Raising a Thinking Child through the Age of Magical Realism

By Shannon S. Moon

As a parent, one essential question illuminates my journey: How do I raise children who can think critically and yet maintain their sense of wonder about the world?

My oldest daughter, almost four, currently resides in what I call the Age of Magical Realism. The boundaries between what is real, what is fantasy, what is possible, what is probable—these are moldable, fluid. She is not alone. On a recent rainy day at school, cocooned inside, I looked up to see children: chasing monsters with drums and jingle bells; creating Picasso-esque dogs from paper bags; populating a “zoo” of lions, dogs, unicorns and dragons; running a play-dough bakery; sliding into a warm “pool” from atop a fort. Our school reverberated with their frenetic energy. If I were to find any of them levitating like an Isabelle Allende character, I would not be surprised. For preschoolers, anything is possible because everything is probable.

I love this age, but it will not last. Even now, I see my daughter testing the waters, a little scientist trying to discover truth with a capital T. As a former high school teacher, I believe in the importance of critical thinking. The research I’ve read stresses its importance, an importance borne out repeatedly in my classroom. In terms of parenting, I believe raising critical thinkers engenders intellect, respect, empathy and wonder—all of which are necessary for children to become happy, successful adults. Hence, my essential question.

This juncture screams for a short answer, something easily done, but parenting and children are not paint-by-number projects. So I find myself coming back to a fundamental pedagogical truth from my teaching: I start from the end and work my way back to where my children are right now. I look at my children and imagine the adults they will become in terms real enough to guide me yet broad enough not to define them. If I want my children to think critically, this approach means I cannot be the “helicopter-tiger-answer mom,” so appealing on the surface, especially to the schedule-and-results-driven side of me. This approach serves the now and hijacks the future. Instead, I build in time for my preschooler to puzzle out problems—how to figure out which shoe goes on which foot, why the bird on the sidewalk is dead, why yanking the toy from her sister’s hands isn’t an ideal solution. I provide honest answers to her questions, no matter how silly or painful—Do squirrels come in green? Why do mosquitos bite me? Does my friend feel about his dog the way I felt when my dog died? I step back, allowing her time to solve conflicts on her own terms—to figure out a compromise when she wants something someone else has, to breathe when something doesn’t go her way and figure it out. I help her navigate the less-than-desirable behaviors she witnesses (and is sometimes victim to) and subsequently tries on—the spitting, the name-calling, the exclusion. I encourage her to talk to me, to tell me her ideas—and so, I shut my mouth and open my ears.

If I want her to retain the wonder of life, I must model my own wonder. This requires I explain when something is “super cool” or inspiring. It requires I slow down and notice what she, so much closer to the ground, is fascinated by. It requires my openness to every day beauty, from a tiny seedling pushing towards the sun to the kindness of a stranger to the leaves skittering across the street. It requires I be open to her four most magical words: “I have an idea, mommy,” because, let’s face it, her ideas are often way better than mine.

Simply put, I must live my life so I model critical thinking; answer her questions honestly (with another question even); challenge her to think ahead; encourage her to see other people’s perspectives; and celebrate all parts of life.

The metric question—the one I have to hang onto when I am exhausted beyond thought by the never-ceasing demands of parenting—is what I am doing now as good for her future self as it is for her current self? Because when she is 21 and 36 and 54 and 95, she will still in part be the little almost-four-year- old girl with her hand in mine, all of life before her possible and probable, poised for flight.

Shannon S. Moon, Ed.D., is a stay-at-home mama. She participates in two co-op schools with her daughters and is the behind-the-scenes supporter of her tech-loving husband. She taught high school English for over a decade and believes in the importance of play-based Early Childhood Education.