How to Educate Children for Realism: Up to Age 6

From the Bring Back Reason series.

Young children are realists. They are deeply interested in the world around them. They are interested in learning and naturally assume that the world they encounter is basically how it appears to be and is explained to them by their parents. My two-year-old son Patrick is fascinated by water, ducks, dogs, and cats. He never tires of pointing out, with enthusiasm, the water in the stream below the footbridge that we cross on our frequent walks. Toddlers do not easily become bored by seeing the same things over and over again. Games like peek-a-boo, where a parent or older sibling covers and uncovers his face, is a great source of amusement. Such games usually end when the older one becomes weary of playing rather than from boredom on the part of the child. Two-year-olds want the same picture books to be read again and again to them, even right after the book is finished. “Read it again, Dad!” The same is true of stories. My young children often ask me to tell them the story of “Benjamin Bear,” a made-up tale about a bear who learns from his father that the delicious honey their family eats on special occasions is made by bees and is in bee hives. Benjamin’s father warns him not to get too close to the hives but Benjamin’s curiosity and appetite leads him gradually, by deliberate steps, to disregard his father’s instructions, leading to many painful bee stings and a howling bear running for the “muck pond.”

G.K. Chesterton contrasts this natural wonder at reality that we see present in children with adult “scientific” views of the world in the chapter of his book Orthodoxy entitled “The Ethics of Elfland.” Central to Chesterton’s meandering reflections is the meaning of mystery in nature. The contrast could not be more stark: children are interested in the fact that things have particular natures and behave in regular ways precisely because this is revealing something of the being of the thing in question. They see the fact that water seems always to flow downhill as revealing something about the inexhaustible mystery of water, thus seeing it as magical in a sense. Adults tend to see mystery only as something to be solved, interesting until it is explained and then commonplace. Knowing about the force of gravity, adults are more likely to see flowing water as less interesting. Chesterton challenges us to deeply consider if reality is really this way. Is it not possible for one to stand in awe before the being that is revealed in the manifold things around us acting according to their natures? Why is it that the child seems to revel in what is there, in esse, while the adult is less impressed?

The answer to these questions has quite a bit to do with how people think today and the education system that is informed by and informs this thinking. The biggest problem is a lack of order between different disciplines. For reasons that will be explained later, philosophy and especially metaphysics are no longer widely considered scientific ways of knowing about reality. Into the vacuum formerly occupied by philosophy and other disciplines, the empirical sciences have stepped in to attempt to address philosophical questions that are beyond their scope.

So, over time, children pick up confused ideas about reality from the culture in which they grow up, including the myriad interactions and conversations they have with adults and other children, as well as the lack of proper order in the education they receive. The absence of metaphysics as a science is the most significant cause of this disorder. Later chapters in this book analyze the problem of the absence of realism in our current education system.

But first I hope to present some starting thoughts for educating towards realism, for educating with an eye towards the complete integral development of the person. It is my hope that these points will be helpful for all educators, whether parents, the primary educators, or teachers, the secondary educators. These suggestions are practical in nature but behind them are deeper philosophical reasons, as will become increasingly clear in the later chapters of this book, where the anti-realist thrust of the current education system is analyzed. And it should be noted that my suggestions are aimed to address what is necessary for the overall education of children today regarding fostering a correct outlook on reality. There are many excellent educational resources available for particular subjects. While I might mention a few, my purpose is not to present a comprehensive overview of all aspects of education.

Children up to age 6

Contact with nature

Young children are very interested in the world around them. Parents should foster this interest and build upon it. They should take their young children, even as young as a few months old, for walks through the neighborhood and through nature. These walks and time outdoors are enjoyable and formative for children and parents alike.

When children start to talk they often want to point out things, either naming them or asking what something is. Walks through nature with their parents are often characterized by the child’s desire to identify many things. This is very good. The child is engaging in what we have already called simple apprehension and in learning the names of things is starting to appreciate formal causality in his own way. A parent who realizes that we as a society are too narrowly focused on efficient causality will temper his mechanical and functional descriptions of things and include references to other aspects of a thing’s being. For example, in addition to pointing out that a dog has a long nose that can smell very well, also talk about how loyal a dog is to his master and his family. His loyalty is a wonderful quality that is built into the nature of dogs. There are engaging stories of dogs that have gone to great lengths to protect or save humans. Don’t be shy about pointing out the beauty of different things, from small plants, to sunsets, to brooks, to a majestic waterfall.

Provide opportunities for direct contact with nature. The child should run through the grass barefoot, feel the cool water of a stream, touch the rough bark of a tree, interact with animals like dogs and hike along paths through the woods. All of these experiences contribute to the child growing up with a strong sense of belonging in the world. This is laying a foundation for developing realism.

Reading well chosen books

Little children love to be read books. Parents, older siblings and others will spend countless hours reading first picture books and later chapter books. All of this contributes directly to the formation of the child. The closeness of reading together on the couch communicates that the child is loved and cared for. And the books that are chosen are seen by the child as presenting a view of reality that the one who cares for him and reads to him endorses in some way.

For this reason it is important that the books that are chosen be good, that they present reality in an accurate way as true, good and beautiful. This means that picture books should have beautiful pictures or at least pictures that show the real world accurately. There is a trend in graphic art to show deformed figures that are grotesque in a way that causes a child to stare at it in fascination. Too much of this is not healthy.

