National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Nurture the Wonder of Childhood

How to Ensure Children Keep a Sense of Awe Amid Modern Culture

BY Lori Hadacek Chaplin

February 24-March 9, 2013 Issue | Posted 2/23/13 at 7:29 AM


For a long time, my 2-year-old, Max, has had a fascination with the tiny tape recorder that I use to record interviews. I try to keep it out of his way, but he’s always on the lookout to see if "mommy’s tape corder" has been left by the phone. After a stimulating conversation with an author on the topic of preserving a sense of wonder in our children, I hung up the phone, pleased with the excellent interview. Imagine my surprise when I hit the playback button only to hear my own voice followed by silence. Afterwards, I realized my little one had somehow deleted not one — but two — of my recorded phone interviews for this article.

Max’s wonder got in the way of my writing about wonderment: The irony was not lost on me.


Innate Wonderment

Wonderment is to be in awe or amazement — to marvel at something. Humans are born with it.

Rebecca Mohun, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and mother to four young daughters, gives a good reminder: "We don’t give our children that sense of wonder; it’s a gift of God and part of being human and made in his image."

The Blessed Mother comes to Mohun’s mind because she "took all these things and pondered them in her heart." 

"Children are often doing that when you can’t seem to get their attention; they are so totally absorbed in contemplating one thing or another, they can’t even hear you," she says. "Maybe they are not contemplating the blessed Trinity, but they are contemplating the fact that no matter how they count the six rows of four bottles, it always comes to 24."

"Much of the time, my job is to step back and let that sense of wonder be, not try to control it or manipulate it, but simply let them delight in learning and to take delight with them if they wish to share it with me," Mohun adds.

"Being around children in general is fun because they have a greater capacity for imagination and awe than adults do," shares Catholic athlete Zoltan Mesko, punter for the New England Patriots — who often visits sick children at hospitals — in a recent article. "They experience wonder at things we as adults don’t think twice about."

And, as clinical psychologist, radio host of The Doctor Is In and Register columnist (and all-around nice guy who agreed to another interview after the first one was lost) Dr. Ray Guarendi says, "In a loving home which does not follow the cultural technological trend, your kids as a group are probably going to be more fascinated with the stuff of life than the average kid."


Media vs. Wonder

Though children are born with innate wonder, electronic media may be the villain dulling it.

According to Guarendi, "Playing some video games isn’t going to hurt, but the problem is: A lot of parents don’t have the energy or the willpower to keep it at a minimum; the kids, especially boys, naturally push for more. Little by little, the parents yield. By the time he is 7 years old, he can’t sit in the car and look out the window and take in the scenery and the neat animals. Instead, he’s got to have a movie playing in the back of the minivan."

In his practice, Guarendi says that he’s consistently seeing the negative impact of too much electronic media, and parents underestimate its shaping power on their children: "Electronic media totally shapes who we are and how we relate to people. And little kids are particularly susceptible to it. They don’t have a mechanism that says, ‘Oh, gosh, wouldn’t it be better for me to relate to Mom and Dad and sit at the kitchen table to talk?’ No, they are going to go to where the appeal is."

Before modern media, G.K. Chesterton wrote about youthful wonder.

Dale Ahlquist, a Chesterton scholar and president of the American Chesterton Society, concurs. "There’s no question that we have to take a close look at how much electronic media we are going to expose our children to. I don’t think that Chesterton would ever take a puritanical stance and say absolutely none; if it’s measured and controlled, even those things can be used to spur the imagination."

Mohun believes one of the problems with electronic media is the absence of silence or time for contemplation, because young people are so preoccupied by phones, tablets and other devices, including TV. "Their every thought and nearly every action is dictated during school hours; then they come home and watch TV, where maybe they feel as though they are free, but, again, their thoughts are told to them. They might feel free when they are playing a video game, but they are only free within very narrow confines, and when they need it more and more, they constantly desire but cannot rest in the object of their desire. This creates the perfect consumer, but does not create philosophers."


Encourage Wonder

Parents can nurture wonder in their children by setting a good example and devoting time to contemplative activities themselves. "This might consist in working hard for a while at a piano piece, spending some time learning French better, reading a good book, sitting down and drawing a picture or spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament," says Mohun. "I need to do those things for myself, to live fully humanly, and my children need to see me doing those things, loving those things."

She says it is also important to allow children a lot of free time in which to explore and be truly childlike.

As Chesterton, a Catholic convert who was prolific in his writing about culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, once noted: "In nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. … The flower with which God crowns the one and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other are equally of the gold of fairy tales. In the middle of the wildest fields, the most rustic child is, 10 to one, playing at steam engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them. The evil is that the childish poetry of clock work does not remain. The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical."

Another important thing to do is to let your children outside as much as possible, according to Anthony Esolen, author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, who was my other lost interview. For anyone who’s concerned about how our culture is dampening children’s imaginations, Esolen’s book is an eye-opening must-read.

Chesterton scholar Ahlquist said that, in his writings, Chesterton tries to open our eyes to the things around us as if we are looking at them for the first time: "One of his great exercises is to pretend that you’re Robinson Crusoe; and look around the room and figure out which things you would like to save from the shipwreck. It gives you a new appreciation of everything around you.

"Chesterton would say that it is a lifelong task for all of us to continue to find pleasure in life’s simple things; one of his missions was to get all of us to renew our sense of wonder."

Lori Chaplin writes from Idaho.