When I started to review the book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen, my first thought—in keeping with the ironic tone of the book—was that I might title this article, “Ten Things to Dislike About This Book,” because it was clear as I started thumbing through the introduction (“It was a bad day for Grendel”) that the book would be an enjoyable read.
Of course the point of the book is to encourage adults to foster creativity in the hearts and minds of young children, and the tongue-in-cheek tone provides a humorous way to emphasize how educators can so often get things wrong. After all, no one would actually write a book with the purpose of smothering creativity and imagination in children. Nobody wants that—or do they?
But the introduction brought up this exact point: Do we, as a society, really want to produce creative minds and outside-the-box thinkers, with all the messy chaos that comes with it, or do we prefer predictable young citizens who fit tidily into the mold?
If we say we love creative children, but actually prefer to work with docile, complacent individuals who are easy to direct—not to mention control—then our actions belie our words.
It was a very convicting point, to say the least. I love my own children, of course, and want the best for them. And if you asked me, of course I would say that I want them to follow their dreams, be all they can be, and so on and so forth. But I was given cause to ponder how often I am inclined to think how much more comfortable my life would be at times if my children would only conform to my ideas of convenience and conviviality!
Rote memory vs. twaddle
Esolen surprised me on some points.
Most people assume that stuffing children’s heads full of dull, dry, boring facts stifles curiosity and kills off imagination and original thinking. I was reminded of Polly’s dismissive attitude toward “history” in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew: “Battles and dates and all that rot.”
But, Esolen reveals, there’s a twist: rote memory is actually a critical pathway to creative thinking. You can’t take off on many flights of fancy if you don’t have a good network of airstrips. In the process of invention, strokes of genius often result from apparently unrelated facts coming together in new and exciting ways.
This insight reinvigorated my determination to emphasize regular memorization in our course of study: poems, songs, snippets of famous speeches, and Scripture verses. Not only is it good to have a repertoire of information available in one’s virtual library, the very act of memorization improves mental acuity.
This is why I love reading Beatrix Potter aloud to my children: I so enjoy hearing my three-year-old exclaim, “This is a fierce, bad rabbit: look at his sharp claws and turned-up tail!”
Esolen points out that there are two ways to undermine the power of a child’s memory: downplaying the importance of memorization in the first place (laziness), or filling up the mind with useless rubble.
I was reminded of the great English educator Charlotte Mason’s insistence on teaching children from “living books” as opposed to filling their minds with “twaddle.” Facts are turned to best advantage when information fits into an overarching structure. Hence the importance of drilling the multiplication tables, learning the basic structures of proper grammar, memorizing spellings and word roots, and so on.
However, there is a distinct difference between difficulty and drudgery. Memorizing facts may be challenging, and may even seem boring at times, but will eventually pay off as information arranges itself into a pattern in the child’s mind. If children are like sponges, naturally predisposed to soak up information, why not make it interesting and, well, memorable?
The truth about fairy tales
Esolen also stresses the importance of folk and fairy tales. While it’s tempting to dismiss classic children’s stories as clichés, most fairy tales are timeless precisely because they rely on familiar character types that represent universal truths of human nature. Esolen praises stories with good characters who are complex and real, rising above the inane “Goody Two-Shoes” morality play stereotypes.
My takeaway was simply that good literature, good characters, and good writing will always resonate with children. Equip your kids with good taste, cultivate common sense, and strengthen moral judgment by feeding them quality reading material!
The outdoors really is great
Esolen also emphasizes the importance of outdoor activity. Walls can be confining and restrictive, and so much can be learned through the simple exploration of nature, to say nothing of the natural health advantages afforded by liberal doses of fresh air and sunshine. I was reminded again of what a time waster and creativity killer screen time can be, and motivated yet again to scale back.
Esolen helped me see that it’s possible even for well-meaning parents and educators to fall prey to prevailing cultural habits that can stunt our kids’ imaginations. Ten Ways offers some good insights into how to avoid and remedy these bad habits. I would highly recommend it.
Photo Credit: First graphic design by Anna Soltis; all other images courtesy of author.