feel ourselves changing. But changing into who or what was confusing. Because we couldn’t tell where all these forces of humanity and nature were taking us. Decisions coming at us faster than we knew how to decide. Not: Do we run with the crowd or go it alone? Keep up with our homework or blow it off? But: What really interests us? What really matters?
What did we want our one shot at life to be all about? Have something to show for it or just go with the flow? How could we apply ourselves in school to become the person we wanted to be? To develop character with solid values and abilities that helped us grow? To be of service. What was life all about anyway?
Creating something beautiful in the here and now
What can be more exacting, more exciting, than learning to think for ourselves? The beginning of adolescence is when everyone who has learning to share with us gets serious about it. What we learn or don’t learn counts. All the curricular and extra-curricular activities, competitions, assignments, social interactions, and entertainments give us an array of possibilities to choose from. Different beliefs and causes that will bless us with purpose, meaning, and satisfaction the rest of our lives. That will help us discover who we are and how we choose to apply our ideals and powers to create something beautiful -- an expression of what we stand for.
The world of the university may be some years away. But for the thirteen-year-old student who wants to make something beautiful of her life, it starts here. It starts now. it’s not too soon to reflect on her potential. Not If she means to qualify for the best universities. It’s not too soon to realize how satisfying, how much fun, it can be to be responsible for developing her own potential. To be in charge of it. To think for herself. Because no one else can do it for her.
What are the right values?
Kids from families that practice gentle loving kindness are already familiar with the best value of all. They’re halfway there to building character with strong values. For the rest adolescence is their chance to make up for lost time. In either case it’s a pleasure to talk with them about values. Because if they’ve just turned thirteen they want to grow. Their minds and hearts are open. They’re a work in progress, beauty put there to create beauty. Creativity that may not last, because with the onset of “maturity” minds and hearts often close to the possibilities, become set in their ways. Thirteen is beautiful. Keep minds and hearts open and you’ll make it.
Character and values are certainly role-modeled in school but they aren’t expressly taught. We could learn some of the best values in other venues, like church, and also some of the worst. Being parted from independent judgment to demonstrate “faith” in someone else’s judgment is not being mindful. Not when the value of mindfulness is right up there with gentle loving kindness. This is why it’s important to talk about values: there are no “saviors” to do our thinking for us. Building character with strong values is a do-it-yourself proposition. Do it yourself with lots of help, to be sure. Help from other people. Help from philosophy, psychology, theology, and any of the sciences that resonate with Mind and Love. With Logic. Help above all from our own intuition, the source of insights that guide and inspire the arts, sciences, and all of human progress. But always grounded in our own judgment, our own free will. Always.
Values are many things: ideals to inspire us, attributes to define us, instruments to be used. But the place to start is that they’re gifts. And what they require from us, if they’re going to do their job, is thankfulness and respect. Because they come from a Source that deserves thankfulness and respect – from Love. From the Source of our Being and our Worth.
What are the right values? Whatever values fit the situation we’re in. What’s the right fit? Whatever we figure out if we get it right. Choosing values to serve for different situations requires thought, feeling, and conscience. Mind and heart working together.
One thing it does not require is a formula. Minds unable or unwilling to do the work will make a show of values. Minds without conscience or character whose only value is what’s in it for them. If their “values” don’t feel like the real thing they probably aren’t. They’re just appearances for taking advantage, a clever formula someone learned to fool us and hide the truth. It’s not loving or kind. It’s cheating to avoid values. Cheating isn’t getting it right.
Character and values anchor us
We can’t think for ourselves without evaluating. Without being aware of our values and being true to them when we make up our minds. Using our minds to reason and evaluate fortifies us with understanding and good judgment. With conscience that knows right from wrong and displays good character. It assures others that we can be trusted. That we’re safe to be close to at work and play.
Children follow a path laid down for them. Adolescents learning to think for themselves begin choosing their own path. It’s how they transition to becoming young adults. Character isn’t defined for them anymore. They have to define it themselves, and it begins with choices. Choices among values that pull in different directions. The best defense against being pulled in the wrong direction is to choose the right values.
Character isn’t about blowing with the wind. It’s about the values that we choose and commit to. That define and anchor us. The best defense against choosing the wrong path is building the right character.
