I sometimes watch my infant son sleep. He is the very image of the 19th century ideal of childhood. Innocent and sweet, unfettered with worry and untouched by the capricious hands of time. My son sleeps fully and fitfully, his chest that gently rises and the softest of sighs escapes from tiny pink lips. At times he stutters in his sleep and comes close to waking but he always falls back to sleep. I envy his perfect innocence and though I know he must grow up and become a man I fear for the moment when the first blows of life begin to strip that away; rivalries with other boys, possession of toys, playground confrontations, girls, cars, jobs, college, money, marriage. There will of course be happiness, and much of that will be profoundly great but with happiness there must also be sadness and hurt. It is the two polarities of human emotion which slowly degrade innocence and begin to transform it into wisdom. We all too often forget that while praising innocence we also do a great injustice to its opposite, which is wisdom.
The image of the infant babe in the nursery became popular amongst the Victorians, achieved an almost sacred status for the Edwardians and has never really gone away. We spend thousands of dollars a year on our children, we decorate their nurseries with themes that convey the perfect innocence of childhood Anne Geddes photography is always popular, if not a little unsettling in it saccharine cuteness. The great authors of children’s literature took part in creating this ideal, and they passed in down through the generations until the 1960’s, when youth began to rebel against the pressures of that very innocence which adults had forced upon it. In a very real sense the youth counterculture of the middle 20th century was the revolution against the nursery culture of the 19th century and children’s authors took notice. Maurice Sendak created heroes that were as subversive as any cultural icon of the era and Phillipa A. Pearce’s Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden faced the same sense of isolation and the desire to belong to something that lead to the creation of the youth movements. Later still when the counterculture began to wane and the youth who belonged to it began to come of age with the realization that much of what they sought to accomplish never materialized new fictions arose which mirrored this. Robert Cormier’s fiction dealt with this sense of desperation in a very direct and provocative manner. By the time the me decade came and went children were once again being forced into pigeonholes by their parents only this time it wasn’t an ideal of innocence forced onto the child but an urging to grow up quickly. Child athletes, fashion models, beauty contestants have replaced the child laborers of an earlier age. We see them and wonder why they are pushed to grow up so fast and then we adults happily go back to our video games. The truth is that adults, and I am not excluded in this have retarded our own growth by committing ourselves to the myth of an ever expanding childhood. As children we bridle at being called a child yet live in childish ways through college and after. Life is about play and our children are often only vehicles for furthering our own youthful energies.
I say all of this because I wonder… How do we balance the innocence of the child with the real need for the emergence of wisdom? Certainly we can’t force children to prolong their lives in the nursery beyond the point where they should naturally begin to move in wisdom circles but at the same time we mustn’t push age and wisdom on the child to early lest they lose their childhood which is the rock upon which wisdom is built. And so I look at my sleeping son and I wonder how do we find the balance between the nursery child and child of the world who must discover his or her own wisdom and it occurs to me. In dreams! And in the waking world where they fill their slumber bags before heading off the land of Nod. If we wish our children to find that balance we must do all in our power to ensure that what they live through during the day; the things they learn and see; the words they hear; the thoughts they are exposed to are more than idle static. We as parents must give our children a world where they take only the best things off into their dreams. Perhaps that is wisdom for us as well, and a lesson we should heed. So the next time you consider your child awake, think about this… Do you want him or her to carry it into his dreams where the unpredictable reigns? In dreams we create our waking world but dreams are created from the world around us. WHAT DREAMS MAY COME… What Wisdom might come from dreaming those dreams!
The Land of Nod
By Robert Louis Stevenson
From a Child’s Garden of verses
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay,
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod.
All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do –
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain sides of dreams.
The strangest things are there for me,
Both things to eat and things to see,
And many frightening sights abroad
Till morning in the land of Nod.
Try as I like to find my way,
I never can get back by day,
Nor can remember plain and clear
The curious music that I hear.
One final thought… The curious music that we hear when we enter the land of Nod is composed by our waking thoughts and actions. It is up to us if we make it a symphony or a discordant caterwaul. Which would you prefer your child hear?