An Essential Human Need for Parents and Kids:
The Development of an Interior Life
by Gloria DeGaetano
Greg, an accomplished geologist and author of several books, tells of the time he "stumbled" upon his career:
"When I was a kid, I did watch TV, but I can also remember a lot of time just being by myself and thinking. One favorite thing to do on summer days was to lie under the oak tree in the back yard and look up at the clouds, trying to see various shapes in them. It wouldn't be uncommon for me to spend an hour or so doing that. Another favorite activity was sifting through dirt pretending to look for gold or diamonds. I vividly remember one Saturday morning being outside in the chilly autumn air and feeling the cold, damp dirt in my hands. I was putting stones of different shapes in various rows, when I got an idea. I thought, "I wonder if a person can do a job like this?" Being seven years old I had never heard of the word, geologist. When I found out there was such a thing, I couldn't believe it. I thought by thinking it first, I had somehow invented the career. Later I realized that I had luckily discovered my life's work digging in the dirt as a kid."
Parents often tell me a version of Greg's story. Perhaps it wasn't their life's path they discovered, but an important insight about themselves or a totally new understanding about the world. Free-range mental meanderings as children often influence us signiifcanlty as adults. But even more than that, slices of daily "down time" provide wonderful opportunities to design an interior life.
Philosopher Jacob Needleman explains in his book, Money and the Meaning of Life, that materialism really means "we experience the external world as the strongest force in our lives…The inner world is no longer experienced as vividly as the outer world. The outer world begins to seem more real, more compelling, more exigent. Life in the external world begins to have more apparent value to the individual and the society." (p. 58) Since an industry-generated culture with its emphasis on the material must always focus on the external in order for it to exist, it's no wonder that as a society we don't place an emphasis on the growth of an interior life. Inner qualities, like integrity, are invisible and thus can't be seen or valued as significant. Therefore, as parents we must be quite intentional in creating home and local community environments that allow our children and teens access to their inner terrain. If we want to raise children with character, it's important to remember that virtues, such as honesty, empathy, and generosity, make up the personality. They can't be imposed or taught. Rather they are birthed inside of a person when the interior life of the person reflects those qualities.
An interior life is to our minds what an enclosed porch is to our house. It's a place separate from, yet a part of the structure in which we live. It's a place to meet ourselves and have a good chat. It's a seclusion to muse and ponder. It's a timeout where we can regroup and understand ourselves better. We enter when we wish and leave when it's time. Hopefully, it's a room of light; a place where we achieve clarity and purpose.
Nurturing An Interior Life Leads to a Positive Self-Image
Healthy emotional development depends upon how much we like ourselves. How can children come to like who they are, if they don't spend time inside getting to know themselves? Consider the following two children, both eight years old.
Melissa has spent three to four hours a day watching television since she was two years old. She now has a TV in her bedroom and often falls asleep with it on. Melissa dislikes schoolwork because she can't get quick answers. She has a hard time sitting still and has started acting out in class. Melissa's teacher is concerned that she won't be well prepared for fourth grade. Her parents are thinking about getting her tested because of language delays, inappropriate classroom behaviors, and poor academic performance.
Beth has watched one hour a day or less of television since she was three years old. Her bedroom is TV-free with lots of books. She likes to draw and has her own sketch pad. She will often sit and draw for an hour or so after school. She usually has some sort of project going. Currently she is helping her mom put family photos in albums chronologically. Beth is not an A student, but she works hard and can sit and do her homework without need of too much help from her parents. Her teacher is pleased with Beth's efforts and her classroom behavior.
Who is growing up with a positive self-image, Melissa or Beth?
Because Beth has more opportunities for self-discovery, she also has the advantage of being more in charge of herself. She is participating more fully in life than Melissa is because life is easier for her than it is for Melissa. Since Melissa's environment doesn't make it easy for her to "go inside," difficulties are compounding. As she gets tested at school and labeled as "learning deficit," her sense of self will likely further diminish. With more adults controlling her behaviors and identifying her as a "problem," how can Melissa acquire a positive self-image?
Building self-awareness and self-understanding can be strengthened at any age. While ideally the child would be on the road to a positive self-image before the age of eight, there is plenty parents can do in later childhood and during the teen years if it looks like a negative self-concept is taking hold. The key is for parents to understand the critical importance of providing opportunities. Discovering and building an interior life opens up whole new ways of being in the world and brings important insights for interacting healthily with others.
