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Nick Olson

Parenting and the Art[s] of Cultivation

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Greetings A&F Friends!

With my son nearly 2 1/2 years old--and with the intention of more children to come--I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the role that the arts will play in the cultivation of my children as persons. There are a few directions in which I hope this thread will go, and I'll say at the outset that I hope this post will be the germination for not only a larger discussion, but to help gather lines of thought for a column on the subject.

I know that recently we've had threads which featured "best movie moms," "best movie dads," and the like, but I've not found a thread that dealt with the range of issues that capture my curiosity at the moment. If such a thread exists, I apologize!

One issue that my wife and I have discussed quite a bit lately--particularly as we are about to move away from the place we've called home (including both our families) for most of our lives--is the kind of daily life we want to create for our children. More specifically, though, we've talked quite a bit about the kind of habits and traditions we want to give to them. We know that we want to teach our children--and that baseline conversations/communication are vital to their growth. And our parents have provided great examples to us in this way. But we also believe the rituals of daily family life are so vital and formative to the development of everyone, and children in particular.

And so, particularly as we are about to enter the younger stage of our son's childhood when he will, by nature, almost solely be influenced by us, we've been thinking about the practices, the spiritual disciplines, the commitments to the orderliness of the home, etc. For our two year old, this has meant simple things like a nightly routine of reading stories (Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, Winnie the Pooh, and Corduroy are his favorites right now (mine, too)), reading from his children's Bible, praying, singing favorite songs. Or it's meant that we often sing "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow" prior to dinner at the dining room table. Or it means having him take his dishes from the table to the sink and using a mini vacuum if he's left a mess.

But in addition to these sorts of routines, we've begun now thinking about the films, the books, the music, and the games we want to introduce to him. We're not only thinking about what specific cultural artifacts we want to introduce to him, but also when. I know that for many people these sort of specific questions derive from one's own experience as a child--passing along the things that one has loved. But while I have introduced Pooh and Corduroy--and plan to introduce him in the ways of the Caped Crusader (perhaps Dark-wing Duck prior to Batman)--my parents didn't read Tokien or Lewis to me, they weren't taught to consider artistic discernment beyond baseline questions of age appropriateness, and in those years that preceded Netflix, my memories of ritualistic family television watching include Family Matters and Full House. This is to say that the foundational love for our thinking is owed, with gratitude, to our parents, but much of what we hope to bring into our children's lives--some of the specificity and intentionality, I suppose--is new territory of experience for us, too.

Some of the "what" seems obvious enough--Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Pixar, Ghibli, Scrabble, Clue--but some of the "when" seems less obvious (though board games, for instance, provide some guidance of this sort). In other words, I'd be interested in hearing from folks about when their parents read significant titles to them and the kind of influence it had on them at different ages. When would be a good time to show my son, say, Finding Nemo? Granted, I know that some of this is subjective--a matter of discernment for the parent with her/his particular child. There's obviously no one-size-fits-all with these sorts of issues.

I'm interested too, then, in the specific books/films/etc. you all do give--or plan to give (or would give)--to your children. I'm interested in unique, age-specific ideas. So for instance, I know that M. Leary has mentioned that he has (or is going to?) show certain Brakhage clips to his kids. I'd love to hear more. Or, do you have articles or lists that you've come across that provides helpful insights along these lines? It would be great to collect links here, too.

I'm interested in the routines you've all developed or might develop. Is movie night a go-to in your homes? Board game night? Both? A good side-question here might be: what are the limits you seek as parents? What's the quantity of "screen-time" look like in your homes?

What are your more specific, spiritual "devotional" routines looking like? Age-specific ideas seems helpful here, too. When do we graduate from quality picture Bibles to reading/discussing the Gospel of John? Perhaps I'm being borderline paranoid in my curiosity about the age-specific issues. Maybe these sorts of concerns will be more obvious than I'm allowing as my son gets older. If that's the case (and I'm sure it is at least in part), please forgive the paranoia of the young father! :)

Now, I've been thinking through what a Moviegoer column might cover within this range of issues. I know M. has mentioned how "kids are primed for form"-- shapes and colors and composition. I have in mind the recent Winnie the Pooh film, The Iron Giant, Pixar, Ghibli, but I'm interested in other (unique) suggestions. It also seems that, when children are a bit older, that facilitating (informal) post-viewing conversation is important.

