Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Chapters Two and Three

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy's blog.)

What does Esolen mean by imagination, anyway? lists the first definition as “the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses.” My 1940s Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary goes further by adding, “esp. [mental images or concepts] never perceived in their entirety; hence, mental synthesis of new ideas from elements experienced separately.” I especially like’s fifth definition, “ability to face and resolve difficulties; resourcefulness.”

Those qualities are what I’ve been thinking of so far while reading the book, and I’ve seen children who really didn’t have any imagination -- or, as my children would say, “Those kids don’t know how to play!” It’s not that they didn’t know how to play on the swingset or throw and catch a ball, but that they didn’t know how to make-believe.

In her post on keeping them inside, Dawn says:

I don’t ever remember, as does Esolen, thinking big thoughts, being intrigued by nature, staring at the sky, being around animals other than sheep or dogs or cats.

Part of my problem with these sorts of books is that I think the writers are the exception to the norm; do most children enjoy wandering with their inmost thoughts on death and proving God’s existence? Are children really that introspective? The examples he gives are wonderful, but I have to think something at home was done so the examples wished to think on Dante or other long thoughts. That being outside wasn’t by itself the solution.

I think she’s right. My parents’ attitudes surely influenced my own, and they also made sure I had the right books to read and plenty of time to read them and to daydream. But maybe being an introvert has something to do with it, too, since you’re predisposed to sit and wonder about things. When I was in kindergarten, every morning I’d go sit quietly at my desk and watch the other kids laughing and talking and playing together, and I distinctly remember wondering how they were able to do that. “I have to get used to people before I can do that,” I told myself, and that was every morning for at least half the school year. When I was five years old. Maybe “most children” aren’t that introspective, but I don’t think I’m exceptional, either -- just more inclined to sit and watch and think than to interact.

Well, on to the methods -- and I’m so late on last week’s contribution, and anyway these two methods belong to each other, that I’ve decided to make one post of it.

Method 1: Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible, or They Used to Call It “Air”

Method 2: Never Leave Children to Themselves, or If Only We Had a Committee

My parents utterly failed at these, and how grateful I am that they did!

I have a lot of pleasant childhood memories -- Mom playing Chopin’s waltzes on the piano as we fell asleep at night; Daddy taking me on my first boat ride, and to visit his workplace, a laboratory -- he was a chemist; make-believe games with my brother, usually involving the deep recesses of the linen closet which could be anything from the Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house to a spaceship, or appliance boxes Daddy brought home.... But most of my happy memories take place outside.

Daddy would take us out to the carport during thunderstorms to watch the lightening and listen to the thunder, and we had regular times of lying in the back yard watching meteor showers. My best friend, Nan, and I would lie on our backs watching the clouds and tell stories about what we saw there, then we’d roll over onto our stomachs and look for four-leaf clovers. I don’t remember whether I ever found one, but I did find a five-leaf clover once and pressed it in my Bible. I remember the tiny flowers that grew in the grass and watching the ants move about in their own tiny world, as oblivious of us as we were to what happened above the sky in the daytime. I remember waking up one morning and looking out my bedroom window to see that a ring of mushrooms had magically sprung up overnight. Thankfully I’d read the right books, so I knew just what that meant -- the fairies had danced there in the night!

When we were a little older, my brother and I played in the woods that were behind our house. Our neighborhood was a suburban one, but it had once been part of a farm and our house was built on the edge of a former pasture up against a large wooded area that was state property. Trails wandered all through it and one of them led to a pauper’s cemetery -- people who’d died in the State Hospital were buried there. It was such a sad lonely place, no real headstones at all, only small, flat concrete markers with numbers identifying whoever was buried there. I used to sit and wonder who those people were and how they got to be there instead of in a cemetery surrounded by family like all my relatives were. The cemetery was dug up when I was ten or eleven years old to make way for new buildings for the state police and the Game and Fish Commission and I always wondered what they did with the bones. Of course there were also ghost stories that we kids told each other that all took place in that cemetery after dark. That neighborhood couldn’t have been more than five years older than I was, but our stories made it seem like it had a long history, and we told all of them as if they were true.

The best part of the woods was the creek that ran out of it and across the wide path that ran between the back yards and the woods, and into a concrete pipe and underground. Johnny and I spent countless hours there panning for gold -- never found any. One summer we dug out the area beneath a tiny waterfall (it was maybe a foot high) to make a swimming hole. We finally got it deep enough that we could sit, one at a time, up to our chests in the water.

We had to move away when I was thirteen years old, but that place is so much a part of who I am that to this day when I dream about being At Home, I’m in the house I grew up in surrounded by those woods.

Reading over what I’ve written, I notice that there are hardly any adults present in those out-of-doors memories. The parents were there, just in the background. Nearly all of the moms were home during the summer and most were during the rest of the year. My mom taught school for several years while I was growing up, so I spent more time in day care than is typical of people my age, but she preferred being home, so when school was out, we were free -- no organized activities except for Vacation Bible School at our church, the first week of summer break.

