Now we are finally getting into methods. The first way to kill your child’s imagination is: keep your child indoors as much as possible. Of course, experience tells me that being inside can provoke the imagination, too, in its own way, so it is best to fill the indoor hours with activities which prevent the child from having a thought or idea of his own, such as homework, television, movies, and video and computer games. The combination of being inside, along with being entirely absorbed in an artificial world, really prepares children for growing up to take their places in the global economy.
Okay, so assuming that we here all don’t want to destroy imaginations–in fact, that we want to build them as much as possible–what does this chapter say to us?
I’ll pull out a few ideas, and then you all skip on over to Cindy’s and read the other entries.
Don’t Feel Guilty for Saying “Go Outside”
This is perhaps my favorite phrase ever. Sometimes I have met supermoms who organize all these activities for their children, or get down on their hands and knees and play (a lot) with their children (almost to the point of doing this in lieu of their children learning to play on their own and invent games with their own toys). When I encounter such women, I start to doubt myself. Maybe I’m not doing enough? Or I wonder if my children are learning enough, what with me giving them so much free time to do what appears to be useless–digging in the mud or riding their bicycles.
Summer is Okay
I have to admit feeling guilty that we don’t do year-round school. I’ve met so many homeschooling families that school year-round, and I have often felt like something was wrong with me, like perhaps the public school system had crept into my blood and left me dependent upon three months off in the summer. Now please don’t take this as a criticism if you are a year-round schooler. Just understand that I’ve occasionally felt a little bit insecure about our own decision to take summers off.
Esolen implies that it is important to have a long stretch of time off (he talks about this more later in the book, but I’ll leave that for when we get to it):
Few parents grasp the danger of children playing outside. The most enlightened educators do grasp it, and have taken steps to ensure that children will be left to their own devices, outdoors, as little as possible. They have shortened the summer vacation, parceling out free days here and there through the school year. The effect is to keep children from developing the habit of learning things outside of school…After all, it takes children a week or so just to get used to the summer, and a week or two at the end of August to prepare for the new school year. Then, too, schools have heaped books upon the children to tote around during the summer, much as you would heave sacks of grain and skins of wine atop a camel before crossing the desert. The idea is not to instill a love of reading excellent literature. Recall that so-called great works of art are dangerous, as they rouse the imagination. No, summer reading ensures that no mental break occurs between June and September…
Of course, what might be even better than an imaginative summer is for children to have time for poetic encounters every single day, that they might not need two weeks to “get used to” the summer. This encourages me not to let lessons consume our entire day. Get up early, start on time, and get it done. Being organized helps me with all of that, too. The discipline required for that insures that my children still have time to build forts, learn to ride their bikes (my five-year-old learned to ride her bike today!!), and pretend to be various animals.
Lately, I’ve noticed a trend among friends of mine who have chosen to send their children to school. Private or public, it makes no difference: they seem to be spending far more hours of their day “doing school” than I am. The homework follows the child home and dominates the hours of family time in the evenings. So many folks think that children are indoors because of electronic devices, and to some extent this is true. But I think I have now realized how many hours the school as an institution has determined to steal from children. As Esolen says:
All of this the parents will accept, as canceling out years of their children’s lives, which otherwise would have to be genuinely lived, with all the risks that genuine life must run.
We have quarantined all learning and made it a function of the school, therefore we (as a culture, mind you) do not value the time children spend on their own, exploring their world. And, of course, if they have 24-hour unlimited access to electronic entertainment devices, then they tend to not spend their spare time exploring their world much at all.
Beholding the Sky
I still remember a dreamy day, when I had fewer children and more time on my hands, that I spent some hours laying on a blanket with my oldest, looking at the clouds in the sky and trying to see pictures in them. To this day, he remembers that, and asks me, “When are we going to look at the clouds again?” I often tell him that, of course, he can do this on his own whenever there are clouds around, but apparently it was special to do it with Mom. Maybe I ought to go outside more myself!
