Think Like A Kid – Why Childlike Wonder Is Important
Father's Day is coming up later this month, which got me thinking about all the ways parents can get the whole thing wrong. There seems to be a trend these days of pushing our kids toward adulthood a lot faster than our parents pushed us when we were kids, which just feels wrong to me. Whether it's because some parents think they’re doing their children a service by preparing them for the real world sooner rather than later, or if they’re just jumping on the “Mini Me” bandwagon of creating miniaturized versions of themselves as fast as possible, I don’t like it. Here’s why.
For whatever reason, I guess I'm just overly sensitive to adults pushing kids to grow up on their schedules rather than their kid's. As a parent, I think it's my job to cram as much magic and amazement into my kid’s life as possible now, while he's young and can still believe. The world will try its best to squeeze his sense of wonder out of him as fast as it can, but I think it's a parent's responsibility to push back. Because there's a lot to be said for being able to truly believe in the impossible when you're young. It helps you still believe in what you know is possible as an adult, even when everyone around you says that it isn't.
"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." - Neil Gaiman
I've read a lot of speculative fiction and weird stories to my stepson over the years, and it's had a tremendous impact on how he thinks. Not only has someone like Neil Gaiman taught him that dragons can be beaten, but that even the smallest act of kindness can have the biggest impact here in the real world. Stories have shown him that one person can make a difference, and that anyone who can help should help...and so, he helps. When he got $10 for getting a perfect score on a Math test a couple of years ago, he didn't immediately ask to go to the mall or the video game store to spend it. Instead, he asked me if he could donate it to charity - because that's what reading stories taught him to do: the right thing, always - even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard.
So we went to the convenience store and purchased a money order, which he sent to the UNHCR - a relief charity aimed at helping refugees that Neil has supported for years. That made me proud, but it also taught me that teaching him to believe in the impossible while he's young makes anything possible as he grows older. Will his $10 donation really make a difference? To him, it will. In kid money, $10 is a lot of dough to just give away - and he's sure that it'll help a kid out there who really needs it. As he gets older and $10 doesn't mean as much, he'll give more. Because that's what stories teach him happens in fiction, and it's the example his mother and I try to set in reality.
It's still working, too. He first donated to the UNHCR when he was in 4th grade. He starts middle school this August, but near the end of his 5th grade year, he gathered all the money he'd been saving toward some Pokemon something or other, and donated it to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. When I asked him why he wanted to donate his entire savings, he replied simply, “It’s for the kids at St. Jude, Papa. They need it more than me, and I can always save more money.”
“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.” - Terry Pratchett
So yeah, to my way of thinking, fantasy can be real for as long as my kid wants it to be, and I owe a great debt to writers like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, and to creators like Wil Wheaton and Richard Garriott for showing me and my kid the importance of holding onto childlike wonder and never letting go.
Stories and games teach him that good can win in the end, that hard work is just as important as dreaming, and that nothing is impossible. His stuffed animals can be real friends who listen and talk to him, and who he shares adventures with for as long as he needs them to be there. Calvin is probably still friends with Hobbes, when you stop to think about it. And monsters and danger and dire wolves in the forest can lie in wait just off the road to pounce on unwary travelers for as long as he can imagine they're there, because there are dangers in the unknown parts of his world that should scare him - but stories teach him how to conquer those fears.
And that's not a bad thing. A child doesn't have to be told that dragons and magic aren’t real, because he’ll figure that out on his own soon enough. But believing that a noble hero can slay a scary dragon teaches a child that impossible odds can be overcome. Believing that good always triumphs over evil while he's a kid will teach him that good really can win in the end when he's an adult. My kid doesn't need me or any other grown-up to tell him that his favorite television show is for babies, or that believing he can become a Jedi is stupid. He can wait for his Hogwarts letter to come on his 11th birthday, if he wants to. Because it's not about turning a cute baby into a self-reliant adult the instant they stop being an adorable accessory people fawn over at the supermarket and start having minds of their own. It's about allowing them to let their minds take them to wherever they want to be.