When our child exclaims, "I'm bored!" often that reflects more a state of his or her self-image than actual boredom. The child isn't seeing him or herself as capable of coming up with interesting ideas. When my sons would say to me, "I'm bored," I was tempted to tell them, "A child who is bored likely will become a boring adult," as my mother told me. But I didn't. Instead, I would give them my fabulous ideas: How about writing that thank-you card to Aunt Sally? What about a board game? Well, it looks like it's time to go outside." And they, of course, would reject my hopeful considerations with upturned eyes and petulant mouths. One day, when they were around seven and nine I found myself getting more irritated as they countered all my suggestions. It finally dawned on me that as I was giving them ideas of things to do, I was denying their ability to figure out their boredom in their own way. So, I said to them, "I want you to sit on that couch over there and stay bored. Yes, that's right. Just sit there. When you are done being bored, you can get up." They looked at me like I was nuts and then looked at each other as they had no alternative but to do as I said. They knew in my voice that I was fed up.
After awhile of sitting and "just thinking" they did figure something out and had fun playing an imaginative game they made up. Without this opportunity to think things through in self-reflection, I doubt if they would have come up with the game. Artists call this inside space "the fertile void," where nothing is happening, but everything is possible. Visiting it means an incubation opportunity—a vital time for the seed of a new idea to sprout. Without such introspection time, humans cripple creative expression. By going within and "just thinking," children also build resiliency skills for tackling life's demands. Sorting and sifting through inner ideas and feelings builds self-knowledge, too. Introspection is the way children can get acquainted with their interior lives. To do it optimally, though, they need "stimulus shelters."
Keeping our homes quiet havens for self-reflection is a mighty challenge in our noisy, harried culture. After all, children no longer live in a nineteenth century Secret Garden world where they amble through nature in walled-off comfort. Yet, on-going research in environmental psychology shows that too much stimulation has serious side effects. The more overly-stimulated children get, the more likely they will have trouble sitting still to wander their mental landscape. Actually initiating time to be inside of self can seem a huge obstacle for a lot of kids. Why? Too much stimulation takes away the capacity for introspection. Hence, a vicious cycle is set up, made even more insidious by the reliance on our "screen machines" to keep kids entertained.
The Good News: Simple, Yet Effective Ways Parents Can Encourage Introspection
Like any skill, introspection can be learned when practiced. Try these out with your children or teens and observe the positive changes:
- Take a day on the weekend for a family inventory. Are there changes that can be made such as a rule to limit blaring music after a certain hour? Find out what works for family members to spend quiet time "inside their heads." Discuss how you can help each other gain time and space for introspection by being more aware of everyone's needs.
- Provide a special place for "quiet thinking." It may be an overstuffed chair in the living room or a kitchen nook. Maybe you will create one with a few pillows in a corner of the rec room. Wherever it is, when a child (or parent) is there, it means, "Please do not talk to me. I am taking a mental journey away from it all. Will talk with you when I come back."
- Keep the TV off when no one is watching it. This isn't healthy "background noise." Rather it contributes to children's perceptual chaos. Kids won't go inside easily with the TV replacing the focus of attention.
- Invite "think-links." These are times to link with one's own thinking. As a classroom teacher, I used to have my students put their heads down on their desks and "just think about" a question I asked for five minutes before raising their hands. When helping your child with homework, you can do the same. When frustration mounts and answers don't come readily have your son or daughter close eyes and do a "think-link." With your child calmed down, ask one question that might get your child headed in the right direction. Give him at least five minutes to think about the question. Don't talk about anything at this time. After the thinking time is up, discuss any insights or ideas your child has come up with. Observe how he or she links to own thinking given a time-out to do so.
- Ask the question, "What are you saying to yourself about __________?" This is a handy question to ask when reading aloud to children or when they are reading to you. For teens, it's an excellent question when they are in a dilemma, not sure which choice to make. It opens up self-knowledge and an opportunity for us as parents to peek into how their minds are operating and make course corrections as needed.
- State the sentence, "I see you need to think about that a bit." When our children want us to make a quick decision for them, this is an excellent opportunity to give them a chance to reflect upon what they're asking. Similar things we could say are: "Why don't you reflect on what you just said for the rest of the day, and then let's talk about it tonight?" Or "I like the way you are taking time to think this through."
Your Inner Life Fuels Your Parenting
The greatest parental challenge seems to be finding self-nurturing time. This can mean time to unwind after work, or with our spouses having a quiet dinner together, with friends to chat and catch up, or time for a quick shower or a luxurious, long bath. Precious moments like these allow us to draw from our parenting well to refuel, renew, and refresh, enhancing our ability to be more fully present to our children when we return to them.
Why not make a commitment to yourself right now to give yourself the gift of nurturing your interior life on a regular basis? Here's a way to get started:
As you go about your day, ponder two affirmations. Print them on the back of a 3x5 card that you can glance at throughout the day:
- Today, I find five minutes (or more) to be inside myself and just think.
- Today, I intentionally discover what inspires me to feel appreciation and hope.
As our awareness of our own interior lives grows, we can share insights gained with our children and celebrate together the benefits of "going within". Building on the human brain's limbic resonance of a shared, emotional life, parents can find developing an interior life a natural, nurturing process—for the entire family.
Copyright © 2012 Gloria DeGaetano, all rights reserved. Used with permission.