Bonding, Mind and Spirit – in Childhood

Bonding, Mind and Spirit – in Childhood

(Excerpt from Natural Baby and Childcare)

Since philosophy shows us how to live, and since children need the art as well as adults, why don’t we teach it to them at an early hour? – Michel Montaigne

The Spiritual Life of Children: The Philosophy of Childhood 

Other sections of this book have focused primarily on health of the physical body, on treating and preventing various aches and ailments and nurturing all the innumerable parts that make up your child’s corporeal self.  No comprehensive understanding of health, however, can exclude the intangible realms of the spirit—the emotions, imagination, curiosity, and wonder..  This chapter addresses your child’s inner world or soul, which need no less nourishment than the physical body.  For my thoughts on the inner lives of children I am eternally grateful to the philosopher Mervyn Brady—the depth of his knowledge and understanding has taught me to be a better human being, physician, and mother. In his workshops, he instructs parents how to tend and cultivate the inner world of their children and I draw from his wisdom throughout this chapter.

Many religions and spiritual practices conceive of the soul as the divine aspect of the self; permanent and insubstantial, the soul is often imagined dwelling in the temple of the body, housed and protected by the physical self. Just as the body takes in food, air, and water in order to subsist, so the soul is fed by impressions from the surrounding world—from those sensory elements that prompt us to marvel, enjoy, and explore. Our physical selves feed and nurture our spiritual selves, just as spirit can inspire, heal, and protect the body. The scent of a perfume, the melody of a lullaby, or a memorable sunset all feed your child’s inner word, and suggest that the body, the five senses, and soul are all connected.

Many adults despair about being consumed by life’s responsibilities and not taking the time to “smell the roses.” Ben Franklin once wrote about a friend who died when he was twenty-five, and was buried fifty years later.  He was referring to this friend’s inner world, whose flame had gone out at a young age, yet the body did not die until years later.  How do we assure that our children’s souls remain richly satisfied? Is the soul something that can be remembered or forgotten in the tasks of day-to-day living? And how do we assure that our children’s souls remain richly satisfied?  Spiritual practices teach adults to appreciate their “child-like” inner selves, and we can also help ensure that our children stay in touch with the moments of wonder, excitement, and newness that nurture their imaginations and feed their souls. 

At birth, a baby is born with little distinction between body and soul.  She is filled with a curiosity, intrigue, and enthusiasm at once spiritual and physical—everything is open to discovery; everything is new.  These are exciting years, which also render her vulnerable to the elements and she must be supervised closely. By age three, your child experiences her world in increasingly physical ways, testing the limits of her body—and often the limits of her parents’ patience, too.  At this age the roots of personality begin to grow and the body starts to occupy a more prominent place than the soul.  As your child gains in agility and mental and emotional maturity, her personality has blossomed.  By the age of seven, much of the foundation is established.

As the first caretakers to our children, we can begin to plant seeds to help ensure their healthy inner lives as well as outer bodies. Childhood is the time when these seeds can find fertile soil, flourishing in ways that will profoundly impact one’s life path.  A great deal is possible in early childhood, since the span of time we spend as children is, relatively speaking, much longer than the number of years would suggest. Instead of looking at lifespan as a chronological succession of years, we might view it logarithmically, divided in three equal parts: 10 months (gestation), 100 months (childhood), and 1000 months (maturity). 

Gestation, which lasts ten lunar months, represents the phenomenal period of growth that occurs in the womb after the egg and sperm unite and begin to rapidly divide, eventually forming a human being.  The second period, childhood, spans the 100 months following conception, and corresponds to approximately age seven when the personality is formed.  The period of maturity begins at age seven and lasts until death.  It represents a time to develop and establish one’s talents, vocations, and spiritual viewpoint.

According to this scale, life is divided into thirds. Although childhood here is seen as approximately seven years’ duration, it encompasses one third of a human being’s life.  These are the years when reason and conceptual thinking are activated; from approximately four to seven years old, your child’s intellect will grow by leaps and bounds as she learns to read, write, and use numbers for measuring abstract concepts like time and distance.  During this period, many cultures also place emphasis on rituals of initiation; for Catholic children, this is the time when they take their First Holy Communion.  Both modern psychology and many ancient schools believe that the years prior to age seven form the basic building blocks of your child’s emotional life, prompting the truism, “If you give us a child before he is seven, we have him for life.”

