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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Picture of Childhood: What Lies Unseen

I had been puzzled by this issue for the past few years. During this time, I frequently allowed the sequence of events to run through my mind. What did I do? How was it like for me? All questions drew a blank for me, as if my mind had blocked out that stage of my life. And it did not help when my wife shared her own experiences and asked if I had encountered a similar occurrence. I felt like a character from The Bourne Identity, one without a past, a man without a childhood.

Things started about two years ago, when Z came into our lives. As new parents, we began asking questions about how we should parent our child. And we began to look into our past for the answers. My wife would start by sharing details about what her room looked like when she was a child, all the little toys that she had, and all the games she used to play - even when she was as young as 3 or 4. I remember listening to her, trying to recall what things were like for me when I was her age. And I could not remember. I don't remember the room I used to stay in when I was a toddler; just that it had a huge cupboard and a wooden bed. I don't remember the toys I used to play when still a baby, nor the games that I played. While I do have fond memories of the later years of my childhood - the room full of board games, the Mask and Masters of the Universe action figures, but I couldn't understand why I did not have any recollection of my early childhood.

This week, my questions were finally answered. I was astonished to realise that a 19th Century British author had the solution all along! In her revolutionary book Home Education, Charlotte M. Mason wrote -

"The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen."

I realised that my childhood memories were never fully seen!

In her book, Charlotte Mason was writing about the importance of "sight-seeing", about how a mother can teach her child to observe the sights around him or her. Her words are best described in actuality:

"By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition - Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson."

Reading Charlotte Mason, I realised that I was not presented with similar opportunities of "sight-seeing" as was described above. In fact, that period of my childhood (when I was 3-years-old), was a difficult period for my mum and I, and we were going through a personal crisis-of-sorts. I can therefore understand why I do not remember the period as much as my later childhood.

How is one expected to remember what he has not seen? 

In contrast I remember fondly the later years of my childhood. Vivid images remain of me sitting under a tree at the then picturesque Pandan Reservoir, churning out a fresh poem while my mum spent her time jogging. Then there were the times when I used to climb Mt Faber with my mum and a few childhood friends, imbibing the fresh evening air and watching the resplendent glow of the sun in all its evening glory. Those were the precious moments when my mum provided me with the opportunity to see, and I embraced it with the eagerness of a child.

I am falling in love with Charlotte Mason. The more I read her, the more I am convinced how much children should be allowed to experience life in all its glory. I want the best for my son, and I know that I want him more than anything to see, to experience the childhood he is meant to have, not one that most children in Singapore trudge through. 

There are two things I have applied from my reading. Firstly, I've come to appreciate that children need to spend lots of time outdoors. Charlotte elaborates, "And long hours they should be; not two, but four, five or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day... I venture to suggest, not what is practical in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children." 

I don't deny that it's so much easier to come home after a long day at work, and to just watch my son play at home, sitting comfortably at the sofa as he fiddles with his building blocks on the floor. That was probably the me before I read the book. Now, I am determined to take Z for a walk outdoors even if I am physically tired. The past few days have been really precious in this aspect; and we've shared so many special memories - like the time when he started drumming madly at the fitness playground, using the circular fitness steps as a drum-of-sorts. As his father, I did the only respectable thing I could do - and onlookers saw a mad father and his son drumming in wild abandonment, oblivious to the world around.

The second thing I've learnt is how to help children appreciate nature as unadulterated as possible. Charlotte says it best, "Let us suppose mother and children arrived at some breezy open... In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people; there should be no story-books, no telling of tales.. Who thinks to amuse children with tale or talk at a circus or a pantomime?" 

Z's god-sister April wrote an email response to one of our posts. She described Z in her note as a "person-in-training"; and I've come to appreciate the depth of that description. In helping my son develop to his fullest potential, I'm learning not to belittle his own attempts at discovery and exploration. My Facebook status update yesterday illustrates the richness of a child's self-learning efforts:

What a precious moment to see the young boy pull apart the husk of the little fruit on the grass... He had just discovered there was something white and soft inside.... With a squeal of delight, he persisted in his exploration of the fruit, ripping apart the aged husk, and revealing bit by bit the seed inside. All in a day's work for the 2-year-old. He had just completed his first dissection. 

As society progresses, a person's childhood years are being shortened. This statement was true during Charlotte Mason's time, when the Industrial Revolution ushered younger and younger people into the working world. The statement remains true today, with children expected to take on more and more "adult" roles and responsibilities at a tender age. I know it will especially difficult for Z, who was born into this world as a millennial. But I also know that I will do everything in my power to help him remain as a child as long as possible; to help him see the world of his childhood, and in the process drink deep from the well of rich experiences. I want him to live the most meaningful life he can possibly lead.

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