“When I was a boy I was called a nerd all the time — because I didn’t like sports, I loved to read, I liked math and science, I thought school was really cool — and it hurt a lot. Because it’s never ok when a person makes fun of you for something you didn’t choose. You know, we don’t choose to be nerds. We can’t help it that we like these things — and we shouldn’t apologize for liking these things.” - Wil Wheaton
An imagination can take you to incredible places. And terrifying places. And places of magic and wonder, and of hopelessness and despair. A vivid imagination can make the mundane interesting and the amazing transcendent. Childhood is made up of a brief series of moments compressed into an ever-dwindling few years where magic can be real and the impossible can be ordinary. A child encouraged to believe is a child who isn't shackled by the dull, seemingly-inescapable realities of the mundane world, but is set free to explore the limits of their own reality - which, for a child with a good imagination, has no limits. Why, then, do some parents insist on taking this from their children as fast as they can?
Please stop. It doesn't matter what other parents might think, or what your childless friends (who always seem to somehow know everything about raising children) say. And it doesn't matter that you want your sons and daughters to hurry up and grow into liking whatever you think is cool. It doesn't matter if they like things you don't. Nothing matters but your own children, and what they want to grow into. At their own pace. What matters is that you go to their interests, not drag them toward yours.
A child needs to feel free to like childish things until he matures to that particular point of immaturity where he puts them away for fear of ridicule and out of the childish desire to grow up. But some of my favorite people never did that. Or they did, but then thought better about it and decided the rest of the world could get bent.
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." - C. S. Lewis
I have a short list of people I truly admire. My parents are on it, who, if they did one thing wrong in raising me, was giving me too good of a childhood. I miss it terribly. They gave me the freedom to like whatever I liked, to pursue whatever interested me (outside of a couple of ill-conceived but well-meaning nudges towards various sporting activities that never quite stuck) and to generally grow into whatever I wanted to become. Sure, they guided me and helped nudge me in the right direction from time to time, but by and large, they just let me be a kid. I'll always love them for that.
And it's something I want to pass on to my own kid. I want to play with him like my father played with me, all wild-eyed and full of childish excitement. I want to play weird and complicated tabletop games with crazy rules, I want to go on adventures with him in books and video games and movies. I want to support him like my mother supported me, always there to fall back to when things got too real, too fast. I want him to know it's always okay to be himself, and that he never has to hide behind what I think is cool. But mostly, I just want him to know it's okay to be a kid. It's okay to be into goofy things other kids (and grown ups) think are silly. Because they don't matter. And I really want him to learn that, so I'll say it again. They. Don't. Matter.
If I can teach him one thing, it's that choosing his own path is the only way he'll get to wherever he wants to go. Throughout his life, plenty of people will offer him directions. Some may even offer him a ride. But no one can get him to where he's going but himself, because only he knows where he's been, where he is, and where he wants to be. Anyone who says any different is already lost and just wants company.
“My philosophy of life is that the meek shall inherit nothing but debasement, frustration and ignoble deaths; that there is security in personal strength; that you can fight City Hall and win; that any action is better than no action, even if it's the wrong action; that you never reach glory or self-fulfillment unless you're willing to risk everything, dare anything, put yourself dead on the line every time; and that once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak become strong.” - Harlan Ellison
I hope my son grows up to miss his childhood so much that he gets back to it as quickly as possible, and leaves the world of the Normals to the normal, boring people doing normal, boring things with their normal, boring lives until they die normal and boring little deaths. I hope I give him the courage to dream big and dream often, to never be afraid to fail often and fail hard, and to dream at least a few dreams for all the other grown-ups who've forgotten how. I want him to write his own life story, on his own terms, and to keep right on writing even as the rest of the world tells him to give up. Because the only difference between a happy ending and a sad one is where you stop the story.
Always keep going.
But what do I know? I'm just a kid who wanted to be an astronaut who ended up majoring in Anthropology before becoming a computer technician who became a writer who became a webmaster who became a systems administrator who became a stepdad who became a journalist who became a DevOps specialist, who became the Editor of this website you're reading right now. Clearly, I have no idea what I'm doing.
And I like it that way.