The Secrets of Raising an Enlightened Child – Part III

In this installment, I would like to address that often difficult period around puberty. I will also give an example of applying mindfulness to a particular incident.
In our Buddhist tradition, the major conditioning of a human being is thought to take place during the early years of development. The post-pubescent years through the early twenties is when these foundations are tested. We believe there is a subtle shift that takes place around age eight or nine; this shift is largely unconscious but somewhat dramatic. A child begins to transition from a magical way of perceiving the world to a more literal outlook. The best example I can give is with my own beloved son.
One of the first questions I am asked by an American who is considering becoming a Buddhist is whether I celebrate Christmas. They are often quite relieved when I say yes.  I explain my practice of the winter holiday as a universal one and not religious, and remind them that winter festivals predate the Christian era.  While on a trip to Japan, some of my students were taken aback by the strains of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” being piped into our hotel and the scores of Santa Clauses hanging ninja-like from every ceiling.  Thus, my little guy learned of the mysterious elf who visits on Christmas Eve. His belief in Santa was quite literal and while we didn’t utilize that figure as a tool for creating good behavior, we did encourage our son to enjoy the jolly wonder of the season.  We spent many joyful holidays putting out cookies and milk and having our son wake us up at the crack of dawn to exclaim, “He was here!”
By about age nine, he began to question the literalism of the old man of winter. Friends at school were the first to pierce the veil, as his little mind began to evolve into what we call the Third Stage (Skandha). Questions slowly began to arise: “How does Santa get into the house on Christmas Eve? How can he deliver so many gifts in one night?”
Eventually this gave way to the big one,  “Does he really exist?”  I had been preparing for this and applied the teachings as best I could. I answered him by practicing what we call “not knowing.” This practice is done by simply entering into a situation with the humility of really listening to someone and not assuming that we already know the answer.  I started by asking him to tell me what he thought about it. He carefully explained that he loved the idea of Santa but that he was finding it very hard to really believe in him anymore. He wanted to, especially during the holiday, but was beginning to feel that it was something that “big kids don’t do.”
I next practiced what we term “bearing witness.” This involves embracing the problem with compassion and gently probing the thoughts that create anxiety and sadness, which change can trigger. I asked my beautiful boy what he meant by the word “believe.” He paused and said that it was something that you hoped was true, but that maybe you couldn’t prove.  I then asked him what he hoped was true about Santa. He answered, “I guess I hope that he is for real.”
I followed, “What do you mean by ‘real’?”
He answered, “It means that it really exists.”
“What does the word ‘exists’ mean to you?”
“It is something I can see or touch.”
“Are there things that are real that you cannot see or touch?”
“I can’t see radio waves but my teacher showed us how invisible things can actually exist.”
“Do you think Santa is invisible?”
“Nah, not really.”
“What does Santa mean to you?”
“Believing in him makes me happy.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I like getting gifts and I also really like seeing how happy everyone is when they are opening the presents that we got them.”
“Is it just the kids you like seeing so happy or the adults too?”
“It’s everybody!”
“How would you describe that feeling of happiness? What are you showing by giving gifts to everyone?”
“How much I love them.”
“Is love for real?”
At this a big smile crossed his face and I could see the light go on in his eyes. In the Zen tradition we call this a “kensho” or seeing into the true nature of things. I knew that he understood. I hugged him and asked, “Who is the real Santa Claus?”
He giggled and shouted, “Me!” He then clapped his hands together and asked me, “Can I dress up like Santa for Bella (his baby cousin)?”  I laughed proudly, “Absolutely pal, absolutely.”
By realizing that all of us are ‘Santa’ whenever we give out a spirit of love, my son experienced the healing of his existential pain and responded with “compassion in action.” This is nothing more and nothing less than the reflexive ways in which we respond to others when we have seen into the underlying Oneness of all things.
The years following revealed many other realities, but I will always remember that one as the turning point where my little boy began his long journey into adulthood.
Next time, we will tackle the wonder years of the early teens. Until then, I will leave you with the words of one of my teachers, Deshimaru:
Raising a child is like flying a kite; if we hold too tight the line will break. If we hold too loosely it will never fly. Only by actively responding to the changing winds can we help it to rise high and strong into the big, beautiful blue sky.


  1. This story brought tears to my eyes but I’m not quite sure why. The sensitivity of the discussion, of listening to your son really touched me as I remember the same period in my own life and am waiting for it to turn full circle as I sit here with my beautiful 6 month old daughter. I look forward to the wonder and innocence of her belief in Father Christmas over the coming years and only hope I can remember to treat the transition as gently as you did thereby preserving her enjoyment.


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