Monday, July 27, 2009

A Childhood of the Mind

Herself again a wife -- a mother -- lovingly watchful of her children, ever careful that they should have a childhood of the mind no less than a childhood of the body, as knowing it to be even a more beautiful thing, and a possession, any hoarded scrap of which, is a blessing and happiness to the wisest . . .

- Charles Dickens, Hard Times

I would not have said this twenty years ago. I would not have said this even five years ago. But now I know it. The best thing I gave to my children was a childhood of the mind, as well as the body. There was time to explore, to experiment, to daydream, to think, and to not think. There was time for baking cookies, cutting paper valentines, mixing paint, making models, reading stories together, playing board games, building snow forts, and just being silly. We made the things we imagined. We learned about the things that made us curious. There was time for all of it.

My children learned at their own pace. There was grace when they failed. They could try, and try again, until they got it right. This let them develop in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. We made surprising discoveries about the world around us and about our own natural gifts. There was time for all of it.

We lived in our books, and our books lived in us. Long hours we spent, reading and discussing, turning over ideas and values that appeared on the pages -- seasons before my sons would have to evaluate ideas and values alone, far from home. They grew strong, calm, competent, confident, and mature. They knew what they believed, and why they believed it. They grew at their own pace. There was time for all of it.

Yes, they had excellent test scores; they entered the colleges of their choice; they were awarded scholarships. We're grateful for that. I am glad, mostly for them, that they have enjoyed these confirmations from the outside world. They had been unsure of how our homemade education would translate into more conventional settings. Things turned out fine, very fine. Whatever they didn't already know, they easily and quickly taught themselves. Our second son, Ben, is attending the University of South Carolina. As he enters his third year in their honors college, he still carries a 4.0 GPA. Homeschooling can do very well indeed, in conventional settings, if we properly apply ourselves.

When I was teaching at home, I championed excellence. I insisted on reaching for a standard that we could be proud to present to anyone: our personal best. I thought this was important then, and I still do. Sadly, I confess that I have seen a number of moms who need to think about their standards. Having no standard at all is not a good thing. We can't just homeschool because we want to have fun. We need to be inspired by something. We need to have a target to shoot for. We need to have a vision that carries us forward. Without it, homeschools tend to get lost in the shuffle of meeting basic family needs, and they haphazardly drift without ever reaching a worthy destination. But the greatest toll of a laissez-faire approach is on the children, who do not learn to work, to meet a deadline, to discipline themselves, or to struggle and overcome. They need these lessons, just like they need to learn to read and write.

At the same time, we must also remember that they are children. Many of us do not have a sustained, valid view of childhood, because we never enjoyed one ourselves. Some of us do not know what it means to be a child, and we do not understand why we should. Play, joy, adventure, discovery -- these are irreplaceable. But there is one more thing we should add to these -- our own delighted participation. This completes the child's world like a period completes a sentence. They need our affirmation. They need our warmth. They need our enthusiastic delight in their adventures, however small and mundane. You should laugh at their silly knock-knock jokes. You should play Monopoly for the 100th time. You should admire their Lego creations. You should make a purple birthday cake with pink candles on it just because. You should find jars for fireflies. You should step outside to see the sunset. You should lie on your back to see the stars in the night sky.

Your affirmation should be there like the light that rises to greet them in the morning. You should listen and smile with your eyes. You should hug them. You should show them you are proud of them, and that it is an honor to have them growing up in your home. This releases them to be children, to laugh and play and sing and dance and make things up, in the safety of your love and the home that love has created.

This is what it means to be a child. You have a brief window of time in which you, and only you, can give this to them. All too soon, their rooms will be quiet and their toys will be still. They will have moved on to other more adult discoveries and a life of their own. This childhood of the mind is a precious gift. It will be a blessing and happiness to them for the rest of their days.

1 comment:

  1. How timely. To strike a balance between the things of childhood and the emerging requirements of an adult life, if only by degrees minute, is our challenge. (I.e., high school is upon us.) We are not ready to leave it all behind. My son is not. I am not. After reading, the sense gained is that we shouldn't. Not all...but to find a way to take play and adventure along the way through high school is going to take courage and creative planning. After all, I've gone this way only once before a few decades ago and in a very traditional sense with no one to show how to dream.

    But today is different. I've learned how to dream and we're unalone.



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