Anthony Esolen’s exceptional and incisive Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (2010) exposes the many techniques of controlling, taming, brainwashing, and manipulating children’s minds and hearts–methods that have transformed the lives of the young from innocent, adventurous boys and girls in love with life and rapt with wonder into passive creatures undergoing indoctrination at many levels. Each of these ten ways that attack or distort childhood robs it of its enchantment and joy and substitutes some artificial world for real life.
The first of these insidious attacks upon childhood is the loss of outdoor life: “Keep your children indoors as much as possible.” The child who dwells indoors most of his time fails to learn many things that play in the outdoors teaches. He will not wonder at the immensity and beauty of the sky, a natural source of the awe and majesty of the created world: “But the vastness of the sky will naturally lead the mind to contemplate infinities; it is wholly apt to associate the sky with the expansiveness of the spirit, with joy and freedom and holiness.” Without gazing at the sky as an elemental reality of creation, the child does not see the glory of the stars or marvel like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins when he looks above and exclaims in “The Starlight Night”: “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! / Look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!”
Without his normal exposure to the outdoors as the natural environment for play, the child views earth, air, fire, water, and stars as mere things rather than as a wonder book of the masterpieces of creation with their special, distinct colors, shapes, textures, scents, and sounds. A world teeming with life becomes a hollow universe. Instead of this vital experience children’s knowledge of Mother Nature shrinks to visits to zoos or museum or to outings to famous sites like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park as if the rest of creation offered no sense of grandeur or abundance. An imaginative child, however, acquires a knowledge of the nature of things when he explores the outdoor realm around him with his five senses, tastes the goodness of creation, learns with Hopkins of Nature’s “pied beauty” in the sky, “brute beauty” in the mountains, and the wildness of moors, fells, and downs:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. (“Inversnaid”)
The second assault upon children takes the form of the elaborate organization of their lives: “Never leave the children to themselves” or “If we only had a committee.” Unlike the past when children invented, supervised, and umpired their own games without adult involvement, modern children lack the imagination to invent their own fun. Whether it is day-care centers, organized athletics, summer school enrichment programs, music lessons, or summer camp, the regimen of scheduled activities and careful management of time determined by adults all deprive children of “huge blocks of time to be themselves, outdoors with others of their kind, inventing things to do!” Once upon a time children designed their own fields, improvised their equipment, recruited players, determined the rules, and decided on their own whether a ball was in or out of bounds. In an authentic childhood children create their own culture and escape the confinement of adult schedules and bureaucratic micromanagement. As Esolen explains with an example from Tom Sawyer when Tom and his companions form their gang of robbers, “Left to themselves, they simply will not remain alone. They will organize. They will establish their petty kingdom, declare decrees, seat and unseat rulers, give one another new names, invent secret codes, build hideouts . . . all to fill the blessed days of summer.” Childhood is a time of adventure, exploration, and freedom from the narrow restraints of the time management schemes of adults. Tom Sawyer’s gang “needed no committees. They were alive.”
Another blow to childhood is the disappearance of fairy tales that are replaced with “political clichés and fads”—books and stories with ideological agendas. Fairy tales that transmit proverbial wisdom and timeless moral truths, however, are not beholden to any political party or social platforms. They are not tame, sentimental tales that soften the hard truths about the meanness, selfishness, and cruelty of evil. They never depict a safe world or an ambiguous version of right and wrong: witches, ogres, and evil step-mothers always reflect the ugliness of evil, and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and the Little Mermaid capture the purity and attractiveness of goodness. Fairy tales deal in the strange paradoxes of life like the luck of the fool who succeeds without trying too hard or the small, lowly, and humble (The Gallant Little Tailor) who outsmart the cunning and strong. They reveal the mystery of wishes coming true when they come from a pure heart, from honest effort, and from a great sense of gratitude. On the other hand, students in schools suffer indoctrination in the form of political correctness (“the Correct Way to think about Everything”) in revisionist histories, in books that substitute liberal political propaganda for literature that deals in universal truths, and in trite bromides that promote diversity in all its bizarre, unnatural forms. As Esolen concludes, “The reduction of all things to politics must reduce them, in their own right, to irrelevance.”
Further harm occurs to a child’s imagination when modern educators “cast aspersions upon the heroic and the patriotic” and “cut all heroes down to size.” Instead of the inspiration of noble martyrs like Father Jean de Brebeuf tormented by the Huron Indians or chivalrous knights like Don Quixote committed to restoring chivalry and honor to a base world whom Esolen cites, the young never learn about the virtue of magnanimity, the desire to aim at something great. Esolen writes, “This dismissal of what is quintessentially courageous is, fortunately, a staple of the modern textbook.” Thus students never acquire a moral imagination that stirs a passionate love of goodness, excellence, and greatness as ideals to emulate. Instead they soon develop a sense of emasculated manhood that C. S. Lewis identified as “men without chests.” Instead of the young aspiring to imitate the honorable, magnanimous, and courageous, they absorb an indoctrination in false equality (“leveling”) in which “I’m a hero, you’re a hero,” and everyone is a hero. Dumbing down always corrupts the imagination.
Another method that kills the child’s creative imagination is the waste of time spent in mindless diversions–what Esolen labels “Distract the Child with the Shallow and the Unreal.” Children spend hours before “the wasteland of television” and video culture that inundates the mind with distorted images of ordinary life. Even in schools and libraries students sit in front of computers and stare at screens for more hours than they look out windows or notice flowers and trees. They consume hours playing addictive video games, oblivious to the most adventurous, delightful aspects of living: “A whole world lay in wait beyond the windows, a world of sound and silence, of both solitude and that genuine friendship that needs no words to express itself.” Distracted constantly by noise, gaudy colors, and entertainment, the child’s mind never expands, wonders, contemplates, or learns to think in the natural atmosphere of quiet and tranquility. Children miss the atmosphere of silence conducive to reflection, awareness of God, gratitude, and the mysteries of goodness, beauty, and truth. This void in children’s lives Esolen calls the denial of the transcendent—the most sublime objects of thought that most powerfully awaken the mind, heart, and soul.
A child’s imagination is a precious gift that elevates and enlarges his humanity and awakens his love of life. Instead of nourishing it with outdoor play, good books, the heroic lives of noble men and women, bonds of affection with family and friends, and a sense of the sacred and the transcendent, the controllers and organizers of children’s lives reduce them to consumers of banalities, superficial pleasures, and political slogans. While the children exist and function, they do not seem as alive, charming, or vivacious as the boys and girls blessed with authentic childhoods with the freedom to invent their own games, with leisure to enjoy the company of friends, with time to bond with their parents and learn from them, and with the silence to wonder and think about the stars. With an undernourished, uncultivated, or stifled imagination the child’s mind never awakens to the glory, adventure, beauty, and goodness of life as a great gift to be cherished, loved, transmitted, and defended.