Many of us recognize that time seemed to move more slowly when we were children; once we become adults, the years “fly by,” as the saying goes.  The philosopher Rodney Collin explains this phenomenon by comparing the logarithmic scale of development with a spinning top. If the top spins for thirty seconds, it initially spins quickly, gradually slowing down until it finally falls over still.  The thirty seconds represent one’s life in years, while the revolutions symbolize the amount of work and energy accomplished by most individuals –more occurs developmentally in the first half of life than the second.  To a child, life goes by a relatively slow pace, and the days are filled by new information and impression.  While many of us adults are fixed in our habits, children possess a seemingly endless capacity to absorb life lessons, soaking up knowledge like sponges and remembering this information often for a lifetime.

What a Parent Can Do

Childhood imaginations are fed by attention, and it is essential to become intentional in creating “soul moments” for your children.  Special time with your child assures her that her inner life is just as important as her other accomplishments, and that she is wonderful just being herself.  Personally, I remember waking up early with my dad before he went to work as a medical resident in the hospital.  While he was shaving, I would sit up on the bathroom counter looking in the mirror as we both applied Old Spice aftershave to our faces.  Memories like these remind me of the magic bond shared by parents and children, especially when we are present and open to each other. 

Take some special time every day to be with your child, away from life’s hustle and bustle.  Allow your child to glimpse your inner world, and invite her to share hers.  Apart from all of our errands and chores, it is vital to spend quality time with your child – no matter the age.  During these moments, try looking into your child’s left eye; tradition maintains that the left eye is where the soul is situated, and by making a conscious effort to connect with your child, you can maximize the time you spend together.  Many of these moments can be created when there is change, an unusual occurrence or shift in routine that allows for a creative venture or new activity. It is important to break patterns periodically, as routine tends to put both children and adult souls to sleep. This past New Years’ Eve while my husband was working, my boys and I went to their first Korean barbeque restaurant. They enjoyed using the grill at the table and tasting all the special sauces. Instead of racing to get home as midnight approached, I pulled over and we rung in the New Year in the car, all shouting the twenty-second countdown with loads of giggles.

Be creative. By giving your children simple, special times that break from the norm, you are feeding their soul and yours.

In teaching children about values, ethics and respect, many families choose various paths.  Through religion, families attend church, synagogue or other organized settings together while others prefer a more individual approach that inspires children through nature, cultural traditions and personal beliefs.  Celebrations with rituals that mark the rite of passage, such as the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, as well as seasonal festivals, and holidays, both secular and religious, provide yearly familiar images that are meant to instruct and warm the spirit.  Blessings, often adopted from American Indian traditions, which celebrate a girl’s passage into womanhood (or other milestones) are becoming popular. Family participation helps mark these special occasions for children. I have fond memories of celebrating Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ home which was commemorated by the lighting of a beautiful candle in the shape of a turkey.

The Arts: Fairy Tales, Music, and Math

Throughout school, our children are rigorously trained to separate fact from fiction, privilege reason over intuition, and achieve logically rather than imaginatively.  While this education prepares them for the responsibilities of adolescence and adulthood, it often fails to fully nurture their capacities for creativity and wonder.  Reading, and particularly reading fairy tales, offers an important means of cultivating imagination and “magical” thinking in children. Fairy tales are meant to entertain and also instruct by tapping into a child’s deepest desires and fears about the world around her.  They are a child’s version of myth, helping to explain a phenomenon, experience, or event, and to educate them about themes of life, death, conflict and renewal.  These stories are not meant to be read literally or to be interpreted by the intellect.  Instead, they are intended for the inner world.