In letting us have so much free time outside Mom was merely raising us the way she and my daddy had been raised.

Both my parents grew up in close-knit farming communities, so their parents knew everyone and didn’t have to worry too much about what might happen to their kids when they were out playing with friends, or walking to and from school. I walked to school, too. My kindergarten was a half-day affair at a Methodist church three blocks from my house. Several of the kids in my neighborhood went there and we all walked together. We “Walkers” felt very superior to the kids who were driven by their parents. First through third grade was an elementary school that we got to by walking along the wide path between the woods and the back yards in our neighborhood, then across a pedestrian overpass that spanned the new Interstate, down a hill and across the school yard -- a little over half a mile, over all. Then, from sixth through ninth grades I went to a junior high that was a little more than a mile away, and of course we walked whenever we could. There was a city bus that we could catch on bad weather days or when we were running late, but it cost thirty-five cents we and preferred to use the money to buy a candy bar at Wal-Mart on the way.

That is a lot more freedom than my kids have today, but it’s less than my parents had. My daddy, who was born in 1935, used to tell about going rabbit hunting as a boy -- he’d spend the entire day out hunting, taking along his lunch and gun, and bringing home something for supper. Once, wandering in a swampy area near the Arkansas River, he lost his way and spent hours trying to find a landmark he recognized. It was getting late and he’d decided to look for a dry place to build a fire and spend the night when he finally found his way home. He was eight or ten years old at the time. And it was not the last time he spent the entire day out like that.

It’s certainly a different world today and we can’t let our kids have the same kind of freedom that we had growing up, let alone that our parents had, but I think Esolen still makes a good point, in his tongue-in-cheek manner -- if you want your kids to grow up without two ideas to rub together, keeping them safe indoors and perpetually occupied are where you should start.


  1. Delightful ~

    I hope you will print this and save it somewhere, so that your grandchildren will find it one day.

    But back to definitions. I really wish Esolen had addressed that as well. Maybe he does in another article/book.

    Wikipedia states:
    A basic training for imagination is listening to storytelling (narrative), in which the exactness of the chosen words is the fundamental factor to "evoke worlds."

    I think storytellers tend to *exaggerate* and *embellish*.

    Therefore, their information is not necessarily trustworthy.

  2. Well, I know when I'm retelling something that has happened, it takes a lot of editing, and sometimes compressing, to make it tellable. And then if it's meant to be funny certain aspects might be played up for comedic effect, and so forth.

    But then, I don't really look at stories as a way of conveying facts so much as... oh, an experience in one case, maybe, or an atmosphere in another.

    Is that what you meant?

  3. I'm focusing on the training or the formation of the imagination; and Wikipedia's statment that listening to storytelling is key.

    Heck, listening to a sermon is listening to narrative.

    Just playing a little devil's advocate when it comes to developing imagination.

    But you should be aware that I dont think of myself as *imaginative*

    And I'm wondering if Esolen's methods can help me?


    Dana in GA

  4. Wow ... I don't think I've been quoted before. It's kinda shocking to read what I wrote and don't remember writing ... LOL

    So what are some things parents do to help children observe, enjoy, and think?

  5. Dawn, I started a response and it got so long I decided to make a new post of it. It's up now -- hope it's helpful, but if it's too vague, do let me know!

  6. I am also an introvert and I can remember being about 8 or 10 or so and realizing that other people think and feel inside their own heads just like I do. And so I wondered what it would be like to be in someone else's head. And then that seemed so bizarre that I wondered if it was really "real." And, I didn't know it, but I was contemplating the nature of reality and blowing my own mind -- I enjoyed the feeling. I wondered if other people were just robots put in to populate my story. Then I wondered if they knew they were. Then I wondered if *I* was a robot populating someone else's story! I would people-watch and wonder what it was like to be that person. And years later as I was grappling with some book or the other, I realized the author/philosopher was talking about those same concepts that I played with in my own mind as a child. It was weird.

    My husband, as far as such experiences go, mostly remembers laying on his back, staring at the sky, contemplating what eternity is. We both liked that "mind blown" feeling. :)

  7. Mystie, yes! That's exactly it.

  8. I have to admit I spent a good portion of my childhood staring and thinking and confusing. I still do.

    I loved reading about your heritage, Kelly. I think there is something to be said for family identity, being proud to be "Walkers." I used to worry that maybe that was a bad thing because there are a lot of "Rollins" family members and the family has a distinct identity. But I also see it comes with a certain responsibility which is a good thing; no one want so to be the first family divorce.

  9. Actually, when I said "Walkers" I meant those of us who walked to Kindergarten instead of riding in a car. We had a lot more freedom, as we saw it -- we got to leave school as soon as the day was over and didn't have to line up and wait for our rides.

    But I know exactly what you mean about family identity, too. My mom's family is like that... or was, until my generation -- we're mostly scattered now and it's a lot harder to pass on that sense of identity when you can't keep in touch regularly, that is, when your children don't know the people you're telling them about.


What are your thoughts? I love to hear from you!