The ways we express our values
They’re things people need, want, or otherwise care about. One dimension belongs here with us on our planet of spacetime and matter. Another belongs in a part of our mind that’s not spacetime and matter. It’s called “intuition.” It produces spontaneous insights that guide thinking in science and every other field, but no one knows where they come from. A third dimension is their opposites – the “dark side.”
So if we think of “Wealth,” for instance, it could mean property we accumulate for our comfort beyond necessities, like yachts and jewelry. Or it could mean the thought and feeling of Abundance that motivate us to share our Love, Power, and Worth. Those are very different takes on “Wealth,” but they’re equally valid in their contexts. “Scarcity” is one word for their opposite.
Here are ways of labeling ten basic categories of human values or needs:
Empowerment (energy, control)
Abundance (wealth, material comfort)
Protection (safety, security)
Freedom (free will)
Beauty (purity, essence)
Hope (faith, purpose).
Like rivers they branch outward into tributaries that contain all kinds of things important to us. Values that we use to make up our minds. “Core values” that apply across humanity and values we choose and express as individuals. They’re part of our everyday experience, as concrete and immediate as the food we eat. If “belonging” doesn’t sound important “fairness” certainly will, and it’s part of belonging.
There are too many values to list all the ways we express them, but some that are implied by our needs are listed in the appendix. Terms that catalogue their opposites are given as well. This should give us a feel for how familiar and relevant values and their opposites are, like “kindness” and “scarcity.” How they influence our work and relationships and how important it is to be aware of them.
One perspective on our choices doesn’t tell us what to think. But by presenting the dark side as well as the light it does give us an idea how values pull in different directions. What choices can imply and where they might lead if we’re not mindful. If we don’t exercise solid independent judgment that comes from introspection, reflection, reasoning, evaluating, and discipline. So when we decide our eyes will be open. So the consequences – especially the costs – won’t be an unpleasant surprise.
Role modeling values
What grandparents learn from their grandchildren is the joyfulness of living in the moment. Of spontaneity that opens minds and hearts. That frees them to laugh and love, to play and think creatively in ways they’ve forgotten or may have never learned before. Time with their grandchildren is well spent. In fact, it can be enormously helpful. What grandparent isn’t grateful for being admitted into the world of a precious child?
We are all role models. Children no less than grownups. But the values a thirteener might learn from a grandparent can’t be following in anyone’s “footsteps.” Grownups’ lives and careers are also a work in progress. They’re not meant to be footsteps for anyone to follow. Let role models guide and motivate us, but don’t let them take over.
Are character and education worth the effort?
Three accomplished role models have written primers on adolescence, worthy causes, and qualifying for some of the best universities:
Being a Teen: Everything Teen Girls and Boys Should Know About Relationships, Sex, Love, Health, Identity, and More, by Jane Fonda (Random House 2014)
It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going!, by Chelsea Clinton (Penguin 2017)
The Ultimate Teen Guide to Getting into the Ivy League: The 10-Step System, by Courtney Malinchak (Strauss Consultants 2017)
These are just a sample of what’s out there. Whatever our situations someone else has been there, thought about it, and come up with insights and information to stimulate our thinking and ease the way. If it seems like we’ve been abandoned the truth is very different. Whatever our situation it puts us into a community that wants to help. Just like our intuition, it only needs to be asked. So don’t let change come of its own accord: bone up on it and master it.
Even the best high schools and preparatory schools can’t make it easy to get into places like Harvard and Caltech. It takes extra effort. If what we’re looking for is “easy” why bother with school at all? Why bother with Life? What lies ahead for all of us is deciding whether we want to make the effort. Malinchak’s book could scare us away or fill us with determination. Which will it be?
Here’s one reason for making an extra effort. At Andover I was an average student with one distinction: I tried hard. I may have been the only athlete recommended for a varsity letter without scoring points for the team. My coach’s recommendation said my work ethic inspired my teammates to score points, and that’s why I deserved the award. The best universities look for applicants who want to excel. Who are passionate about pushing themselves beyond their limits. And one way they measure passion is by level of effort. I made it to Harvard. Andover might have gotten me there without extra effort, but maybe it wouldn’t.
