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Lessons from childhood

In his book 'The Seventeen Traditions,' activist Ralph Nader revisits key learnings from his childhood and draws from them inspiring lessons for today's society.
/ Source: TODAY

What shapes the mind, the personality, the character? For activist Ralph Nader, some of those answers can be found by looking back at one’s childhood experiences.  

In his new book “The Seventeen Traditions,” Nader revisits key traditions he absorbed from his parents, his siblings and the people in his community, and draws from them inspiring lessons for today's society.

Here is an excerpt:

The Landscape of My Boyhood
The bell rang at Central School one early autumn day, signaling that our eighth-­grade classes were over. The other schoolboys and I headed boisterously for the exit doors. As we passed a girl in our class, one of the boys cocked his head toward her, looked at us, and said pointedly, “What a pig.”

She heard him, of course, and as I looked back I saw her shattered expression before she walked away. The boys just laughed loudly. “Ugh,” one of them added, seconding the remark. I was stunned. This girl was one of our friendliest, and most helpful, classmates. ­We’d all been in the same class with her since the first grade. Everyone liked her. As I walked home, I found myself unable to shake off this sudden episode. What was her crime, I asked myself? She wasn’t one of the beauties in our class, but was that her fault? Did she deserve this ­boy’s casual cruelty? Nothing of this kind had happened when we were in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh grades. Why now?

For the rest of that day and into the evening, I ­couldn’t stop thinking about that ­girl’s crestfallen expression, and the sneering, insensitive look on the ­boy’s face. The fellow ­who’d made the comment ­wasn’t a class bully or a loudmouth. But that afternoon, glancing at an innocent thirteen-­year-­old girl, he was hurtful to her. She was just another girl in the class, perhaps a little plain-­faced and pale. What had she done to warrant his verbal fury? Was his real goal to impress us, by demonstrating that he knew who was attractive and who ­wasn’t? Whatever the explanation, I suspected that the onset of puberty had taken over the ­boy’s mind — that the lower half of his growing body was taking over his top half, where his brain lived, displacing years of looking at the girl for who she was and not how she looked. In this respect, that boy had been a better person at nine or ten than he was that day.

I’d like to think that my siblings and I ­weren’t guilty of such behavior. But when we did act up, my mother had a standard response. Whenever she felt ­we’d let our baser instincts stop us from thinking for ourselves, ­she’d say, “I believe ­it’s you.” There’s nothing wrong with that girl, ­she’d have told that thoughtless boy. But there is something wrong with you, for prejudging her that way. That always set us straight.

As an adult, I’ve often noticed how common it is for people to accept conventional, commercially driven definitions of human beauty — indeed, to accept conventional ideas of all kinds. And I’ve always been grateful to my childhood, in all its fullness, for teaching me to challenge preconceptions and reject conformity or coercion, those influences that inflict so much pain, deprivation, and tragedy upon our communities and societies today. Despite all my years of higher education at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, I might never have learned to think this way without the guidance of my parents, my family, and the small-­town community where I grew up.

In these times of widespread conformity and self-­censorship, I find myself thinking back upon my childhood, recalling what made it special for me and for my brother and sisters. Recently I’ve found myself thinking that I should share these memories with others, in the hope that they might offer guidance and inspiration for the parents, children, and grandchildren of today. And what I hope will be especially helpful, in this very different world we inhabit, are my memories of the traditions in which my childhood was immersed — traditions that remain vivid in my mind, and that guide me to this day.

I am often asked what forces shaped me. Rather than trying to give a full answer to that question — which would take longer than a limited interview would allow — I often reply simply, “I had a lucky choice of parents.” My brother, two sisters, and I had a remarkable father and mother, who cared for us in both direct and subtle ways. The examples of their lives set us on the solid paths we have explored ever since.

Among other things, my parents were responsible for passing down the traditions they had learned from the generations before them — traditions they refined and adapted to the unfamiliar country and culture to which they had emigrated early in the twentieth century. These traditions arose from the received wisdom and customs they had learned during their own childhoods in Lebanon, elaborated by their own judgments, sensibilities, and changing circumstances. In turn, they were nourished by regular feedback from their acculturating children, which they encouraged.

Mother and Father each lived to be just short of a century old; we benefited from their seasoned perspectives and wisdom for many, many years. They were forever young, exemplifying my ­mother’s strong belief in the importance of remaining “interested and interesting.” And they succeeded in doing this throughout their lives, attracting ever-­younger friends to visit, whether we children were home or not. They created the strong family base from which my siblings and I sallied forth into the wider world, full of new experiences and high expectations.

That base was, in part, a matter of locale. My parents made a conscious choice to move to Winsted, a small town nestled in the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where I was born in the middle of the Depression.

