Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

A Review For Conscientious Catholic Mothers

A few weeks ago I groundlessly maligned ten ways to destroy the imagination of your child, by Anthony Esolen:

Anthony Esolen, ten ways to destroy the imagination of your child

The way in which one should raise a child, as explained by Dr. Esolen, is essentially the way I was raised and the way in which my husband and I, almost by default, are raising our children.

I grew up in an idyllic, homeschooled little Catholic bubble, one with lots of outdoor time and hands-on work and old-fashioned books.  I was further educated at a more-Catholic-and-less-politically-correct-that-thou college.  I left the Bubble just long enough to pick up the habit of dropping bad words when I’m mad and to notice that moral relativism really is a Thing.  I then retreated (advanced?)  into the Bubble when it came time to raise my own children.

So.  I have trouble seeing the forest for the trees with this book.

But it’s my blog and all I can do is describe the trees as I see them.  So here they are:

  • Dr. Esolen’s main points, as best I can summarize them, are as follows:
    • Acknowledge the existence of Truth and encourage its pursuit,
    • Let your children have lots of unstructured, outside play,
    • Expose children to machines and machinists,
    • Expose children to fairy tales and not political cliches,
    • Extol the heroic and patriotic,
    • Preserve the Mystery and Sublimity of Love,
    • Acknowledge the Differences Between Men and Women,
    • Acknowledge the Transcendent.
  • This book is written in a satirical style.  You have to take what are described as the ways to destroy your child’s imagination and then formulate the opposite and do that instead, as I have attempted with the list above.
  • Most of Dr. Esolen’s objectives can be achieved by (1) providing a loving home life but (2) leaving your kid alone to do his own thing as much as possible while (3) avoiding public schools if possible and (4) exposing your kid to good literature.   But those who need to hear this the most are the least likely to read this book, and vice versa.  (And I don’t mean to hate on anyone sending his child to public school.   But Dr. Esolen is very critical of them.  Just sayin’.)
  • Dr. Esolen indulges heavily in nostalgia, often referring to his childhood in the 1960s–particularly its dangerous, unsupervised, outdoor exploits–for examples of what builds a child’s imagination.
  • It’s hard to describe exactly how this happens, but the satire and the nostalgia blur the main points of the book, at least they seem to for conscientious Catholic mothers.  We probably are not the target audience, but I’m quite sure we form the bulk of the actual audience.
  •  The other conscientious mothers in my book club and I reflexively fixated on this or that aspect of Mr. Esolen’s idealized childhood, and we berated ourselves for falling short.  “Oh, if only I were a good enough mother to expose my child to more danger,” we fretted.  As if our pesky biological drive to keep that kid alive at all costs might destroy our child’s imagination.  Sheesh.   Just let your kid read Huck Finn.  You don’t have to try to recreate Huck Finn’s life for your child.

A few more thoughts:

  •  But if Simcha likes Dr. Esolen, I probably do too.  Also my cold, hard heart softened somewhat toward him when I read this article he wrote about his autistic son.
  • Initially I thought this book would be a diatribe against television, and it’s not.  Dr. Esolen actually writes favorably of some shows, like Wallace & Gromit and Gunsmoke.  You know what does contain a diatribe against television?  My favorite parenting book of all time!  What can I say?  Whether I like a book is determined about 90% by tone and 10% by content.
  • This book really should be titled Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Boy, because girls get the short shrift.  Any study of women in history is derided as feminist propaganda. The only activities mentioned as being appropriate for girls are (a) churning butter, (b) singing folks songs in a broom closet, or (c) eating popsicles while watching boys play baseball (not, understand, playing softball themselves).  I understand Dr. Esolen’s concern for the over-feminization of education for boys.  I also understand that he leans heavily on his own childhood experience, and he was a boy, so he writes a lot about what boys do.  Still, so help me, I want to encourage my girls to play sports if they are the least bit inclined and I also want to teach them about the suffragist movement.  I’m just that radical.  

So those are the trees I observed.  If you read it, tell me what you thought of the forest, er, the book.  I’m joining the “What We’re Reading Wednesday” link-up today, hosted by Jessica at Housewifespice. Thanks Jessica!!

17 thoughts on “Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

  1. Excellent about face! I am still only about a quarter of the way in, I put it down after curiosity stopped pushing me through, but I definitely need to be reaffirmed in the points you made. Honestly, my experience growing up was very far from yours, no Catholics, no bubble. But my parents did an outstanding job of performing every one of your eight bullet points above, it was who they are and how they raised us, they gave us enormous self-identity and a sense of the eternal amidst the very secular and public school world we lived in.