Originally oral forms, fairy tales have been passed down through generations, preserved by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and, yes, even Disney.  Before the television and video generation, children’s inner worlds relied on biblical, folk, and fairy stories for entertainment.  The philosopher Plato recommended that children begin their education by reciting fairy tales and myths rather than pure facts.  Tales, Plato recognized, are a form of learning particularly suited to a child’s mind.  Many fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time, long long ago…,” a phrase which invites your child to leave the ordinary world of concrete thinking and enter another reality – the world that speaks to the soul. Fairy tales achieve their magic by making use of several important narrative techniques: allegory, fable, parable, and metaphor.

• An allegory is a story that offers a deeper meaning beyond the literal narrative on the surface.  Fables and parables are considered simple allegories.
• In a fable, the main characters are typically animals depicted with human qualities and engaged in difficult or improbable conflicts.  Fables usually end with a moral lesson meant to teach, for example, about the shortcomings of vanity, the value of hard work, or a similarly communal message.  The stories of the ancient Greek writer Aesop are still some of our most well-known fables. Examples of his tales passed down from oral traditions include the Fox and the Crow and the Tortoise and the Hare.  
• A parable is similar to a fable in that both are allegories; however, a parable narrates events that are possible.  Parables are short stories that instruct us by presenting parallels; we are meant to draw connections between the actions of the characters and those of ourselves.  Jesus is perhaps our most famous source of parables. 
• Metaphors are a crucial element in storytelling, and allow us to draw comparisons between two unlike objects.  “All the world’s a stage,” a popular line of Shakespeare’s, demonstrates how metaphor works: the mind is required to forge a connection between the concepts of world and stage, to understand how they relate not concretely, but suggestively.  This cognitive skill is crucial for children’s abstract thinking and cognitive development.
Over the centuries such writers as Charles Perrault (Mother Goose), the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Lewis Carroll compiled fairy tales from oral tradition, or wrote classic stories of their own.  They have largely defined the European fairy tale tradition, but children’s stories also come from all around the world and all different cultures. Two of my favorites are the African tale called The Lion Whiskers and the French story of Reynard the Fox.  

In addition to children’s literature, art forms such as music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture, and crafts can play an important role in your child’s emotional health and cognitive growth. Sadly, the arts in many schools suffer from lack of funding, meaning fewer available programs and a greater responsibility on parents to expose their children to music, drawing, and other activities.  Cuts to school arts programs are short-sighted, since creative tasks are not a “break” from real education, but fundamental to a child’s developing intellect.  Studies have shown that children who play a musical instrument have improved reading, math, and standardized (SAT) scores, and studying music and playing an instrument also teaches children about focus, concentration, coordination, and working closely with others.  As the ancients demonstrated centuries ago, music is also closely connected to math.  The philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras showed that musical intervals can be expressed mathematically, and many philosophers since have looked for the larger harmonies between the planets and the stars, “the music of the spheres.” In the Middle Ages, music was studied along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy as part of the quadrivium.  Realistically, however, not all children respond well to music. It may be not be the right timing, type of class, or teacher. As a toddler, my son Étienne was sensitive to noise and did not enjoy going to music class. After several years’ hiatus, I encouraged him to try piano lessons and he has enjoyed playing piano ever since.  

Popular Culture, Recreation, and Creative Play 

Playtime and Toys

Playtime is not simply free time for children; it constitutes an important means of learning social dynamics, solving problems, stretching the imagination, and developing cognitive skills.  Playing is a “job” for children, though fortunately one most of them love and can work at for hours.  The tools of playtime are toys—those objects that are transformed almost magically from inanimate wood, plastic, or fabric into something living and vital.  But while a child can turn almost anything into a toy, most are drawn to the gadgets they see on television and at their friends’ houses: toys are often more interesting when they belong to someone else. 

The trick for any parent is to choose toys that appeal to your child, but which are also safe, stimulating, and long-lasting.  Considerations in selecting toys include factors such as safety, enjoyment, interest, durability, noise, and ease in operation, and whether they encourage solo versus interactive play, educational opportunities, challenging thought, and creativity.  For safety purposes, avoid sharp edges, small chokeable parts, and strings longer than eight inches.   In general, I find handmade wooden toys last and keep their interest longer than the plastic, electronic “toys of the moment.”  These I call the junk toys:  like their junk food counterparts, they are often more gimmick than substance, with battery-operated parts, bright plastic casings, and immense marketing campaigns.  After the initial excitement wears off, junk toys quickly end up collecting dust; no one can convince a child that a toy from last year is “cool” once a more interesting one has come along. 