Winsted was, and ­wasn’t, a typical New En­gland town. Through it ran the Mad River and the Still River, named by the settlers who arrived in those dense woods in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Connecticut is dotted with such mill towns, which depended on the rivers to power their factories. Most of these towns were small, dominated by one or two large factories. Winsted, on the other hand, had spawned a hundred factories and fabrication shops by 1900, and these factories in turn gave rise to homes, shops, and other businesses — including probably more drinking bars per square yard than any town east of the Mississippi. The town of Winchester, which includes Winsted, is shaped like a lopsided rectangle that angles from the southwest to the northeast. The land is very hilly with ridges, upland lakes, and the valley where most of the factories, stores, schools, and homes were located. When my father opened his restaurant-­bakery along the ­town’s mile-­long Main Street, the local population was ten thousand, in an area roughly the size of Manhattan.

It was a walking town. In those days, youngsters ­didn’t have to rely on Mama or Papa to drive them around. Nor were there school buses, except for the really distant rural homes. You walked. I walked. It was a good town for walking, with its tree-­shaded streets, well-­kept sidewalks, and access to just about everything for our needs, wants, and whims. Just a brisk walk away—no more than fifteen to twenty minutes — were the schools, the playgrounds, most of the homes, the town hall, the movie theater, the shops, the factories, the daily newspaper offices, the library, the historical society, the hospital and churches, police and fire departments, dentists, doctors, lawyers, the railroad station, the post office, the electric and telephone companies, and the county courtroom.

Winstedites could walk up nearby hills to visit the dairy farms where their milk came from, to relax at Highland Lake (the second largest natural lake in Connecticut), or to explore any number of quieter meadows, woods, and streams. It was a good community for families raising children, with no cement, asphalt, or skyscrapers sealing the people off from the land, the water, their beloved gardens, or the sky, with its breezes and horizons. Nature, unsequestered, inspired my mother to sing so often, “Oh, what a beautiful morning!”

My mother and father had both grown up in small communities themselves. My paternal grandfather died when my father was an infant. Dad grew up with his mother, sister, and brother in the little village of Arsoon, in the mountains of Lebanon. The swimming hole in Arsoon provided an inviting setting, and my father impressed the neighborhood boys with his diving skills every year. As children, we never tired of his stories about daring jumps into the cold mountain waters. Mother grew up in Zahle, a foothill town above ­Lebanon’s fertile Bekaa Valley, the ­country’s breadbasket. She was the fourth daughter in a family of eight girls. My grandparents took four cousins under their wing and raised them along with their own children.

Our parents’ families preserved both their own traditions, passed down by their ancestors, and newer traditions learned from their experiences with foreign occupation — first the Ottoman Turks, then the French. Our parents always stressed that the best from the old should be merged with the best from the new. Winsted’s other immigrant families — Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Eastern Europeans, who worked in the textile, hardware, and clock factories and shops — seemed to feel the same way. Grown-­ups and children spent far more time with each other than is the case today, and the wisdom flowed freely between them.

Winsted was a true community, known for its frequent parades and lively public life. The sidewalks of Main Street were often bustling with townspeople shopping and doing their errands. Neighbors knew each other well and visited regularly, for television had not yet arrived. Most of the national service clubs and associations of those years, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Lions, the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, the Red Cross, the Masons, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, had chapters in town. Most factory workers were able to afford a mortgage on a modest house and a second-hand car, if not a new one, and after World War II federal housing assistance programs helped the returning veterans make their way. Situated snugly in the picturesque Litchfield Hills, Winsted — then the seat of Litchfield County — enjoyed the status of being the last stop on the railroad line from New York City. Until the 1940s, seven trains left Winsted for the Big City each day. It was like being at the headwaters of a mighty river — one that flowed both ways.

Winsted also had the reputation of a town where argument flourished. It was known for its noisy town meetings, and for the heady conversations that erupted constantly in its bars, restaurants, and grocery stores, not to mention the post office and the town hall. The town still followed the New En­gland town meeting tradition, in which residents voted each year to approve — or disapprove — the budget. The people of Winsted ­weren’t inclined to delegate their rights to elected representatives. Instead they aired their concerns in a constant stream of public debate, much of which found its way into the local newspaper, the Winsted Evening Citizen. Our town was one of the smallest in the country with its own daily newspaper, and the residents took full advantage of the megaphone it afforded them.

Winsted had the misfortune of enduring a recurrent natural disaster, courtesy of the Mad River, whose waterpower encouraged the construction of several factories on its banks. Again and again, though, the Mad River overflowed those banks, giving rise to three generations of catastrophic floods that culminated in a devastating hurricane-­fed wall of water that socked the town in August 1955. Each new flood led to innumerable problems, and innumerable questions for the townspeople to grapple with — a veritable reservoir of municipal conflict, resolution, or procrastination.

