Book Review: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child

Recently, a colleague of mine—whose first child was born just weeks ago—noticed my copy of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. “You know,” he said, “a friend of mine told me that parenting is the most guilt-inducing profession there is. That’s why when I saw the title of that book you’re reading, I decided I will never read it.”

As a soon-to-be father myself, I understand his sentiment. There are so many ways that we fall short in raising our children; why read a book that outlines ten more so that we can feel even worse than we already do? And yet, Esolen’s book is worth reading, and not just for the concerned parent or early childhood educator. I will admit that as a warning about what not to do with children, Ten Ways can at times be overwhelming and even heavy- handed. But read as a broader critique of our system of education and culture, it offers a creative and poignant reminder not only of what a good childhood used to—and might still—be, but also of what it means to be fully alive.

The introduction to Ten Ways is worth the price of the book. In it, Esolen adroitly establishes the conceit that holds the book together: His narrator, a sort of twenty- first century Screwtape, is fed up with children. He has opened his essay decrying the dangers and inconveniences of classic books, but now he turns to children, who are, he writes, “worse than books.” For “a book makes you see the world again, and so ruins your calm and efficient day. But a child does not need to see the world again. He is seeing it for the first time.” The curiosity and wonder that come from seeing the world afresh make children unpredictable and unmanageable. Turning the cliché that “children are our greatest resource” on its head, the smug narrator argues that if we do indeed see children in this way, then we should treat them as we would any other resource: standardize them, warehouse them efficiently, prepare them to fit neatly into their proper place in the commercial juggernaut that we call culture. And to accomplish this we must kill their imagination. “If we can but deaden the imagination,” he says in his eminently practical way, “we can settle the child down, and make of him that solid, dependable, and inert space-filler in school, and, later, a block of the great state pyramid.” This deadening is critical, because even a single act of imagination is a threat, as this hilarious analogy makes clear:

A vast enterprise like McDonald’s can only function by ensuring that no employee, anywhere, will do anything sprightly and childlike in the way of cooking. I sometimes think that if a single boy at the grill tossed paprika into the french fries, the whole colossal pasteboard enterprise would come crashing down. Barbarians everywhere would be grilling the onions, or leaving the ketchup out, or commandeering the Swiss to take the place of the American. The great virtue of McDonald’s, that of the solid, dependable, inert routine, would vanish. The rest of the book gives us a program for making sure the paprika will never be tossed. Esolen presents ten “methods” for squashing individuality and creativity in children, each in itself an ironic critique of trends in education, child- rearing, or the culture at large. The first of these, a chapter entitled “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible, Or They Used to Call it ‘Air,’” is one of the best. It attacks the increasingly prevalent sheltering of children indoors, away from the majesty and risks of the natural world. By recounting the joyful alfresco adventures of his youth, and by cataloging insights about the natural world from books (from the Epic of Gilgamesh to C.S. Lewis and Wendell Berry), Esolen reminds us that like the Psalmist, we should be awe-struck by the glories of God’s creation. He also makes it clear how easily we can miss them: “A child that has been blared at and distracted all his life will never be able to do the brave nothing of beholding the sky.” Thus
the need for time in nature, which builds resistance to the flashy and ephemeral distractions of culture and leads to curiosity, resourcefulness, and self-knowledge. But children no longer spend much time outdoors, for the school day is too long, the summer too short, the parents too scared. So children, whose little “free” time is regimented out in a slew of formal extra-curricular activities, don’t really get to experience life.

This is the focus of Method 2: “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” in which Esolen looks back wistfully to a time when children were allowed to organize games and adventures through their own initiative. He praises pick-up baseball and spontaneously formed clubs devoted to the love of singing or stamp collecting or chess, while he critiques what he sees as the largely utilitarian motives behind the zealous involvement of parents and organizations in children’s activities. “Everything you do as a child,” counsels the narrator, “must be geared—I use the word “geared” deliberately—toward the resume which will gain you admission to Higher Blunting, followed by Prestigious Work, followed by retirement and death.”

