Children and Beauty

(Pumpkin picking pictures in January? That's how I roll! And yes Tenny had insisted on wearing a sock on his hand for some reason.)

Charlotte Mason says, 

About the child hangs, as the atmosphere around a planet, the thought-environment he lives in. And here he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long kinship towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.

I think that “atmosphere” is made up of everything that surrounds the child: the actions, moods, routines, words, and yes, even the physical things. It’s easy to assume that the only material things that matter in the raising of our children is that their basic needs are met, and to think that their spiritual formation is somehow divorced from their surroundings. If we suffer from such thinking, we must admit to our Gnosticism! As persons, we are embodied; we are physical beings. 

Katherine recently shared a story about Mother (now Saint) Theresa which really clarified something about beauty to me: when the public first learned about Saint Theresa many people sent donations to support her work, but they were surprised when she spent the money on beautiful candlesticks for the alter in the chapel! 

I'm sure she believed that the people she was caring for needed more than physical care, but beauty that spoke to their souls. And the workers pouring out their lives in service could join those they were serving around the altar and all together they could be transported into the heavenlies and the glory that belonged to all of them, who so rarely had shared anything extravagant.

The word that comes to mind here is dignity! Every person has value, and even the poor, the hungry, the smallest among us deserve more than to simply have their most basic bodily needs met: understanding their desire and need for beauty, and meeting that need, is one of the ways we recognize that inherent dignity.

I think many people underestimate what a child is capable of appreciating. We disrespect them when we think this.  Many people assume a child has to “grow up” before they can appreciate true beauty, but that is sort of a backward way of thinking about it; a child can appreciate much now, and will appreciate even more when they are grown because their palate will have been trained for “a life-long kinship towards things. . . lovely.” Our children will internalize and emulate our own attitudes towards these things. 

I am not advocating for an elimination of all things child-like or child-specific. But as C.S. Lewis said: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond,” and “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I am advocating for the elimination of twaddle!

So what constitutes the truly beautiful and lovely? Well, a lot! And there is lots of room for personal taste. I’m sure there are guiding factors (goodness, authenticity, orderliness?) though I don’t feel qualified to try and delineate all of them! In the case of art and literature, it might deal with both the subjects of good and evil, but beauty always calls that which is good, good, and that which is evil, evil. It never tries to present evil as good or vice versa. The principles flow from the nature of God Himself, and while timeless, might manifest differently in different ages. Though I will venture to say that the more successfully something embodies a timeless principle, the more timeless that thing becomes. 

Start with creating a home atmosphere rich in beauty like I talked about in my post on beauty in the home, and then I have some ideas for how this specifically and practically applies to children. Keep in mind that these are goals, not rules, the difference being that rules want strict adherence while goals just ensure you’re heading in the right direction. 

  1. Toys. I personally tend to gravitate towards toys that are made of natural materials (wood, metal, fabric) for the same reasons I prefer natural materials in my home (they communicate a sort of warmth and authenticity), but the important thing is simply that they are well-made and pleasant. We have a “please no plastic or batteries” guideline for gifts, simply because making that suggestion to family and friends was a quick way for us to eliminate a whole swath of toys that we might find objectionable, without having to write a treatise on our toy philosophy.  This isn’t a luxury reserved for those who can “afford” the nice toys, as I’m actually advocating for buying less in the first place and getting rid of all the accrued junk. Historically children had only a handful of toys, if any. Think quality over quantity. 
  2. Neat and tidy. Children’s rooms and toys should be kept to the same standards as the rest of the house: play, make a huge mess, but then clean it up. Toys can be kept relatively organized in basket/tubs, or my favorite: mesh produce bags. Now is the time to teach good habits of putting things back in their proper place, rather than just dumping everything into a jumbled mess where things break or pieces can never again be found.  We don’t always succeed at this, but it’s been helpful to have a policy of having only one or two toys out at a time. I think this helps grow skills of attention by discouraging rapid toy-switching; I might focus on this toy a little longer if switching to something else means I have to clean this up first. Young children’s toys should be kept in the common areas of the house (not their rooms) because that is where they should be playing, and this both helps rooms stay tidy and is motivation for keeping the playthings tidy.  If you feel time-impoverished, rest assured that teaching habits of tidiness is an upfront time investment that pays huge dividends when your children learn to pick up their own messes so that you don’t have to.
  3. Books and media. I talked a little about standards for these things in my post on media and children. I encourage you to be extremely picky! Here is a great article with one of my favorite life-long reading lists embedded in it. Things like this are a great jumping-off point which help you begin to recognize what good books look like. I hope to start a running list of some of our favorites soon, too! Keep it twaddle-free (and in case you keep wondering what exactly constitutes twaddle, I love all of these quotes by Charlotte Mason found in this article). Yes, children often like twaddly toys/books/movies!  It can pander to their desires to be stimulated, entertained etc. like sugar to a sweet tooth. Have you ever had that experience where you remark “ah! I shouldn’t have eaten that [insert overly sweet thing] before eating [insert only moderately sweet thing], it totally ruined it? That cloyingly sweet dessert can ruin your palate. I don’t let my children choose all their toys and books any more than I let them choose all of their meals. To use Mason’s terminology, I spread a “feast” of good and beautiful things, and let them choose from there.  The imagination and attention often required to appreciate true beauty can be hard work! Very satisfying, but certainly can require the flexing of certain mind muscles.
  4. Faith. Should I make this a separate post? I should make this a separate post.
  5. Other concrete ways to pursue beauty: get out in nature as often as possible, visit museums (when we’re on vacation we look for local museums!), expose your children (and maybe yourself!) to different varieties of music than you might normally listen to (maybe some classical or instrumental), get books or prints of great art for them to flip through at their leisure, and pull out the art supplies in case they get inspired (side note: don’t supply your kids with bottom of the barrel art supplies! They barely work! What even is that paint that comes in the little connected plastic pots? Steer clear of the children’s art supplies section; even the student-grade supplies at somewhere like Blick are still affordable and much higher quality. Buy real watercolors and real watercolor paper!)

Above all in your pursuit of beauty, keep in mind that it is the means to an end and not the end itself. An appreciation of the richness of the beauty of God’s creation and the best products of humanity’s collaboration with God in creation is ultimately the pursuit of God Himself, for us and for our children. We pursue these things to better understand and experience God and His Nature. It becomes an act of worship.

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