I also know that it's a temptation for us who have an investment in the arts to become parental-sovereigns--to press too hard on the formation of our children's experience. It's a fine line. But the key is that we hope, particularly during these early stages, to do the work of careful cultivation so that our children will develop the kind of discernment for truth, beauty, and goodness (and holiness!) that will, hopefully, be a source of life for their souls for years to come.

I think this is enough of a start for now. Thanks!

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Excellent! Thanks for compiling this list, SDG.

Hope to hear more from you soon.

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No time for a lengthy answer, but in my own case, things are skewed somewhat by the fact that two of my three kids are autistic, so the developmental arc is somewhat different there -- and I wonder sometimes if my daughter, who is *not* autistic, is also "behind" a bit because she spends so much time with her autistic brothers (and with the parents who schedule so many things around her autistic brothers).

My daughter and I have made a point these last few months of reading through David C Cook's The Picture Bible, a comic-book adaptation of the Bible that is so old *I* can remember reading it when I was her age. Indeed, I remember reading it when I was six years old and living in Poland, and my daughter is now seven, and a part of me wonders sometimes if I should be pushing her towards reading it for herself more.

(Similarly, I wonder if I should be purging our home of certain preschool-oriented videos soon; my five-year-old, who rarely says more than a few words together at a time, and who is still not fully toilet-trained, puts them on sometimes, and my daughter still watches them with him, and... well, I'd like to wean her off that stuff, but without betraying C.S. Lewis's point about being grown-up and openly reading children's stories, if you know what I man.)

I know I exposed my kids to The Miracle Maker and the original Star Wars trilogy and a few other things a couple years ago, but I haven't shown those things to them lately, and I wonder if my kids even *remember* watching those things. I forget exactly how old they were at the time, but I can remember watching The Miracle Maker with my daughter when she was, I dunno, three or four, and it was at least the second time she'd seen it, but whereas she had not been fazed by it at all on previous viewings, she now started crying because of the crucifixion scenes -- so I knew she was processing the storyline on an emotional level that hadn't been accessible to her before.

Okay, that's already longer than I intended... maybe more later...

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Thanks Peter.

The comic-book adaptation of the Bible sounds interesting! And The Miracle Maker seems to be a film that's come up often around here.

And I hear you about the "weaning" issue. My son loved to watch "Color Crew" for a while, but we felt like he was getting too mature for what seemed to be the target audience.

And, per Lewis, there's some level of excited selfishness in my original post. I'm looking forward to having a great excuse to watch Ghibli films I haven't seen, or to playa board game once a week, etc.

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I'm striking out a bit with some of those links. Either the original link in the thread to the particular list is broken or has been deleted, or the conversation in the thread trails off quickly.

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Nick--congrats on the move! Where are you heading?

In my experience( we have 2 boys, 5 and 7), the intentionality you're bringing to this topic is evidence enough that you're going to be just fine! We've been somewhat discouraged by the crap the kids find to watch on Netflix (even though we limit them to an hour max), such as all the different iterations of Marvel and Transformers cartoons that exist solely to driver consumption of toys. Thankfully most of those toys are long off the market before we see these shows, and their toy budgets are minimal so we don't end up facing a lot of pressure on themed toys.

I've also found that as they are a little older, with school, activities, and both parents working, that we are spending more time trying to get the kids to just play outside or play with toys, or even just read a book in the hour or so we have unscheduled each afternoon/evening. We have committed to having dinner together each night, and to engaging the kids with the nightly prayer time and, unfortunately for us, inconsistent readings of the children's bible. (We've tried a couple of versions and are slowing working through the Golden Books version from the 50s).

But I've made a point to model appreciation for good films and good music. It's what I like, so they're exposed to it frequently. They've seen the Star Wars trilogy, the Cavalry trilogy, and I'd love to get them to see some classic 30s and 40s adventure films. But I'm just happy they don't complain about B&W films.

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What's the quantity of "screen-time" look like in your homes?

This is both the easiest question to answer among those you've posted, and the most controversial -- because people who know better simply ignore all the advice on this subject. The amount of "screen time" you give kids under two has been widely reported, repeatedly reported, and updated not too long ago. That update reaffirmed what had long been the guidance on screen time for kids under two. After two, the "rules" get looser, and parents need to exercise more judgment/wisdom.

We've tried to abide by the guidance for our kids -- and have found that almost no one else does. That cuts across chuch/unchurced folks, Left/Right, new parents/not-so-new parents.

Your child is already beyond that age, but if you're planning on more kids, it may be worth revisiting. If you choose to hold to the guidance, prepare to feel very lonely.

