Why do kids hate to hike?
To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.
– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
I recently re-read the book The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl, in which the child’s brain is celebrated as a source and agent of wonder. The authors reference the Romantic poet William Blake who spent his career trying to regain that naïve curiosity. I do not disagree with their central thesis about the importance of studying brain development. But faced with the constant experience of my own children, romantic notions of childhood are replaced with frustrating reality. The young brain may be designed to learn, but not necessarily to care.
I was a reluctant Girl Scout. I found hiking hurt and it bored me. I went along when the activity was foisted upon me, but as a city kid this was thankfully rare. If I made it to the top of a mountain on a hot, sweaty hike, all that mattered was that I could eat my soggy sandwich and return home faster than we came, toes shoving into the tips of my shoes in the hasty path down. The view, to me, was mockery in its yawning stillness – the great anti-climax.
This Christmas, since the kids are of a certain durable age – too old for piggy backs, too young to stay home, we decided to push their endurance and climb Mt. Konocti, a 4,000 foot volcano above Clear Lake in Northern California. We’ve gone on more physically rigorous excursions than this, but for some reason, none so emotionally brutal.
They say the air in Lake County is the cleanest in the country and on a still, cold day, I believe it. The winter chill seems to give increasing clarity with every blink. Though my husband and I felt beckoned by the mountain this afternoon, the kids were moaning their refusal, appreciating nothing but their despair even before we set out. I wondered aloud why the kids were so afflicted by this activity, and to myself, why were we afflicting ourselves with the struggle. Why bring the kids along at all?
I sleep better, I think better when I run on a trail rather than a treadmill. The Japanese have a word for the practice of “bathing in forest air”: shinrin-yoku. A fair amount of research supports this sentiment, particularly for improving executive function, and especially in developing brains (see The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature). So dragging the children along, like forcing the issue of salad with dinner, may sully your peaceful moment, but the struggle has value.
Until this trip I blamed my own childhood allergy to hiking on poor fitness and Depression era parents. They made us walk and city bus it everywhere but there was never an excursion into nature for the sake of it. Leisure time was foreign terminology, like disposable income.
Our kids have grown up differently. They are all sun-drenched, water-soaked Californian, and sufficiently active. Still, there was complaining, yelling, stumbling, reversing, even some rock throwing as we tried to get them up this not very steep mountain. The poor behavior can be blamed in part on the fact that my modern, well-fed children have never seen true hardship (if we had needed to cross the mountain, this would have been a different scene). Still, their fundamental lack of appreciation for the experience was confounding. I was reflective, they were agitated.
We carried on like this, slowly tumbling upward, the day darkening with each bend in the path. And finally, by leaving a couple of children floundering in their misery just in the wake of the peak, we reached the top. And there it was: the view. It was spectacular. We nudged each child over the last hump of difficulty so they could see the full moon, impossibly pink and huge, hovering above the horizon. At our backs, the sun set as its mirror image dressed in orange while the trees just below us were lit like polished copper. I don’t remember what I exclaimed, but my nine year old rolled her eyes and sighed, “I don’t get why grown ups always have to say how beautiful everything is.” The others murmured agreement.
I’m a photographer. Light is my medium and I watch it wherever I go. And this was the most fantastic display of natural light I had ever seen. Yet to them it was as boring and pointless as the views I had dismissed as a Girl Scout.
Why was my perception as an adult so different? Is this beauty so commonplace to them as Californians that it does not strike them? Their school (Waldorf methods) teaches reverence from preschool onward. Was this effort backfiring? Or do children of this middle childhood age really not see meaning, beauty, significance like adults?
The child’s entire being is tuned to the future. Their hormones are dedicated to growth, their neural connections are being constantly sculpted in the profoundly active process of learning. Gopnik, Metlzoff, and Kuhl say “The most interesting thing about [babies] is their infinite capacity for wonder.” But after the brief toddler years (the last time I can remember my children in rapture over a bug or flower) where does that wonder go? I’m not suggesting children have lost this capacity because of technology or modern life, but that we are looking at it incorrectly. A child stopping to review the day or a moment is putting a machine on pause for no purpose. They are all absorption and no reflection.
Now that scientists have the ability to see the living brain through MRI’s, we know, literally, the color of our differences. As our brains develop, grey matter turns white. This is due to the development of a fatty layer around the neurons called the myelin sheath, which doesn’t completely develop in the frontal lobe until our mid-twenties. This coating allows for quicker neural conductivity across longer, broader regions of the brain. It provides for better decision making and stronger impulse control. Actions and consequences are connected by a superhighway in the mature brain. But in the young brain, that super highway hasn’t been built – it’s a tangle of city streets. The sheath aids in drawing connections between concepts, and as more myelin is laid down over the years, it contributes to what we call the “wisdom” of elders. But the paucity of myelin is part of what gives kids that endearing (or maddening) randomness about them.
I have a friend in the design world, John Bielenberg, who celebrates the unmyelinated brain. He believes it makes better designers because the younger set do the wacky and the risky better without the stabilizing influence of mature thinking. He has developed a program called Project M where he brings recent college graduates together to engage in design ventures for the greater good. He says that because they lack all the white matter he has, his young cohorts are better at “thinking wrong” and coming up with more innovative, world-changing designs. The elders, on the other hand, are simply maintaining life, regurgitating ideas, and following well-worn paths.
Maybe it is the white stuff in John’s brain that makes him the old dog unable to generate the creative storms like PieLab and Common Hoops, both of Project M. But it is that same old dog who came up with the idea of bringing these young, un-myelinated brains to the table. If the young are the seeds of Project M, John is the seed-bed. His old brain provides the infrastructure for this project to exist. Focusing on myelin alone in brain development is an oversimplification of a profoundly complex process. But it highlights one important physiological aspect for how we are different beings from our children.
As I stand looking out over the hills of Lake County, I’m bringing together everything I know to regard that moment. The stillness of the rock, trees, and dirt allows my brain to work more efficiently. And despite the family struggles at my feet, I am calm. I am thinking of winters in my childhood, colors in my palette, geography I have seen and read about. My old, white brain drags their young, grey brains here because I know what’s good for them until they do.
I would argue that although I am far more cynical than my 8, 9, and 11 year-old combined, it is the adult brain that has greater capacity for awe. Children learn without trying and should be given every opportunity to do so. But next time one of them rolls their eyes as I smell the forest air, I’ll try to remember it doesn’t matter. It is easy for me to forget how vastly different their minds are from ours. Not because their experiences are different from mine, but because they are simply children, headed forward, not yet looking back.