Method 4, “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Clichés and Fads,” is a diatribe against Deconstructionism and political correctness, the violence they do to the love of learning, and the mediocrity they breed in literature. Such an argument has been made before; for example, see Francine Prose’s scathing and controversial 1999 essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature,” which begins in this way: Like most parents who have, against all odds, preserved a lively and still evolving passion for good books, I find myself, each September, increasingly appalled by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a school year reading. What I get as compensation is a measure of insight into why our society has come to admire Montel Williams and Ricki Lake so much more than Dante and Homer.1

Both Ms. Prose and Esolen make the point that growing up on drivel stunts young people so that when they face more challenging and potentially rewarding literature, they don’t stand a chance of understanding it or appreciating it. Why the drivel? Both authors maintain it is because the childrens’ overseers are less concerned with stretching the imagination or presenting the real complexity of human relationships than they are with keeping things “relevant” and socializing children well. Now, the problem is not that literature is used to teach deep moral truths to the young. That must happen. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “unless civilization is built upon truisms, it is not built at all.”2 The problem is that the books that high schoolers read, many of them of dubious literary merit to begin with, are presented solely as a pretext for facile discussions of values that are in vogue. As Esolen’s subversive narrator concludes, “Reading is all about the adopting of the correct position.” Of course, the correct position—and Prose and Esolen agree in this critique—is always some modern piety along the lines of a predictable and very limited set of socially acceptable morals.

Esolen does offer an alternative, though, and that is where this chapter is of most use to the parents of young children. He praises folk tales, fairy tales, and fables for their potential to stir up in young readers a love of virtue and justice and to help them recognize, and believe in, love and beauty.3 Because folk tales present a moral universe where right is right and wrong is wrong, they are dangerous. When learned in childhood, these stories—and Esolen provides a number of specific examples—make it possible for young people later to appreciate Shakespeare, and Dostoyevski, and even Puccini. Therefore, says our narrator, the stories must be suppressed: “If you do not want a child to paint, you take away his palette. If you
do not want him to use his imagination to conceive of archetypal stories, you take away his narrative palette.”

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child makes a lot of other good points as well. There is no space here to outline, for example, the book’s insights into how a child’s belief in heroes, his love for his country, his openness to learning from the past, and his respect for the mystery of the opposite sex all help to nurture his moral imagination. The book is a valuable contribution to the conservative corpus on education and virtue that should provoke good discussions among educators and parents. Where others have laid out in a more analytical way the reasons for the decline in moral education, such as empirical psychology, logical positivism, and general moral relativism,4 Esolen’s contribution is to make us understand these causes through laughter and then mourn their effects. His writing is elegant and vigorous and his love for the classics infectious. Readers who want to follow up on any of the dozens of books, folk tales, and children’s stories he draws from can consult the detailed bibliography he provides. There is some repetition between chapters, but this makes it possible for sections of the book to be read independently by those who are not ready to attack the whole. I might even suggest that parents consider forming a group to discuss sections of the book together, perhaps along with a teacher or school administrator, as has been done with success at the school where I teach. Not everyone will love the book: the author’s strong opinions (on everything from day care to pop culture to true manhood and womanhood) and his tone (at a few moments almost belligerently pedantic) may be off-putting to some, and others may feel crushed by the sense that modern life, or their particular situation, makes many of his ideals difficult to realize. But I think that most readers will be grateful for this inspiring charge to foster and protect our most human resource.

Filling the Theological Gap

Let’s not give short shrift to the role of theological study in spiritual formation. This has always been an indispensable ingredient in the church’s recipe for healthy Christians. When we turn our eyes to the example of those who came before, I will argue that historically theological instruction played a much more prominent role than it does now. Christian schools ought to ll the gap left by our churches in
this area.

To start with, I take spiritual formation to mean “having a healthy Christian life.” For most of Christian history, it was believed that growing to spiritual health primarily occurred in the church. In the Reformation, this view still pertained, but the Eucharist no longer was understood to have the same spiritual value as the preaching of the word. Exploring this shift helps us to answer the question of how to do spiritual formation.

The Reformation theologians fundamentally taught that God’s central and complete gift to us, through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, was Himself. As the Westminster Catechism famously states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” God bestows Himself on us, so healthy Christianity means realizing more and more fully the consequences of that profound gift.

“But,” it might be objected, “surely the Reformation intended to decrease the significance of the institutional Church in light of this gift. How can the Church’s role diminish and yet remain the primary place in which believers are sanctified?”