Having an education from a world-class university is like being able to board a plane at a busy airport without going through security. Everyone wants you on board and they want to make it easy. Because the source of your education puts their minds at rest about your mind. About your character, talent, and values. You’re trusted. People can put their confidence in you. A degree from the top universities, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, or Stanford, that’s put to good use, can gain acceptance into the highest circles of wealth, power, and society. I know this from experience. Without my Harvard degree the opportunities that put accomplishment, satisfaction, and joy into my career would not have been there. This is a solid reason for making an extra effort. It might be stressful but you’ll never regret it.
Just as the best universities open up worlds of possibilities, only the values of good character can get us into those worlds. Can give us the power and ability to realize our potential once we’re there. Good education and good character are gifts that never stop giving.
Career or no career? What does Mona Lisa say?
If an adolescent girl is unsure of her motivation Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts, might help. It’s a 2003 film that tells the story of an art professor at Wellesley College who encouraged her students to pursue careers. The professor’s students divided themselves into women who wanted careers and those who didn’t. I knew a graduate of Wellesley who earned a degree in economics. After that, she earned a law degree from Harvard and a license to practice law in Massachusetts. She had a very good mind. But even though she earned a profession she never actually wanted it. And as soon as she could, she abandoned it.
Do you want training for a professional career? Or are you one of the Wellesley students who don’t want a career? It can be a difficult choice for a conscientious girl that requires a lot of thought. This film may help, because it dramatizes the choice from both sides. Good thinking and great entertainment!
The values of a grandparent: Mindfulness, learning and growth
What this grandparent wants others to know about him is that he places a high value on mind – on learning and growth. That he believes that Mind and Love, thought and feeling, are inseparable. That he will be honest with others and places a high value on facts, Logic, and Truth. He believes that we make the world a better place by making ourselves better persons, and we make ourselves better persons by making the world a better place.
We choose Life when we choose not to be satisfied with the way things are. When we choose to explore the possibilities open to us by our minds. When we allow and encourage our minds to reflect. To see things from perspectives different from our own, To explore new approaches to our work, relationships, and wellbeing. Our values are to be used for creativity, to build character and self-worth.
The “niceness” of sharing, empowerment, and affirmation
In five different regions this grandparent practiced the value of service. Service through ideas (mindfulness), sharing, empowerment, and affirmation. He helped others come together to make good things happen. He shared his ideas, organized, and put them in charge. In one region he helped to secure community leadership training through twelve colleges and universities. Accumulating wealth and power for himself wasn’t a consideration. Attracting support for his career today, in thinking and writing, is a consideration. But he’s still committed to the same values.
The values that make a grandparent loving are gentle loving kindness, service, sharing, empowerment, and affirmation. These are the “niceness” that secures a grandparent’s place in his grandchildren’s hearts, that can cover him with hugs and kisses from grandchildren who need and appreciate it. That secures a place for them in his heart and makes them Best Friends Forever.
What is “empowerment?” It’s sharing our strength and energy with another person to make them stronger. To support their efforts. To help them compete. To cheer them on instead of trying to take them down so we can always be the “winner.” When we empower others we empower ourselves. It makes us all winners.
“Affirmation” is applause. It’s sharing all that we value in ourselves to affirm another’s worth. It’s making sure that if we think we’re important they’re important, too. In a world that can make us all feel overlooked affirming another’s worth can make the difference between hope and despair, between succeeding or giving up. Sharing our worth is sharing our Abundance. It’s Love. And anytime we love another it always comes back. It’s what it was meant to be: Love and affirmation for you and me.
Where did these values come from? From many sources over time. But none more important than the values that shaped this grandparent’s character in adolescence. None more important than what he learned at Phillips Academy, Class of ’55. From teachers, coaches, administrators, and classmates, all devoted to excellence. To making an effort. To being and doing your best. This was Andover. The best.
Sharing or ownership? One way of looking at it
This grandparent’s take on what values are all about is just one perspective out of many. If it stimulates an adolescent’s thinking then it’s done some good. But if she already has high ideals and it messes with them, then it hasn’t. These reflections aren’t “wisdom” if they don’t do any good. All they’re for is to help adolescents think about values so they can learn to think for themselves.