Esolen shares a bit with us concerning the great history of beholding the sky, and he warns us of the danger that the sky poses. It seems so harmless, and yet the sky itself is a doorway to imagination:
[T]he vastness of the sky will naturally lead the mind to contemplate infinities; it is wholly apt to associate the sky with expansiveness of the spirit, with joy and freedom and holiness.
Esolen tells us there are a few ways to help prevent a child from noticing the sky, even though it is there. All of these ways can be summed up in the word: billboard. Esolen uses this word both literally and figuratively. First, there are very real billboards crowding up the world, preventing us from seeing things that are beautiful and awesome, including the sky. Also, there are distractions, such as internal appetites:
The itch to be what is called “important” functions as a billboard, as does the itch to be “doing something productive” or to be playing a video game or to be sitting in front of a television…A child that has been blared at and distracted all his life will never be able to do the brave nothing of beholding the sky.
I have been surprised how many times lately I see those cars with the built-in DVD systems, playing movies for children…as they speed around town. Everyone I know who purchased one when these first debuted intended to use them for long trips, much like how our own family uses read-alouds to pass the hours of a long drive. But lately I see them in use during short drives to the grocery store, or while running errands. This brought the concept of the “child that has been blared at and distracted all his life” to a whole new level.
What broke my heart, though, was this:
He will not be able to ask, with the Psalmist,
When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Earlier, Esolen had equated hiding the sky from the child to “putting a lid” on him.
I remember once worrying about my children having to be on a gluten-free diet. It wasn’t about their nourishment (though later that, too, became a concern). It was about the negative attitude the diet was giving them toward bread. I wondered how, especially if I didn’t learn to make gluten-free bread (which is not easy, and there wasn’t much help out there when we were doing the diet), they would handle verses such as:
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
How can a child who views bread as “bad” or “dangerous” comprehend bread as satisfying to hunger, or come to desire the “bread of life?” I was fearful that the diet would cut my children off from whole portions of Scripture.
Putting a lid on the child’s relationship to the sky is similar. He mentions poems from Francis of Assisi and Gerar Manley Hopkins and declares:
The object of our schooling, note well, is not to ensure that such poetry as this will never be written again. Of course it can hardly be written, when it can hardly be read. Our aim is more complete. It is to ensure that the feelings that inspired Hopkins’ work will never be understood again. (emphasis mine)
By sequestering the child, we do not merely cut him off from a relationship with nature, but from the wonder that opens his soul to the Creator of all things.
Parks and Zoos Aren’t Everything
I can count the times our family has traveled on two hands. It just isn’t something we can afford to do. One of our children has been to a zoo. Two of them have been to a national park (and one wouldn’t remember it). And so on. It is easy to marvel at what other families are able to do, and feel like maybe we are missing out. But I felt like maybe we’re doing okay when I read this:
One way to neutralize the fascination with the natural world is to cordon it off in parks and zoos, and then to act as if only the parks and zoos were worth seeing. Persuade a child that a giraffe he sees once every couple years is really impressive, but the wren on the fencepost is only a drab little bird…Persuade the child that the Grand Canyon is worth seeing, or Yellowstone National Park, or Mount Rushmore, or the breakers of the ocean on the Florida coast. But ignore the variations of hill and valley, river and pond, bare rock and rich bottom soil, in your own neighborhood. Children should be encouraged to think they have “done” [nature]…in the way that weary tourists are proud to have done Belgium.
Culturally, I’d say that our fascination with zoos definitely coincides with a lack of delight in the simple things around us. We are an entertainment culture, and we want a show. But, of course, not going to a zoo doesn’t necessarily mean anything, not if we don’t also take the time to enjoy our daily surroundings with our children. It often strikes me that my husband brings a lot to the table in this regard. In not growing up on the Left Coast (he is from Florida), he sees things with fresher eyes than I do.
For our family, though we can’t go to a zoo, we chose to buy a property with enough land to actually do a few things. So we have an orchard (sort of). And a (struggling) berry patch. And a flock of ducks. And maybe more someday. The few things they do see and know, they know with intimacy. I take comfort in that.
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