This objection is only voiced on the other side of the triumph of individualism in the modern and post-modern period, and it would strike the mainstream Reformers and their Protestant heirs as strangely misguided. The Church—and the family as an extension of it—should continue to be the focus of the believer’s spiritual formation. It is in the church that we more deeply come to understand the divine self-disclosure through the preaching of the word, worship, the sacraments, and fellowship. Remember that individual “quiet time” is a relatively recent phenomenon. We should surely pray and read the Scriptures on our own, but such practices do not dislodge the local church, our primary community, as the source of our spiritual formation.

One of the practices that has traditionally been a crucial part of church life—Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—was catechization and the recitation of creeds in the church service. In addition, sermons tended much more toward what we would now call “abstract” theology (the nature of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.) and derived moral exhortation from it. All of these factors compounded reveal that the Church highly values theological teaching as an important means of sanctification.

Theology is the contemplation of who God is. Churches affirmed the creeds each Sunday and expected everyone to go through a catechism class in order to learn about God’s character, illustrated especially through the dramatic narrative of His saving work. If sanctification means more deeply grasping God’s gift of Himself to us in salvation, leading to forming our characters as we learn to live in His kingdom, then what better way to achieve this goal than learning theology?

Many of us think of theology as dry and boring. When properly understood as engagement with the loving God of the universe Himself and taught by someone who loves God and can communicate this passion, it will be anything but dull.

For a host of reasons, which I need not rehearse, our contemporary churches have mostly neglected the teaching of theology. If Sunday School (for adults and children) is failing to give God’s people what they need in terms of theological confessions, creeds, and catechisms, then this is a void into which the Christian school must step. Classical schools are especially well poised to fill this gap since they often already have faculty capable of dynamically teaching these things. The ethos of our schools is take knowledge per se and the past seriously.

I grant that this has not traditionally been the role of the school. However, the Christian school exists for the sake of the church; its task is to educate the next generation of members of the body of Christ.

Let me offer some brief suggestions about how theological teaching should be done. In the lower grades, students should memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s creed, along with a denominational confession if the school has one. Memorization should be accompanied with age-appropriate instruction regarding the meaning of these items. In the upper grades, students ought to take time in Bible class or chapel services to work through the meaning of the creeds, which is best accomplished through a catechism. Presbyterian schools will choose the Westminster Catechism, while more broadly Evangelical schools can affirm nearly everything in the oft-overlooked and underestimated Heidelberg Catechism.

I will admit: it is tough to sell this to parents as a solution to the demand for “spiritual formation.” Teaching theology is not the only way to accomplish this, of course, and it will be essential to integrate service to the community, corporate and private prayer, modeling by faculty and staff of a well-formed spiritual life, and the relevant practices I am sure other responders in this issue suggest.

Whether in the school, church, or home, though, let us do well by our students to see them as God’s beloved children who need to be nurtured in his life-giving truth. Let us study theology.

Non Sequiturs

While working as a principal at a small, private school, one of my duties was to present the end-of-the-year certificates. These certificates were given for honor roll, conduct, and perfect attendance. I always checked and double-checked the lists to ensure I didn’t leave someone out. Immediately after the awards assembly, a mom raced into my office. She said, “My daughter was so disappointed when you didn’t give her a Perfect Attendance award.”

I immediately began to apologize and said I didn’t realize her child had perfect attendance.

She said, “Oh, she was absent twice, but I don’t think they should have to be here every, single day to get a Perfect Attendance award!”


I had sent a short note to the parents of a fifth grader explaining my concerns that he seemed very disorganized and his work was often messy or incomplete. I requested a parent conference to discuss possible remedies.

The very next day the boy, Rusty, handed me a note from his mother. It was written on a piece of cardboard torn off a cigarette carton. I sensed we might have a clue to the problem.

Later that week, Mom came in to talk about solutions. I explained that sometimes when a boy of Rusty’s age didn’t assume responsibility for his own work, parents saw the same behaviors at home. I asked what chores Rusty was required to do at home. She shook her head and said that he really didn’t have any chores. Then she sighed loudly and said, “I’ve told my husband and told my husband, we should make Rusty sleep in his own bed!”

True Confessions

I have a confession to make. I just finished reading The Golden Compass to my 5th and 7th grade sons. They had seen the movie trailer and wistfully hoped to be allowed to read the book, knowing that would be my prerequisite to seeing the movie. I had heard the brouhaha over the atheist author with an agenda and had three choices: 1) ban the book based on third party recommendations (something I avoid); 2) read the book myself before approving it for the boys (unrealistic, given the thirty plus volumes already on my nightstand); or 3) read it out loud together, discuss it as we go, and see if their classical education would bear fruit.

