I stood on a cold, frosty afternoon looking out the window at my daughter playing in the snow. She was bedecked head to toe with winter gear to protect her from the bitter wind, a wind she hardly noticed. Her fuchsia snow pants insulated her knees from the icy snow and she sat contentedly eating snow. She examined each handful before placing it in her mouth. She was struck by the uniqueness of each new handful. As I watched her, I was drawn into her wonder. I was struck by the obvious joy of that moment for her. I realized in that moment, children often have their priorities in order, while we adults grasp at all the wrong things.
A pile of dishes was awaiting my attention, textbooks for my graduate courses sat opened, reminding me of work to be done. My elliptical machine, cold and mechanical, stood in the living room corner as an oppressive force of health and fitness. My mind was running with an endless list of things that must get done. And yet, I stopped to see what my daughter was doing in our backyard on a bitter cold winter afternoon. She had been begging me all morning to go outside and I made her wait until it hit 25 degrees. I have grown soft living in Southwestern Virginia; away from the arctic subzero temperatures of my upbringing in Montana.
I couldn’t help, but stop. There she sat, engrossed in wonder and serene contentedness. The very same serenity that alludes so many of us in adulthood with our deadlines, duties, and responsibilities. I realized that my daughter’s work was probably much more important than what I felt bound to complete in a begrudging sort of way. She was examining the secondary causes of God’s free and self-emptying Creation. I stood watching her examine each snow crystal before she placed it in her mouth. I entered into her wonder, her total giving of self to the moment. How could I not be drawn in along with her?
She did not feel the cold or complain about the weather the way we adults often gripe. Instead it was an opportunity for joy, play, discovery, imagination, and love. It was a moment for her to experience God through the beauty of His creation. She was living the good, the true, and the beautiful. How often do we brush off our child’s excitement over something seemingly mundane? How often do we miss out on the opportunity to enter into their wonder and joy of discovering something new for the very first time, or even the twentieth? How much do we ignore that God calls us to fully live in the present? Our children teach us the presence of God, but we pay little attention.
The desire for wonder and switching off the television.
I have been doing something completely and totally countercultural within my family. I have been cutting all of us—my husband is supportive, even if it is a struggle—back to seldom watching television. Some of it is in response to the content of shows and commercials; content I don’t even want to see. The biggest reason is because I watched what it was doing to my daughter. It was destroying her imagination, creativity, and attention span. When my daughter would watch hours of television her attention span decreased, her desire to play decreased, and her imagination was stifled. She was less interested in reading and she became obsessed with using my phone or computer. There were times I would let her watch because I needed to study. This is just plain laziness on my part and I indict myself fully for this error. After just a few shows, she was hooked, and all she would want to do is watch TV.
The issue is not that television is evil. It is not. It is a good. A good like all other things with potential to be used in a disordered and sinful manner. Copious amounts of television, like all things, is not good for a person. I realized in observing my daughter, and even myself, that there are far better things to be doing with our time. Our time on this earth is brief. Would I rather my daughter read great works of literature, theology, science, etc. with me or that she spends hours on end watching insipid television shows that deaden her own imaginative spirit and form her in the image of our dying culture? At the end of my life I am not going to wish I had watched more television. I would rather read real fairy tales from various cultures than have my daughter repeatedly watch the banality that Disney produces en masse. I would rather teach her to help re-build our culture.
My suspicions about the impact of television, and I would argue large internet usage, were confirmed when I stumbled upon Anthony Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. I consider the discovery of this book providential. My family and I already live counter-culturally as Catholics through the liturgical seasons, so switching off the television in a media saturated culture is almost even more counter cultural. What happened when I dropped us to one day of television a week (I am ready to throw the whole thing out, but my family isn’t quite there, yet)?
The ability to wonder, imagine, and focus increases with less screen time.
First, my daughter’s attention span began to increase. She asked me to read books to her again. What struck me most was how much she turned to independent, imaginative play. She started building things and play acting. She would draw for hours and paint. I told her that she can pull anything she wants onto the living room floor as long as it is clean before my husband gets home. One day she made an ocean on the living room floor with blankets, sat in a laundry basket, and “paddled” around rescuing her dolls and toys. She played before I pulled the cord on daily television viewing, but now she no longer asks me constantly to watch a show and plays for hours on end.
Reclaiming the outdoors for children.
My daughter does spend a lot of time outside. I am still young enough to have had a childhood of roaming freely in the neighborhood with my middle sister. We spent our free hours climbing trees, riding bikes, swimming, and wandering. Both my husband and I want our daughter outside as much as possible. Kids will go outside, even in horrendous heat and freezing temperatures. It is their domain. They are not meant to be inside in front of a screen for endless hours. They are explorers by nature. The world is new and wondrous. It is we adults who have forgotten the gift of a worm dug up from the garden soil.
We forget how to wonder at our own peril. Christian wonder is inexhaustible because it encompasses all that exists in creation and all that is eternal. Far too often we discount the tremendous spiritual insights our children are giving to us in their very person. Christ calls us to be little children for a reason. Children sense the infinite. They see the face of God. Beauty is their language and it is the language of God. To ponder creation is to ponder the Creator because natural theology is the beginning of our journey. We are material creatures and God reaches us both materially and immaterially. This is the very reason for the Incarnation. We are not, however, merely meat and matter. We are spiritual creatures. Creation gives us matter to contemplate in order to raise our minds to the immaterial. This is the great error and hubris of the materialist, rationalist, and reductionist. Placing our children in front of television or computer screens for hours on end is a great injustice to their nature; it is to forget that we are made to look up and out. Television often is a reductionist and materialist realm.
Just say no to utilitarian principles.
Too often in our utilitarian societies we forget the need for beauty and wonder to lift us to God. We spend too much time looking down at phones, to do lists, computer screens, and the ground. Beauty and wonder are of no “use” to us. This is a lie. They are indispensable and inestimable. Children remind us to look up. To stop and wonder at the rain refreshing the parched earth or the butterfly flitting from flower to flower. Have we considered that a single rose petal shines like the most brilliant sunset? The snowflakes on my daughter’s tongue are a reminder of the God who made them and that He invites her, and each one of us, into communion with Him.
To be Christian is to abandon the utilitarian view. The single most important thing we do, which is the Mass, is the most useless thing of all, according to the world. We come together, listen to the Word of God, and then Heaven reaches down onto the altar and Our Lord becomes present in His substantial form. We praise God, offer thanksgiving, and offer our sacrifice through the High Priest, Jesus Christ so that we may be saved and enter into the Triune communion. From the outside, we look like a bunch of people fulfilling an obligation based on some form of neurosis or fantasy. I am thinking of the New Atheists’ accusations here. No! We are people returning to God what is God’s, which is everything. We are a people in love with God and a people drawn into the beauty, wonder, and mystery of God and what it means to be human. The Mass is the great cosmic drama. The Mass teaches us to wonder.
Far too often we have our priorities backwards. We complain about going to Mass or the obligation, but that is because we do not understand or we have forgotten the real reason God asks us to go. He is drawing us into His salvific work and into the great charity of the communion of Divine Persons. The same is true for the wonder of our children. We burden ourselves with endless tasks, while they pull at us asking for us to enter into the mystery of creation and what it is to be a human being. Yes, we have responsibilities, but that is largely an excuse. In reality, the most useless of things are the most important. What would happen if we stopped saying “later” to God or our children? What would happen if we devoted ten minutes a day to silence with God and a conscious entering into the Mass? What would happen if we sat in the snow marveling at snowflakes with our children? We would be transformed.