Values are gifts given to us to be shared by a source that is Sharing. It’s Love, and what Love does is share. If we want to know what to do with our gifts we can follow the example set by their Source: we can put them to good use for everyone by sharing. By using our values to empower all of Life and Creation and to affirm its Worth. When we feel truly loved then we feel Love’s power and its affirmation. We feel gentle loving kindness. This is what we share when we share our values. We connect.
Ownership pulls in a different direction. If Love is Freedom ownership is containment. Responsible ownership is sensitive to its impacts on others. But we live in a world where ownership is often abused, where instead of sharing and sensitivity to community it pulls toward possession and control for itself. Owning our gifts can pull us toward misusing them to attain dominance and supremacy by empowering ourselves and affirming our own worth. To compete to “win” by making others lose. To achieve “rightness” by making others wrong. This isn’t gentle loving kindness. If it looks like it don’t be fooled. It’s just appearances – formulas that avoid values. Formulas that avoid mindfulness. It doesn’t connect us with others. It disconnects.
The choice is: Are values to be shared following the example of Love, their Source? Are they to be “owned” responsibly? Or are they to be used only for possession and control? Are they to be used to empower ourselves and others, to express our individuality? Or used to control others to suppress it? Are they to be used to affirm everyone’s worth as equals deserving respect? Or to deny others’ worth?
Friendships and ownership don’t mix
The rules that govern competitive relationships done wrong are beating the other guy, owning, possessing, controlling, dominating, attaining supremacy, and always being right. The rules that prevail in personal friendships are the reverse: share, empower, affirm, respect the other guy’s free will, and keep everyone safe. The rules aren’t win-lose; they’re win-win. They’re both are right.
If it seems like we can’t avoid values owned instead of shared it’s because we spend a lot of time in groups. And group behavior either encourages or tolerates competition. What it offers is belonging, but that’s not the same as Love. Rather than individuals sharing their Abundance, their worth, it’s the group gathering up our worth and sharing it back. As if we were worthless without it. Loyalty to groups and their credos is inevitable, but it can be too much of a good thing. Ownership – the rules that govern group competitive relationships -- never works in individual family relationships and friendships. What does work is sharing. What works is Love.
Competition done right
Ownership focused on supremacy isn’t even the rule when competition is done right. Olympians do compete to win. But what they’re really doing is competing with themselves to excel. They’re feeding off competition to push themselves beyond their limits. The distinction of Olympic gold is excellence, not dominance. If the mindset of Olympians were otherwise they wouldn’t win. They wouldn’t even be in the Olympics.
What we learn at the best schools and universities is the pursuit of excellence. Competing with ourselves to push beyond our limits, not to dominate. Not to puff ourselves up with “winning” and “supremacy.” The pursuit of excellence is the value, the learning, that animates character with strength and energy at schools like Andover and Harvard. Not everyone can qualify for the Olympics. But anyone with talent and motivation, anyone who’s shown that they’re worthy of their values, their gifts and talents, can strive for an Olympic-grade education. For excellence. The best schools and universities are there for us if we qualify. If we’re committed to character and the right values.
What’s the use?
We build and express character according to how we use our gifts. Misusing our gifts is a mistake. Our gifts were given to us for a purpose: to create, support, and affirm the worth of Life. Using them for any other purpose is a mistake. Owning our gifts instead of sharing them so they can be used as weapons is the dark side. A very big mistake.
Strong character and education are developing our talents so they can be used. Weak character is putting talents to the wrong use or letting them go to waste. Sharing and ownership of values are the use and misuse of values.
The goal of values is to be worthy of them, to deserve them. To show their Source and others that they belong to us. They belong to us when they’re shared. The values we own for possession and control aren’t being used for their intended purpose, so they don’t belong to us. They shouldn't be entrusted to us.
The ideal of sharing isn’t always attainable in a world that’s not always “nice.” That conditions us from birth to think of our values as things to be owned and used for our own benefit, to gain wealth and power in competition with others. The wrong values are like toxins that keep us in a state of paralysis, an unchanging status quo without learning and growth, where development is arrested.
Depending on how we use them values are the sun that radiates light with the force of Love and sharing or they’re black holes that consume light with the gravity of ownership and containment. When we turn values into black holes the first object that they consume is our self because we’ve betrayed it.