    • Um, not exactly. He throws out lots of examples of what he did as a boy, what boys generally liked to do in the glorious days-gone-by. And the churning butter, etc. are some of the few examples of what girls did in the glorious days-gone-by. One of his themes–as I understand– is that we shouldn’t look down on traditional gender roles and or try to blur the natural differences and preferences of girls and boys. I don’t want to commit slander here, but at the same time the book does come off as slightly sexist to me. Like I said, it would have been better for him to just make the book be about boys and leave girls out of it.

    • Oh, also, the folk songs thing was a real-life example: his wife hated co-ed phys ed class in high school and preferred playing guitar and singing with her friends. Something like that. So it’s more an observation of his wife’s experience–with an implicit assumption that she was fairly typical of girls in general–and less a blanket statement of what girls “should” like to do.

  2. I love everything you have said! The only thing is, I have recently learned from a friend who was sexually-abused as a child that it happened to her, her siblings and her cousins, as well as the neighboring kids, when they were left outside, as a group of different aged children. The older kids (I guess that’s obvious?) taking advantage of the younger kids while the parents visited and glanced out of windows from indoors. So I’m wary but still very much believe in outdoor free play. And truly observing can be done, outside with the children while giving them adequate space. Sorry to stir the pot, if that’s what it seems. I’m really just wanting to share what I have only recently learned! 🙂

    • So sad. No, I don’t think you’re stirring the pot. It’s just all the more reason I plan to risk destroying my child’s imagination just a bit in favor of making sure they don’t get damaged in other ways. I’ll just make sure they have lots of healthy, imagination-cultivating material to read.

  3. I hope you don’t mind a “conscientious Catholic Father” putting in his two cents:

    Tony Esolen does many different things, and he does them well. I haven’t read this book, but I’m sure that it contains many fine insights. Other people’s reflections are worth hearing, especially when they have a lot of experience. That’s why I might want to read a book like this.

    I must admit, however, that I’m flustered by the “nostalgia” factor, which you indicate is widely present in the book. Looking at the past and appreciating things that were done well is important, but we have to look at the reality of the past, and that means not only recognizing its flaws but also realizing that we face some issues today that didn’t arise on a practical level for people in the past (thus we don’t have to be bitter at past practices in order to realize that our daughters need and deserve a different kind of education today).

    We need to pray (a lot), develop the virtue of prudence, and trust in the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to make good decisions for our sons and our daughters now and in the days to come. We won’t get that from any one book; what we will get is advice, some of which we might find useful and helpful, and some not.

    We will also make *mistakes*. There’s a saying I like: “Good judgment comes from experience… and experience comes from bad judgment.” We do our best, we make mistakes, and we learn from them, by God’s grace (and that’s what we trust above all, the grace that Jesus gives us to be parents of very particular human persons).

    Sorry, I’m writing a treatise here, but I have four daughters who are very different from each other; they have their different strengths and interests; they play sports and they don’t churn butter. I want them to become the human persons that God has created them to be.

    By the way, I was dying laughing at your description of your college. It is too, too funny (and I hope that college gets the joke and is able to laugh at itself, because we have got to laugh at ourselves and tease one another, or we’ll never make it…).

    • I find this discussion of the book’s nostalgia very interesting. Sometimes, I think we tend to admire “idyllic” time periods and cultural attitudes (whether the moralism of the Victorian era or the free play of the 1950s & 1960s) and forget that those very time periods gave birth to the ideology that we are contrasting them with. The children raised in the 50s and 60s didn’t try to keep the world that way, did they?

      Great review, by the way! I’m off to find some butter.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Dr. Janaro. I agree about nostalgia: it’s frequently a fall back, it seems, in conservative/traditional/catholic/ etc writing. It has value but only limited value. Prudence … That’s really the key, isn’t it?….thanks again for stopping by. If you ever read the book I’d enjoy reading your thoughts on it.

  4. Ha, ha! This made me laugh. Especially when you mention the activities he considers appropriate for little girls. I think I will probably skip this book. =) Might have something to do with the fact that I don’t have kids, though! And likely never will because I sit in my little cubicle day and night reading stupid bills and going to congressional hearings that no one watches! Ah, woe is me!!! Oh well, I probably would enjoy waitressing much less . . . . 🙂

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