Since our current industry-generated culture with its emphasis on the external, it is 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 cannot be seen or valued as significant. Therefore, parents must be quite intentional in creating home and local community environments that allow 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. Rather than imposed or taught, these qualities 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 is a place separate from, yet a part of the structure in which we live. A place to meet ourselves and have a good chat. A seclusion to muse and ponder. A timeout where we can regroup and understand ourselves better. We enter when we wish and leave when it’s time. Hopefully, it is a room of light; a place where we achieve clarity and purpose.
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. We can invite children to focus on their inner selves through three basic skills that start with the letter I, necessary for crafting a positive self-image, the You in each of us. I have seen positive changes in children’s and teens’ behaviors, attitudes, and feelings of self-worth occur when parents emphasized these skills consistently:
Important 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. One fascinating study even showed that when kids have to repeatedly tune out noise in order to concentrate, they may also lose other abilities as well. Children living over a noisy highway screened out audio cues required to discriminate sounds critical for them to learn how to read. Another study showed that children in classrooms on a noisy street had lower reading scores than children in quieter classrooms. (Gallager) Another study measured the effect of music and television on sixth grade and college students’ reading performance on a standardized reading test. It was interesting that most people thought that the music was the most difficult to have on while reading and that the television being on had not bothered their performance too much. However, the results were just the opposite. In fact, the reading performance of the sixth graders was two grade levels lower with the music on and four years lower with the TV on. The college students performed one and a half grades worse with the music on and two years worse with the TV on.
Time in front of televisions or video games doesn’t count as introspection time, either. They are too stimulating to low brain sensibilities. With bright colored images, often fast-paced flashes, they actually distract the child from having his or her own thoughts. Some teens can manage to travel their inner paths while listening to music, but often they are immersed in the lyrics and not discovering their own inner voices. Working on a computer can be a wonderful thinking adventure. But too much time with computers also distracts kids from their inner selves. A teacher recently told me about a ten year-old client with carpal tunnel syndrome. Spending six hours a day on the computer, almost every minute he is not in school or sleeping, this boy has no emotional affect at all. There is no joy or curiosity in his eyes. He is withdrawn and socially inept. All he wants is to be on the computer. He eats dinner alone in front of the computer and will only do his homework if promised more computer time.
It would be important to know what this boy is actually doing on the computer. Is he composing poetry or writing an interesting research paper? If he were in these creative endeavors, he would be drawing upon his interior life and feeding it as well. Chances are, like too many children today, he spends computer time in easy games or surfing the Internet. It’s difficult for humans to become addicted to using mental functions or creating something new. Rather, we form addictions to activities that don’t require us to bring much of ourselves to the activity. The very nature of an addiction is that the person is unconscious of the detrimental effects of his or her pursuits. Not being fully present in the activity, the activity controls the person, rather than vice versa. Entering the worlds created by software developers, computer programmers, or video game designers means that kids don’t have to give much of themselves to the process in which they engage. It is all been done for them. They can play the game well, unaware of their inner selves. When children are given opportunities to be able to be inside themselves without need of any external stimulation, they come to value their own thinking processes and capabilities in important ways. Too much time with externalized images on screens prevent children and teens from knowing themselves. And, obviously, they cannot value what they do not know.
Simple Ways Parents Can Encourage Introspection
Like any skill, introspection can be learned when practiced. Here are ways that work:
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 each others’ 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. Be back soon.”
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.”
While introspection helps kids value themselves, inspiration enables kids to value their capacity to come up with ideas. When was the last time you felt inspired? Think back upon a time when you encountered illumination. Whether you were struck with just the right way to fix a leaky gutter, or captured the exact colors on a canvas, chances are these moments also connected you to a positive sense of self. A can-do attitude springs forth and we feel good about what we can accomplish.
What is inspiring out there for our kids in the industry-generated culture? When we look around we see superficiality, nihilistic attitudes, messages that shout we are terminally deprived, a quasi-human if we don’t measure up to an arbitrary industry-generated standard. Rather than seeing this as the ultimate lie, a lot of kids absorb these messages as gospel truth-not a way to induce inspiration by any means. In a commodified culture such as ours, it seems we parents need a lot of inspiration to figure out how to help our kids experience inspiration!
Perhaps the best way is the simplest. When children go with an idea or produce something, we can help them get acquainted with the impetus behind their creations. When a young child runs to us and says, “Look Mommy, see what I did,” we can pick up his drawing and say, “That’s beautiful. I can see that you were inspired.” When our ninth grader works hard to score a goal for her team, afterwards we can comment, “That was some inspiring play out there.” When our high school senior has to write his college application essay and is in a panic because he can’t think of anything, we can reassure with, “Just take some time, inspiration will come, it always does. You know that. Be patient and trust it.” When we identify inspiring moments for our kids and affirm their ability to be inspired they will have faith that it will show up when needed. And it will. In addition by allowing space for inspiration children learn to trust their competence. And competence, along with autonomy and the know-how to relate well to others feed the development of a strong sense of self.
Inspiration will naturally lead to children and teens capable of motivating themselves. This may seem like a surprising statement given the tremendous amount of resources that go into prodding kids to function in our schools. We can’t lose trust in their commitment to learn and we take up the struggle for them, as hard as it is at time to watch them floundering. Joy in discovery, satisfaction in accomplishment, and enthusiasm in creativity are sadly missing from too many children’s experiences-either at school or at home. For these qualities to be present in learning experiences, humans must be motivated from the inside out. Yes, external rewards play a part in determining our choices. Few people will work forty hours a week without a paycheck. But most want those forty hours to be meaningful to them in some way. Unless we are also intrinsically motivated, our activities are void of meaning and purpose.
Parents can learn to draw out their children’s talents and skills by affirming their internal drive. This sets up the foundation for healthy self-identity. When parents provide choice, acknowledge children’s feelings and provide opportunities for self-direction they enhance intrinsic motivation because when they do so they allow a greater degree of autonomy.)
As children’s feelings of competence increase, so does their sense of personal agency. Several researchers have found that intrinsic motivation flourishes in contexts characterized by a sense of security and relatedness. It can seem too simple to many parents, but it’s true: being with their children in ways that demonstrate love, connection, and caring is the most essential ingredient of supporting growth of a healthy self-identity.
In a mass media culture with all its challenges and demands, parents are wise to focus on developing and maintaining children’s authentic self-identity. When children have a solid sense of self, they can accomplish creative works, contributing to the good of society and moving society forward to a mature relationship with screen technologies. After all, it will take mature individuals to control and manage screen technologies well. And it will take mature, wise adults to transform the current industry-generated culture to a personally-generated one in which parents reclaim their roles as creators of the society they inhabit.
Copyright Gloria DeGaetano, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions, Harper Collins, 2007, 157.