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The Protection of Wonder | Marcy Axness, PhDAugust 11 was a day of two unrelated yet poignantly simultaneous events: the passing of Robin Williams, whose white-hot brilliance has often been characterized as other-wordly; and the celestial light-show of the Perseids meteor shower. As if heaven was welcoming its newest arrival with a fireworks display of thrilling extravagance befitting Robin's unfathomable talent and heart. 

That he was suffering so deeply came as a shock to even those who thought they knew him well. Insights into his psycho-history began emerging with revelations about his depression--possibly bipolar disorder; reports of his solitary childhood in an affluent family, being raised primarily by hired help; and Robin's own recorded descriptions of using his comic gifts to make his mother laugh.

As people who were touched by Robin's gifts, we feel sad. As parents who are raising children in this complicated world, we feel concern. Will our child grow up to wrestle with such demons? It is such a complicated question, and the tapestry of a person's mental illness is multi-faceted with many contributing factors. But there are things we can do, throughout their childhood and into their teens, that will serve as protective factors against mental and emotional struggles and addiction. Most of these are related to the health of the child's central relationships and the security and wellbeing they foster, which in turn get hardwired in the child's brain to lay the neural scaffolding for lifelong psychosocial health. Our shorthand term for this process is "attachment".

While looking up at the Perseids, I was vividly reminded of one of the seemingly smallest yet incalculably important protective factors that parents can provide for their child: wonder. A fundamental need of the young child until around seven is an atmosphere in harmony with his natural impulse to celebrate beauty and feel reverence and awe about almost everything. But what does our culture do in this techno-materialist age? We foist upon even the youngest child a flat world of facts and commentary. At a time when the child most needs wonder and reverence, we explain away all sense of the miraculous with our cool adult intellect, with the good intention of helping prepare them for the real world. (“Daddy, look at that bright star!” “Oh yes, Esmerelda -- do you know that a star is just a very dense concentration of gases -- just air! -- that burns very, very hot…thousands of light-years away... Mystery eradicated, poof!

Sheltering your child’s natural sense of wonder -- and indeed, cultivating your own if it has atrophied over the years -- is a gift of lasting wellbeing for you both. An inoculation against ennui. A potent protective factor. That sense of “Wow, water out of the tap! or “Wow, text sent over phone lines through squeaky little noises!” is a route to vast inner horizons. When we lose that, we need ever more stimulation -- more shopping, more drama, more drugs and alcohol, more thrillers (which feeds the collective propensity toward societal violence), more sexual excess, and so on -- to fill the void of disenchantment.

One helpful way to cultivate wonder is to imagine looking out at the world through your child’s eyes, which brings the uplifting quality of his or her natural enchantment to the fore. The more we can live, as Joseph Chilton Pearce puts it, “in constant astonishment,” the more we can attune to the aspect of our children that seeks reverence, awe and beauty. Having a child by your side -- looking out through her eyes of wonder -- gives you permission to be especially exuberant in expressing delight in a world in which everything can be magically alive. “Hello, leaves…hello, pebbles…hello, wind!” A central tenet of esoteric psychology is that once you acknowledge the life in everything, it awakens life energies in you. Perhaps this is one reason behind the success of mindfulness for treating depression.

Avoiding TITD (Talk It To Death) Syndrome

One of the simplest ways to increase a sense of reverence and awe is to put yourself on a zip-the-lip regime. Say less, let it mean more. There is an epidemic raging, which I call TITD (Talk It To Death) syndrome. One only has to spend a little time with any American family to see TITD in action: “Why is there a rainbow on the wall?” “Well, Samantha, the sunlight is being split into seven different wavelengths by the refractive index of the crystal on my watch sitting there on the counter.” Wonder and awe quotient abysmally low, protective factors missing.

The Hurried Child author David Elkind offers an illustration of how young children’s questions are usually focused on the purpose (why) of things rather than an explanation (how): His preschool aged son asked him, “Daddy, why does the sun shine?” At first tempted to give him a scientific answer about the relationship of heat and light, he remembered this principle behind the young child’s questions. He simply answered, “To keep us warm, and to make the grass and the flowers grow.”

In this spirit, a more nurturing response to Samantha’s question about the rainbow might have been, “To make our morning more beautiful with the special qualities that sunlight can have." Your young child (especially at four and five) will generate a seemingly unending stream of questions -- one of the ways she is working on developing intellectual and social initiative. There is a delicate balance for the attuned parent to strike -- between falling into the TITD trap on the one hand, or being dismissive or unresponsive to the child’s earnest inquiries on the other. If we brush off, demean or ignore a child’s questions he may associate curiosity with a feeling of guilt or shame, which is a catastrophe for the future peacemaker, in whom curiosity must remain a crackling blaze.

To support and foster his robust sense of initiative and curiosity, strive to feel your way into the lifeworld of the young child, which wants to know in a way that preserves wonder and reverence for a still-magical world. There is time aplenty for the bottom-line, scientific knowledge of “reality.”

Two Wonder-Full Responses to a Child's Endless Stream of Questions

Here are two handy answers to have at the ready, which work in virtually any situation in which you’re caught off-guard by your child’s question (like when our son asked, “Do people grow down before they die?

The first is, “I wonder...” This leaves the child’s own imagination open to all the possibilities that will come her way, and allows her to remain in the dream-space that is a child’s right. I fear, however, that in our hyperintellectual culture many parents would feel remiss in giving a response like this, afraid of failing the child by not providing an “answer.” Yes, “I wonder” can be considered an advanced maneuver that you can work toward saying with confidence and tranquility.

The second handy response is Elkind’s suggestion to ask the question back to the child. “Well, why do you think a rainbow has appeared in our kitchen?” This will often elicit a stream of enchanting insights into your child’s imaginative capacities -- all of which should be met with the utmost interest and respect for her opinions on the matter, never “corrected.” Remember, there will be time enough for “reality” -- the rest of her life!

Wonder Alone is Not Enough

If there is a quality that Robin Williams seemed to possess in spades, it was a puckish sense of wonder. A lot of his high-octane comedy riffs bubbled out of that well of wonder. It seems, though, that he was quite alone in his wonderment as a child -- that it may have emerged in his loneliness as a means of emotional survival. A consolation prize that ultimately did not console.

The wonder I'm prescribing as a protective factor flourishes within the loving, responsive parent-child connection that is the hallmark of healthy attachment. That is an untoppable combination for raising an innovative peacemaker poised for success in a changing world -- curiosity, playfulness, willingness to experiment, flexibility, humor, receptiveness to new ideas, eagerness to learn. These lifelong qualities are nurtured by wonder now.

Images (in order):
snowpeak under its Creative Commons license
USFWS Pacific under its Creative Commons license
eren {sea+prairie} under its Creative Commons license
Ernst Vikne under its Creative Commons license
Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha under its Creative Commons license

 

 Marcy-AxnessI raised two humans, got a PhD, and lived to report back! I'm the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and I write and speak worldwide on prenatal, child and parent development. I also have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. But my most important (and joyful!) credential is being mother to Ian and Eve, both flourishing in their twenties. As a gift to Natural Baby Pro readers I'm offering a free copy of my "Quick-Start Guide to Shifting Your Child's Stuck Behaviors" eBooklet, a unique, powerful tool for parents to use in addressing behavior and/or developmental concerns in children of all ages.