Many of these commercial toys are backed by millions of dollars in marketing, as manufacturers make use of our children’s increasing consumer savvy.  Often, junk toys and junk food are marketed together on billboards, print ads, and television commercials, and grouped in order to encourage multiple purchases – a single character can be seen in the movie, star in a book, be included as a McDonald’s play toy (with the kids’ meal), and appear on clothing.  So what’s wrong with these toys?  Isn’t a toy simply a toy?  Like foods that are low in nutritional substance, certain toys are low in education and intellectual substance.  They may look good and seem exciting, but they offer very little challenge to your child’s imagination.  Particularly for boys, toys also frequently glamorize violence, going beyond fake guns and action figures to high-tech video games, paintball games, and elaborate war-oriented toy sets, complete with blood-stained playhouses. 

But while parents can try to shield their children as much as possible from these overtly violent games, children tend to naturally gravitate toward certain activities, sometimes to their parents’ dismay.  One couple recently complained that their three-year-old son goes around “shooting” a stick as if it were a toy gun, an object that has never entered the house.  You may never be able to change what your child is fascinated by, but you can change the ways they work through and explore those fascinations.  Junk toys also come with a hefty price tag that exceeds their actual cost in dollars and cents. Most are manufactured by children and adults laboring in sweatshops overseas, and the excess packaging and the petroleum-based plastics add to environmental pollution. 
Often, the most simple toys or objects are the most interesting.  One of my two-year-old patients adores his mother’s soup ladle and takes it with him on outings, including to the doctor.  Encourage your child to similarly “make” toys for herself from safe household objects; you would be surprised what she comes up with left to her own imagination. 

When buying a toy, consider its appropriateness and whether it matches the age, temperament, and skill of the child.  High-energy children benefit from physically demanding toys like balls and bikes.  Other children respond to art projects, books, and puzzles.  Likewise it is important to encourage your child to try all sorts of activities, physical and sedentary, social and solitary.  A child who is more timid may learn to interact more comfortably with others by playing a game that requires participation, while a social child will benefit from spending time on his own, working on a project that requires greater concentration.  But be assured that your child will let you know what is enjoyable and appropriate for him. I thought my boys would enjoy a play kitchen so they could “cook” alongside dad while he prepared our meals.  I soon learned that the real thing was of more interest, and our kitchen now resides in my office.

Around age two, most children go through a phase where they are unwilling to share toys; any attempt to play with, take, or restrict a child from her favorites can result in quick tears.  Fortunately, children outgrow this phase, but while it goes on, you will want to plan ahead for guests, playmates, and other company.  If you anticipate a toy tantrum, you and your child may select a toy that she is willing to share, while putting away treasured objects before the guest arrive.  Children will also undoubtedly be given toys you wouldn’t normally buy for them.  When my son was three, well-meaning friends brought him a plastic fire truck equipped with lights and a siren—his first battery-operated toy.  Within minutes it was out of the package and rolling around much to my son’s joy. What could I say?  Childhood is a receiving period – and kids love to get gifts as much as adults enjoy giving them.

Television and Video Games

As I mentioned earlier, just as the body needs to be nourished, so does your child’s inner world. Her soul is fed on impressions which is taken in from the five senses and is important for emotional health and intellectual development. We spend much time and care in an effort to provide healthy nutritious meals for our children.  Why not do the same for their inner world? I have seen that as my children get older, they are more exposed to junk food as well as junk impressions – such as certain programs on television, movies and on video games. I realize that some of this is inevitable, but as much as I can, I like to provide them with healthier impressions such as reading a good book, playing a game, or being out in nature. 

Nature-Deficit Disorder 

The astronomic rise in attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, autism, learning disabilities, and similar conditions in children presents one the greatest health concerns of the new century. While parents and health professionals are beginning to look to environment degradation, vaccines, and toxins as potential causes, others suggest a broader cultural source to the problem. The journalist Richard Louv recently published Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder in which he coins the term nature- deficit disorder to describe the myriad of ways modern life and entertainment alienates and isolates children from the natural environment. 