Good literature for children is not necessarily without serious strife and a powerful portrayal of evil. Many classic fairy tales are very good for children even though they present truly terrifying witches, monsters or events. The forces of evil are taken seriously in fairy tales. There are those who truly seek to harm children, whether the evil stepmother who seeks to abandon them in the forest or the giant who seeks to eat them. But even the most terrifying danger takes place against a background where good is also powerful and ultimately in control. The good fairy provides just the right help, often dependent on the following of certain conditions. In the end, the wicked are left with the natural punishment their evil deeds merit, while simple folks trying to make their way are rewarded.

When children are old enough for chapter books, parents should choose stories that resonate with forming a wholesome moral imagination. The value of the book from the perspective of fostering realism is not necessarily that it tells of agrarian lifestyles from a previous age. Some of this is good and parents should turn to perennial favorites such as those by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ralph Moody and William O. Steele. Stories of families fighting to make it on the frontier are important for children. But any tale that presents noble action and the deeper meaning of human life is to be welcomed. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien are wonderful works of literature for children and adults alike. These works, like many fairy tales, present extraordinary fantasy worlds that are in some ways quite dissimilar to our own. Even so, these worlds and the narrative taking place in the stories point toward deeper realities that are very real but often overlooked. Central to The Lord of the Rings is a seemingly crazy decision to forego the power of the ring and instead entrust it to the humblest of folk, the hobbits, on a mission to carry it to the heart of the enemy’s power and there destroy it right under Sauron’s nose. This plan makes no sense unless it is assumed that there is a great beneficent purpose behind all that happens, so much so that, all other paths being discarded, it is recognized to be the right path. How many people today could learn from this as they look at our own world and are tempted to despair by the forces of darkness they see? But perhaps I am getting a bit ahead, as Lewis and Tolkien are better read to children older than six.

Watching well-chosen material

It is also important for parents to choose good video material for their children. There are five points that I would like to make regarding this.

First, parents should carefully regulate how much time children, especially young children, spend in front of screens. Too much time, even if the time is spent watching the best possible material, can be deformative. In watching a screen a child (or adult) relies on the artfully crafted visual images and auditory sounds to present content that in some way replaces the normal active role of one’s imagination, which typically must form an image upon which to reflect. For this reason we have phrases like “vegging in front of a screen” to highlight the passive nature of receiving images from a screen, as the mind goes into a relaxed mode where it does not have to work or think in a disciplined way. Screen time is called entertainment while reading, which requires a person to actively think about the words and descriptions, coming up with one’s own mental images, is often thought of as work. In fact, a person watching a screen is partially relying on the screen to provide the “phantasm” or imaginative picture upon which the intellect acts. Watching a screen is thus surrendering some control over one’s thought process in that the person becomes responsive to the pace of the images on the screen rather than the one who actively reflects in a normal human way.

Second, some of the material that is watched should be educational. Children may not choose such shows on their own, but these films can be interesting and typically avoid some of the problems referred to above. Along these lines are documentary style films that are content rich and at times simply present old photographs with classical music in the background. Many nature films are also excellent, showing living things in the depths of the ocean or high in the mountains. A film that is wholesome in this way but also an engaging story and a good family film is Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.

Thirdly, watching films should be a social activity. Take the time to select something that would be good for the whole family or part of the family to watch. Plan when this film will be watched and then enjoy it together. Allowing children to go by themselves and spend hours in front of a screen is not healthy. Specifically, this can convey the message that reality is not worth encountering on its own terms and that it is thus fine to seek means of coping to make it through life. It sends the message that time is not a treasure that we have to use well, but rather something that we should pass through as comfortably as possible. This message not only establishes a pattern of reality avoidance that can lead to more serious reality-avoiding addictions but also is opposed to seeing meaning in the time we have been given. It is an expression of practical nihilism.

Fourthly, with the possible exception of social video games such as the Wii, video games should not be allowed. A child playing a video game by himself is engaging in an activity that is worse than watching a film or TV show alone. The nature of the video game is such that it encourages a deeper anti-reality experience by not only presenting images that replace to some extent the active use of one’s imagination or image-producing faculty; it also engages the person in a more profound way through allowing him to participate in the virtual and fast-paced world of the game. The only purpose of such games is to entertain. But unlike wholesome entertainment, video game playing leaves one empty, in no way enriched from the experience. Engaging in playing such a video game is making a decision to pass time in a manner that avoids encountering reality. Even worse, it is a decision against finding meaning in the time we have. Time is a treasure that has been given us for a reason. To engage in an activity that is designed to simply pass this time, avoid the time, is like choosing death rather than life. It is nihilistic, inconsistent with believing life has real meaning.

Fifthly, watch out for animation that deforms the human person and other natural forms. Unfortunately many animated films that are otherwise very good rely on gross deformations of natural forms as a means of fascinating young viewers. Adults see this and are easily able to filter out these distortions for what they are. Young children, who are new to apprehending natural forms, are more affected. They do not understand that the artist is presenting a caricature. They recognize that the form is off but, lacking ample experience with the natural, are intrigued by this distortion. This is not healthy. From the perspective of realism, it works directly against seeing nature as natural, against seeing a thing as being a type of thing with a particular essence. It is a subtle indoctrination into seeing reality as malleable rather than forming the desire to respect and care for nature.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.

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