It turns out that I now owe a great debt to Philip Pullman. Compass is a clever children’s adventure story with a few instances of oddly amoral violence, a tacked on diatribe about the concept of sin, and a bit of disturbingly violent sexual attraction in the final chapter. Our reading triggered some amazingly deep conversations. The boys readily spotted misquotes from the Bible. The physical manifestation of the characters’ souls as animal “daemons” led to a discussion about the impact of the theory of evolution on people who see themselves as highly evolved animals rather than specially created in the image of God.

But none of these things, as great as they were, indebted me to Pullman.

I owe The Golden Compass because we, my preteen boys and I, discovered that we like reading together. This may seem an obvious, anti-climatic conclusion to some, but here’s confession number two: it was news to us.

It’s not the first time we had read out loud as a family together. We dutifully read through the entire Chronicles of Narnia when the boys were much younger. Since then, we had dabbled in other works by Lewis and a Sherlock Holmes story or two, but the habit hadn’t stuck. In fact it was one in the long list of parental “shoulds”—like family devotions, family dinners, eating fruits and vegetables—that we sporadically attempted but unsuccessfully incorporated into our routine. Reading together had turned into a chore.

So what was different this time? Quite simply, we were all new to the book. I was no more aware of what twists and turns lay ahead than the boys, so we were companions, fellow explorers.

By mutual decision, we passed on the other books in Pullman’s series and declined The Golden Compass movie. Instead, we’ve moved on to an equally unclassical and even more exciting adventure series, Artemis Fowl. We never watched much TV, but we now watch almost none. Not because of any big family resolution, but because we just can’t wait to find out what will happen next to our favorite child genius/master thief. In fact, the only family rule that has emerged is that no one is allowed to read ahead of the group.

Confession number three: I’ve already broken the rule.

Electronically Disconnected

In response to being often accused by my adoring school community of hating technology, I recently catalogued the technological contents of our home. Gregg and I own 11 phones, 7 TVs, 5 VCRs, 2 DVDs, 2 TiVos, 2 component stereos, 2 compact stereos, and several computers with flat screen monitors.

I do not hate technology, but I am disturbed by the impact technology has upon relationships. While we are to be about the business of loving God and others, technology often interferes, infringing on necessary time and attention.

Text messaging and instant messaging are hindrances to authentic conversation. In a World Magazine article, Janie B. Cheaney wondered, “Why do people say things to each other online that they would never say face to face? Perhaps because faces communicate hurt, anger and sorrow – all difficult emotions we try to avoid.” Voiceless, faceless communication enables duplicity and o en leads to speaking without thinking.

Electronic communication also exposes our students to dangerous predators. This is a risk that should not be taken lightly. Young people have a tendency to trust and can be easily manipulated. Email is a wonderful tool to communicate with family members or close friends who know our hearts, but artificial, distant relationships can eclipse the healthy authentic relations with the people around us.

The constant availability of entertainment also undermines relationships. A friend recently observed two couples sizing down for dinner accompanied by a young girl. The group ordered their food then the child opened a laptop and began watching a movie while the adults talked. How sad! One of the best ways for children to learn is to listen to adults talk.

IPods are a problem for several reasons. One must wonder why we need to listen to music every- where we go and, worse, listen to it on our own private equipment. iPods also enable students to download any music or videos they choose, and they make the monitoring of downloaded media nearly impossible. There is no CD cover to view, no lyrics to read.

In light of these things we all know, these recommendations may help teachers and families resist the anti-relational effects of technology:

1. Forget iPods.

2. Find a regular social or physical activity that your family can do together.
3. Eat supper together—at a table with the TV off.

4. Resist the pressure to place a TV in your child’s room.
5. Block inappropriate channels on the TV. (MTV comes to mind.)
6. Purchase a DVR and give up commercials for- ever.
7. Give your child a cell phone when he or she receives a driver’s license, but not before. Monitor the bill carefully, and don’t purchase text messaging.
8. Allow the use of the internet ONLY in a room where supervision is always available.
9. Password protect and filter the internet, periodically checking every web site your child visits.
10. Turn off the phone in the car with your children. Talk, listen to a book, or listen to music you all enjoy.