Have you ever wished you had a window into your child’s heart, mind, or soul? I think most parents have. At times, children can do or say things that seem so unexpected, so foreign, so cryptic or inscrutable, that we might wish we had access to one of those Universal Translator devices from Star Trek. Since all humans tend to interpret events through the lens of their own experiences, it can be difficult to imagine that another person might experience a situation in a completely different way from our own interpretation. And yet that is exactly what happens. Everyone’s reality is their very own. Including that of a child.
So what’s a parent to do?
Start by noticing pursuits that isolate your child in their own insular, inner world, and then make some substitutions with activities you can do with your child. Shared experiences allow you to observe how your children respond, offering that precious window into the way their brains works, how they process things, and what kinds of stimuli really ping their consciousness.
Be prepared to be surprised.
Don’t get me wrong: you can definitely make the case that the internet and the plethora of readily available electronic devices have their benefits. I often marvel at how the whole world is now at our fingertips. Technology has definitely revolutionized how we see the world. However, along with the benefits, there’s also a potential downside, if technology is not kept in its place. Today, more and more children spend so much time in front of the TV, computer, and/or other electronic devices that they rarely see the real (non-simulated) world.
This brings to mind a salient quote by Geneen Roth, “The true disaster is living the life in your mind and missing the life in front of you.” For many kids today, living life has become synonymous with being attached to an electronic device. (And maybe for some parents too.)
Depending on where you live, there are generally many opportunities to put away electronics and explore the world without having to travel very far. For instance, when was the last time you’ve gone to a zoo? Or a museum? Sometimes there are often overlooked attractions in your own backyard, so to speak. Does your town have any historical areas, museums, points of interest, animal rescue groups? Most do. Going on nature walks right in your own neighborhood is a no-cost option.
But what if going to a zoo or to a museum of any kind doesn’t seem to appeal to your child? You can find ways to make it more appealing. For instance, what kinds of things is your child really interested in? How about your child’s favorite animal? You can then plan a trip to the zoo or museum or some other attraction with your child’s interests in mind.
My wife and I recently took a trip to the San Antonio Zoo and San Antonio Art Museum with a young friend of the family who is like family to us and who loves art. Her name is Chandler. Not only did we all thoroughly enjoy ourselves, but we learned some fun, interesting things in the process. These experiences offered a window into our young friend’s mind that was surprising, entertaining, and delightful. Making the effort to find out what a child is thinking is one of the best investments of a parent’s (or an honorary aunt’s and uncle’s) time.
At the zoo, one of the highlights was getting to hand-feed little parrot-like birds called Lories, and we all really enjoyed the giraffes (especially the babies) and the underwater views of hippos lazing in the water.
But afterward, when talking with Chandler about what she enjoyed the most, some of her answers were surprising. Chandler enjoyed people-watching and seeing their reactions to the animals. She made special mention of the Betsey Johnson and Michael Kors purses, to the point of the count she had made of each. (I didn’t even know who those people are!) She also said that she felt like she could watch the giraffes “forever.” The butterfly exhibit wasn’t a temptation for her, nor was the reptile house, but she liked the anacondas.
Even our trip to a grocery store was entertaining: while investigating the bulk bin aisle, as Chandler was selecting some lollipops she liked, I asked her what the difference was between a sucker and a lollipop. Her reply? “One is less dignified.” That spontaneous bit of humor gave all of us a good laugh.
I would have to say that the art museum was our favorite part of the day. We saw a lot of beautiful paintings, sculptures, pottery and many other works of art from around the world. Although we enjoyed much of it in silence together, there were opportunities to talk about some of the pieces. Again, some things were surprises.
All three of us loved a painting by American artist Seymour Joseph Guy (1824-1910), called A Bedtime Story. I asked Chandler what she specifically liked about it, and she said she could see herself being the older girl in the picture reading the stories to the children. When I looked at the same painting, I saw myself being on the receiving end of the stories. I wanted to be the little kid enjoying the story!
The artwork/craftsmanship of the palanquin, or norimono also impressed us all. A palanquin is a wheel-less conveyance for transporting the wealthy or privileged. It was carried at two ends of a central beam on the shoulders of four to six men. Chandler was captivated by it, and by imagining what it would be like to ride in one. The look on her face spoke of the imagination of a true romantic. Another window to her interior world!
A trip to a bookstore offered more glimpses: home decorating books, cookbooks, and marine biology tomes were the favorites.
On the ride home, the three of us played a game asking each other questions, such as:
- What did you enjoy most about today?
- What’s one thing about today that you wish were different?
- If you could trade places with someone for one day, who would it be?
- What was your best day ever?
By sharing experiences together, and showing genuine interest in what children liked (and didn’t), we can begin to acquaint ourselves with the individuals each young one is growing to become. There’s a window into each child’s personality, heart, and soul, and if we make the time to be present with them and pay attention, our lives and theirs will be the richer for the endeavor.