The liberated conscience …. Thoughts on an attended lecture on education, given by Heinz Etter
Even more if it’s held by Heinz Etter.
His way of understanding children, his wisdom to help families, his capacity to suggest a solution that transforms a family are all unique to him.
Remember Maria? She felt pretty hopeless about her situation with her girl who was always responding, never obeying, talking back at any occasion.
It was amazing to witness that first talk they had, how Heinz Etter instantly understood the situation and gave her practical guidelines and insights that made very much sense to her. It’s wonderful to see how the whole situation has turned around after that.
But back to the lecture he held this Wednesday.
The title was “the liberated conscience”. I was wondering what to expect from such a heading.
In this article I will try to describe in a résumé what I got out of it.
“Every parent wants to raise a “moral child”. An honorable citizen. A grown up with a conscience that will hold him back from acting in criminal ways – but in an even more basic way, an adult who is acting out our moral compass.
It is considered fact that there is nothing good in us humans.
And if there is, it rather is in adults.
Therefore, the goal must be to shape the child’s conscience in such a way that, as an adult, it holds back from evil deeds.
This is the reason why we have punishment as a pedagogical concept.
We think that if we punish someone, they’ll behave better later – and that therefore a correct behavior is something we praise our children for. We think that this is the way to raise up morally correct citizen.”
After those few statements, he paused and asked:
“Do YOU have a clear conscience? “
He talked about how we, as adults “manage our conscience” in different ways:
- We create a blueprint for our actions. We distance ourselves emotionally from people we treat badly (Distance, race, age…). For example, we are unmoved by the sight of the beggar we’ve just passed by.
- We compare ourselves with others (Compared to my fellow, I am a decent person.)
- We portray ourselves as good and our competitors generally as bad.
- He reminded us of all the times we invite people over to our house, trying to get a clean conscience by apologizing for the lack of tidy- and cleanness in our home, or how we inform our guests that we aren’t the best cooks before we serve them dinner.
You could hear the embarrassed laughs from the audience.
“You see, many people criticize themselves. They do that because they really feel like that about themselves. However, it is also a way to avoid the feeling of being condemned by others, to downgrade the expectations others could have of them.”
He continued to speak about this certain restlessness, this inner tension; the latent fear of doing something wrong, being embarrassed, rejected or disregarded is in almost all people.
Again, a whisper went through the rows. One could feel that most of us knew exactly what he was talking about.
He explained that there are two fundamentally different consciences:
One is shaped and nourished by the defense against bad feelings. It accuses us and sometimes directs our behavior towards the “good”, but often it triggers a diffuse pressure and an inner tension. The conscience announces itself as a prosecutor.
Then there is a “liberated conscience”:
A liberated conscience is one that is nourished by love. It goes hand in hand with empathy. It also means responsibility, caring and mercy.
Well… all we want, is to raise children that are not lying, not taking away what the other has (a form of stealing), we want our children to react with empathy, children who share with others, we don’t want children who use violence in dealing with others.
Therefore, if our child is doing some of those things, we rant or even punish that child; we may even be shaming that child, telling him/her:
“shame on you, Jesus is really disappointed with you right now!”
Why? Well, we want to teach our children right from wrong, shape its conscience.
We want to create a conscience in our children that will hinder him/her in the future from doing something like that.
What is the problem with that approach?
Heinz Etter used many examples, describing the effect of our response in the life of our children. Since it would exceed the content of this article, I will only use one of those examples, in order to draw a picture of what he was talking about:
Anna is crying.
I as a parent arrive in the situation and I scold Leo:
“Leo, this is nasty, this is not a way of doing things. Give it back to her, immediately!”
How does Leo experience this whole situation?
Well, the reality of Leo, this four-year-old child simply is:
“It’s not fair if Anna has a toy car and I don’t! So I establish justice by taking it and everything is all right again.”
Or maybe even:
“Anna has had this car for a long time. This is unfair. Now, it’s my turn to have that car”.
This is the way a small child thinks. Their brain isn’t fully developed yet. They do not premeditate their actions, they are not able to take into account all the consequences of their actions. They don’t have the capacity to be “emphatic” yet – this comes only by age 7.
(Empathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were our own.)
The same goes if Leo used body power to get this car:
“Violence is never ok” I might want to teach my child.
Therefore, I scold Leo:
“Leo, in our family, we don’t hit/push each other! Stop it, now; it hurts your little sister! You’re a very bad boy!“
So what happens to the conscience of a child (that very conscience we want to implement into our child, in order to hinder it from doing bad things, to give the child a “moral compass” when it grows up)? What happens, when we try to form his/her conscious in such a way?
Well: In both examples, we are shaming the child for his spontaneous reaction, the way it was responding to a situation. We teach the child a feeling of life that tells the child:
“If I do what seems right to me, it is wrong. Something is wrong with me”.
What would have been a better way to react in such a situation?
In the first example, we could enter the scene, observe how Anna is crying:
“I want my car back!”
Leo: “No, I want it now; you’ve had it for a long time!”
Mamma: Oh, Leo, so you want Anna’s car? What about Anna?”
Leo: “Ah, sure, Anna wants it too, but…
“Anna, can I have the car?”
A possible ending to that story would be Anna responding
“yes”… Or “ you can have this other car!”….
In the second example, where Leo used body power to take the car away from Anna, we could enter the scene, telling Leo:
“Wow, Leo, you are really angry … It’s okay to hit, but it’s better to hit someplace other than Anna.“ “Ouch, look, Anna is so hurt now”.
Shaming children because they have used violence is far worse, than the very fact alone, that they have used violence.
Four-year-old children have no other way to assert themselves than by using physicality. Leo lacks empathy and should not feel wrong about it.
And because you didn’t shame Leo to feel the way he did, he will much rather be open to feel with his little sister, maybe even comfort her – and you can teach him the quality of compassion. Be not surprised when children can change their emotional state from one moment to the next. In addition, Leo will much rather be open to hear you explain to him how to deal with his anger in other ways than hitting his little sister.
Heinz Etters way of teaching was full of insights, knowledge and humor. Many times the audience was laughing, as he recited daily situations in ordinary families. We could identify with what he said, both with how we are reacting and with the reaction our children have.
In the next article I will share more about the final thoughts of this lecture: both to get rid of this latent bad conscience and with some more examples of how to deal with our children in other ways, than by creating in them this feeling of life that says
“If I do what seems right to me, it is wrong. Something is wrong with me”.