Yet Winsted never seemed cowed by the regular assaults of the Mad River. For a town of its size, it produced an impressive array of long-­lasting philanthropic institutions, including the Litchfield County Hospital, the Beardsley and Memorial Library, the Gilbert School, and the grassroots charity known as the Volunteer Winsted Fire Department.

The ­town’s givers were matched, of course, by its takers — led by the industrial factories, which were low-­paying and vigorously anti-­union. The older companies were always vigilant about keeping new union factories out of the area. They seemed equally determined to keep fresh air and water at bay, using those two resources as their pollution sinks and sewers. The original factories were not very charitable institutions. And in the 1950s many of their founders’ descendants lost their competitive spirit and sold out to absentee owners, who soon moved or closed down their acquisitions. By the time my siblings and I were off at college, Winsted was evolving from a diverse, self-­contained mill town to a bedroom town, full of workers who commuted to jobs in Hartford, Torrington, and Waterbury. The air and water became cleaner after the factories closed, but the toxic soils and hollowed-­out buildings remained, economic tripwires to any prospects of new development in the area.

As with many such communities, Winsted in those years was marked by ethnic and religious divisions, and these in turn were linked to economic hierarchies. In those years, the town was 99 percent white. There was a calm, though by no means complete, social self-­segregation between the Protestant and Catholic families, preserved by the memberships of the ­town’s large Catholic church and the four Protestant churches. There was little bitter overt hostility between the groups; for better or worse, people knew their social place. Civically, on the other hand, all bets were off. The first generation of immigrants knew that the old-­line Yankees ran the town and controlled the economy, but with each decade their children and grandchildren asserted more and more political power, and by the 1950s the Yankee industrialists’ children were leaving town for more affluent communities.

My boyhood in this small town was shaped by my family, my friends, our neighbors, my chores and hobbies, the ­town’s culture and environment, its schools, libraries, factories, and businesses, their workers, and by those storms that came from nowhere to disrupt everything. All these things defined my mental landscape. Yet childhood in any family is a mysterious experience, one that transcends its most obvious parts. What are the elements that influence human development? Water, air, and nutrition interact with genetic material to develop the body, including the brain. But what shapes the mind, the personality, the character? Try explaining why one sister or brother comes out so differently from the others when they all were raised in the same household, by the same parents, under the same economic, social, educational, and recreational circumstances. Mysterious it is, but that only makes the process more fascinating.

Years later, I came to realize that my own experience as a child had been touched very deeply by certain objects that were part of my natural surroundings — objects that stimulated my senses and mind in a lasting way. As a little boy I embraced their presence, and allowed them to usher me into an intimate world of imagination, curiosity, reverie, wonder, and awe. They afforded me a sense of solitude, quietude, and comfort; they served as speechless hosts for my childhood communion.

During my early teens, my older brother, Shafeek, gave me a book by James Harvey Robinson, the noted social and intellectual historian. Much of the book was beyond my years, but one thing in this slim volume remained with me — Robinson’s emphasis on the importance of reverie in daily life. As I entered adulthood, I found that reverie became harder and harder to achieve in any given day, in our society of instant communication, fast food, fast commuting, and ever faster ways for everything.

By the early 1970s, we were well on our way to the total immersion experience of the television age, in which most children watched thirty to forty hours of TV a week. They read less and their vocabulary decreased. The decades that followed saw the arrival of twenty-four-hour cable television, VCRs, home computer games, and the Internet — each in turn cementing the place of the TV screen in our children’s lives. In those years I remember reading about the Fresh Air Fund, a program that offers New York ­City’s poor children a chance to spend a few summer weeks in the countryside. For many of these children it was the first time that they had ever walked on soil, on earth! It was the first time they smelled fresh cut grass and hay. For some, it was the first time ­they’d seen an authentic sunset, not just the televised variety. Today, children everywhere are deprived of exposure to nature in the same way; they grow up with their eyes, ears, tastes, and other senses trained on a corporate world of sensual virtual reality — removed, as no other generation in human history, from the daily flow and rhythm of nature.

How very different were my early years, lived so close to ­nature’s bounty. When I reflect back on the importance of my family and my childhood, I find that my mind often floods with imagery from these natural surroundings that stirred my imagination in those years. What became a little world to me, as an adult, was a very large world to me as a child. Nature has its own power, drawing us into its magical ambience. And I remember it vividly:

First, there were sounds . . .

Excerpted from “The Seventeen Traditions,” by Ralph Nader. Copyright © 2007 Ralph Nader. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.