Edited by Christian

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I have six year old twins, one of them autistic, but I have a hard enough time trying to weed them off of children's television to something substantive; they still haven't even seen The Wizard of Oz.

We were fortunate that there was a movie theater near us that caters to children on the autistic spectrum, once a month, early in the morning--(less volume, less dark). We've gotten them there about half-a-dozen times, and only once did we leave early because it was too frightening for my daughter. All in all, this has been a good success, because this last week we drove all up to see a regular show (Monsters U), and not one catering to his needs; although he got antsy towards the end, we were able to convince him to stick it out.

Musically they've been fans of the TV show Yo Gabba Gabba, which brings on cool artists like Weezer, MGMT, and Mates of State to do pop friendly children's songs. The budget for that show may be in the single-digits, but they know how to attract the right talent. The (as of now, four) soundtracks to the show are not enough; I've had to craft my own playlist from recordings straight from the show itself, numbering some 300-plus tracks. But we do try our best to introduce them to all sorts of music, always knowing we can go back to the originals if need be.

As for reading, we have our Dr Seuss and Berenstain Bears collections, plus a good modern picture Bible, which helps. It's great to read to the kids.

The bottom line is that you won't know when they will be ready to make the move, but this is very similar to eating; force something on them, they will resent it. Have it ready, for when they finally come around, you will be prepared. We have a lifetime to introduce them to the classics, and we have it, and they know it, they just have to thaw out a little.

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I'll add a few random thoughts from my neck of the woods. FWIW, I've got three kids (7, 5, 3)

  • We limit our screen time to fifteen minutes in the morning (an educational game from pbs.org, usually, and only for the school-aged kids) and a half-hourish in the afternoon. Our kids watch very little in the way of TV shows. They generally sample from a collection of Pixar, Disney, and Ghibli, with occasional visits from Yuri Norstein, Chaplin, Keaton, and the odd-live action film that works for their age (a la The Red Balloon). This all means that my kids watch movies in segments, and they've pretty much memorized where to turn off the one's we own in order to keep to their schedule. We don't always sit down with them to watch, but they often recall their favorite parts at the dinner table (we eat together pretty much every night), and conversations often spring up about themes from the movies. We occasionally plan a movie night where we watch something special. This year we've had two of those so far, and we introduced them to the Muppets. We do have to watch out with the scares, as the oldest has low tolerance--his aunt and uncle to him to Wreck-It Ralph in the theater, and he couldn't make it through.
  • Books are a constant in our home. The oldest two can both read well for their ages, and we encourage them to try a variety of things. My wife and I are both avid readers, and the kids have grown accustomed to seeing us with a book in hand. We have a healthy number of books in the home, and my wife regularly takes the kids to the library. The school-aged kids go to the library every week at their school, so they bring home a bunch that way. Every summer the kids participate in our city library's reading program, which involves reading a certain number of pre-selected books. But generally, the school-aged kids are checking out what they want from the school library. My 7 year old ends up with science books on dinosaurs and coral reefs, in addition to novels. He likes series books, and since I read him the Hobbit, he has been reading it himself in the hopes that we can read Fellowship--I'm content to wait a bit. My 5 year old is still into picture books, but has picked up a number of short novels around the house (think Roald Dahl-length). My wife and I engage them regularly about what they're reading, and we also buy them certain books designed to get them reading more widely. I've come to appreciate the rhythm we're in right now--they choose a lot of what they read, but we make (and they usually take, eventually) our suggestions. We also read to them every night, going for variety--A.A. Milne (including poetry), E.B. White, Rudyard Kipling, Lewis, Tolkien (for the eldest). I've not been too worried with whether or not the younger ones could understand--generally, if it's good, I'll read it. If they'll sit and listen, and they usually do, I'll read them pretty much anything. I shared Tolkien only with the eldest so far, primarily because I love the language of that book so much, I didn't want to deal with the inevitable interruptions--so the others got a different book those nights. We do rotate the Bible into our evening sessions--we're reading through (and discussing) Matthew right now. My wife also reads the Bible with them before school when it's in session (Psalms, Proverbs, Genesis).
  • As for music, the kids have some of those heinous kids music CDs that kid-ify pop music. But mostly, they listen to things that we listen to. Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, Bob Marley, etc. Their favorite is the soundtrack for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
  • My wife also plays board games with the older two every Sunday afternoon. I join them every so often, and mix in game times at other times when it's easier for me schedule-wise.

Edited by John

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