As children spend more time in front of the television or playing video games, they spend less time in outside exploring the world.  Wonder at the complexity of nature is replaced by  technology, which is impersonal and can negatively affect motivation, social integration, and compassion.  Louv believes that nature-deficit disorder is linked to a plethora of ADD-like illnesses as well as the rise in obesity in our children, and recommends that parents encourage imaginary play in a natural environment instead of the latest video game distraction.  Many child experts are starting to agree with Louv regarding the inundation of technology and the ramifications for our children. Even if you live in a large city, you can heed his advice by finding the nearest park, walking path, or community garden, by planning a picnic or hike, or by simply planting seeds in pots and watching them grow.  As we have become more unrbanized, we are less in touch with the natural environment. Many programs in schools and throughout cities are encouraging children and their families to become involved in recycling, clean-ups, and volunteer efforts meant to raise the awareness about the environment in which we live locally and globally. Growing plants and gardening teaches children vital lessons about ecology, communal responsibility, and environmental sustainability.

Extracurricular Activities

Due to the financial crises our schools are experiencing, many art and sports programs are among the first cut from school programs. In an effort to compensate, parents enroll their children in all types of after-school programs that include sports, music, and arts and crafts .Many children also participate in the scout programs that begin early in grammar school and goes up through high school.. It is a wonderful opportunity for children to have a broad education. However, sometimes children are over-schedulized, and begin to experience the same feelings an adult would who is stressed out and overwhelmed with having too much to do. As parents, it is important for us to monitor our children’s commitments, and achieve a healthy balance. 

Family Activities 

As a working mother, I make it a priority to carve out extra time with my children and to make that time count.  Spending time together promotes family values which is important in nurturing a child’s intellectual and emotional health.  Although not always practical with everyone’s busy schedules, eating a meal together is a wonderful way to spend time together. Without too much extra planning, many quality moments can also include physical activity which is healthy for everyone—they might be as simple as taking a walk, playing Frisbee, or visiting the zoo.  The canyons by Los Angeles, for instance, are full of lovely trails where kids can feed the ducks.. From urban to rural living, every place holds the opportunity for families to explore together. Having a family pet can also play a special role in a child’s life. In addition to providing companionship, having a pet can teach a child about responsibility, respect, and care.

Adoption, Assisted Reproduction Technology, and the Changing Family

As reproductive technology continues to advance and adoption becomes an increasingly mainstream choice, more couples are choosing less traditional paths to parenthood.  Older couples and same-sex couples are finding success with fertility assisted reproduction, including the use of donor eggs and sperm and surrogate mothers, while the notion of adoption has broadened to include assisted reproduction technology (ART)—the adoption of eggs and embryos.  Mixed-race households are more commonplace, as are children who are not genetically related to either parent.  The make-up of the American family is changing, but neither adoption nor fertility assistance means that bonding will be any less intense between child and parent.  The hormonal and physiological transformations that occur during pregnancy promote bonding, but even more vital is the parenting that follows.

As more people make use of ART, questions about identity and heredity become more central to family life.  Parents face the decision of how and when to tell their child about his or her genetic background, and children, particularly of adoption, may or may not want to eventually locate their birth parents.  Feelings of abandonment, separation, or anxiety are not uncommon feelings in children who have been adopted, whether they have been informed or not. It  is important to have resources available for parents and child to help cope..  Homeopaths and other practitioners of alternative medicine have had success easing children and parents through this difficult transition period.  Keep in mind that while heredity and family history play an important role in one’s health, personality, and development, so, too, does good parenting.  I once heard a parent tell her adopted child, “You came from my heart, not my tummy.”  The reminder is a vital one for all parents: our love for our children encompasses more than biology; it is the most basic expression of our hearts.

The advancements in reproductive technology are astounding, but not without side effects and risks, including the enlargement of the ovaries, thinning of the uterine lining, and more. I encourage couples to try a holistic medicinal and nutritional approach prior to fertility treatments; many parents have had success becoming pregnant through Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and naturopathy, and in this way avoid the invasive and at times risky new medical procedures. 

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