The goal of learning and growth: sound judgment based on strong ideals
Taking it to the next level in our education and taking on adolescence at the same time can be fulfilling and frightening. Learning and character development are meant to take us out of our comfort zones. That’s natural. What all this shouldn’t be is painful. It can be painful if we’re not prepared. If we’re looking back instead of looking forward. We need to recognize that turning thirteen puts our lives in a different context, with new meaning and purpose. With minds opened to the possibilities from books and thoughts like these, it can make all the difference.
We can choose Love and share our gifts. We can resist the pull of its opposite, because character matters, and so does the truth.
The pull of our ideals is strong but so is the pull away from them. This is the thought to share on the eve of adolescence. A time of exploring and experimenting when an adolescent needs good judgment for protection, based on strong ideals.
As children entering adolescence begin thinking and evaluating for themselves one view is that the best use of our gifts and values is sharing. But that’s just one view. It’s their take that matters. When they’ve taken on the challenge of adolescence and education, when they’ve learned to think for themselves, what will they believe?
From the Class of ’55 to the Class of ’25, with Love
To all thirteen-year-olds may the next four years take you beyond the challenges, adjustments, and frustrations of adolescence. May they take you to a taste, a passion, for its incomparable gift: for learning and growth that never end. For Life as it’s meant to be lived, with meaning, purpose, and joyfulness. May you never be content with the way things are. May you never stop questioning.
Good luck and God bless!
Appendix: Values derived from human needs
Love: spiritual wealth and abundance, giving and receiving, openness, generosity, feeling, empathy, caring, kindness, affirmation-validation, tenderness, home, family and intimacy, interconnecting web of creativity, timelessness, immediacy (the here and now), awareness, unconditional acceptance
[The dark side] Fear: separation, abandonment, judgment and condemnation
(blame), abuse, cruelty, savagery, terror, hatred, rejection, anxiety, hollowness,
invalidation, retribution, neglect
Belonging: roots, extended family, community, fairness, equity, justice, emotional support
[The dark side] Alienation: isolation, loneliness, grievances, resentments,
bigotry, prejudice, inequality, unfairness, injustice
Worthiness: character, enlightenment, presence of mind, competence, gifts, talents, learning, discovery, work, worthy causes, growth (spiritual, personal, character), perseverance, achievement, recognition, largeness, self-respect, innocence
[The dark side] Worthlessness: quitting, surrender, failure, shame, guilt,
littleness, invisibility – not being seen or heard
Empowerment: order, control, strength and energy, forcefulness, assertiveness, will, resolve, conviction, truth, centered, grounded, competitive, prevailing, enduring
[The dark side] Disempowerment: emasculation, humiliation, embarrassment,
debilitation, disorder, disorientation, deception, confusion, doubt, loss, subjugation,
Material comfort: food, clothing, shelter, material wealth and abundance, having
[The dark side] Scarcity: impoverishment, homelessness, hunger, deprivation,
exposure, not having
Safety and security: protection and peace, trust, harmlessness, sanctuary (temenos), joyfulness and spontaneity, happiness, playfulness and laughter, immortality
[The dark side] Endangerment: vulnerability, exposure, harmfulness,
betrayal, treachery, pain, injury, mortality
Freedom: choice and expression, independence, individuality, liberation
[The dark side] Enslavement: confinement, restriction, addiction, the
tyranny of judgment and condemnation (blame), oppression, conformity, suffocation
Health (mental, physical, spiritual, emotional): wellness, wholeness, healing (the separation-wound), reason, integrity, miracles
[The dark side] Sickness: woundedness, insanity, delusion, depravity,
grievances, resentments, dismemberment, impairment
Beauty: perfection and purity in forms and functions, appearances and essences, thoughts and ideals, artistic, inspiriting, inspiring, sacred, uncorrupted, aesthetic, sensory attraction and pleasure – sights, sounds, taste, touch, smell
[The dark side] Repugnance: revulsion, aversion, deadening, flawed, marred,
desecrated, violated, corrupted, impure
Hope: faith and purpose
[The dark side] Despair: depression, surrender, collapse, purposelessness,
nihilism, ambivalence, confusion, disbelief