Nature or Nurture: Do Kids and Culture Clash?

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”  ~Albert Einstein

In our modern society, I think it is a very rare and unique sort of parent who dreams their child will grow up one day to be a great composer, groundbreaking artist or Pulitzer Prize winning novelist.  In public schools with budget issues, fine arts are always the first programs cut; many Republican lawmakers would like to defund the National Endowment of the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Liberal Arts educations are often decried as impractical and frivolous; smirking “Do you want fries with that?” memes belittle those who indulge in such a “wasteful” endeavor.

I grew up in a comfortable, not wealthy household.  But both of my parents were lovers and patrons of the arts, and they always made a concerted effort to expose us to as much of it as they could.  My elementary school years were spent in a suburb of Erie, PA, not exactly a city known for its culture; opportunities for live theater, music and ballet were not abundant, but when they were available we were there.  Opera was a little trickier to access, and this is where the oft-threatened PBS came in–yes, my folks DID force us to watch opera and YES our submission was begrudging.  But guess what?  I remember those performances indelibly to this day, Tosca a particular favorite.

A childhood without books—that would be no childhood.” ~ Astrid Lindgren

Of course the easiest (and cheapest) access to the arts any of us has is through literature. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales” is the encapsulating truth of how profoundly reading affects our ability to learn, to process information, to understand emotions and use our imagination.  I was a born bookworm who would always plead for “one more story” before I could read myself and stay up way past my bedtime with a nose in a book once I could.  Books were a huge influence in discovering my authentic self—I found bits and pieces of me in all of them.

“Sit in a room and read–and read and read. And read the right books by the right people. Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time.” ~Joseph Campbell

Some books I did read again and again—A Wrinkle in Time, Little Women, Stuart Little, A Little Princess—I was drawn to the whimsical, the magical, the feminine (also apparently the word “little”, something I was destined never to be).  Books were an escape, yes; but also a new pair of glasses, a new way of thinking, a new way of perceiving the world. Because these books and others were such an important part of my childhood experience, it was a high priority to me to read them to my son as he grew old enough to hear them.

Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.”  ~William Hazlitt

When he was 7, I had a life changing literary experience when we read The Wind in the Willows together.   The book I had enjoyed as a child is in fact one of the most profound ever written on the topics of man’s relationship to man, man’s relationship to self, man’s relationship to God and man’s relationship to nature.  Of course, all told in a child friendly format with the brilliant characterizations of Mole, Rat, Mr. Toad and Mr. Badger.

What impressed me so much in re-reading the story to my own child was that this book was not even a particular favorite of mine, yet I realized as an adult how deeply it had influenced me in every way—from how I approach relationships, to how I worship, to how I think, to how I experience life.  This incredible gift bestowed on me in my childhood that I, in turn was able to share with my son.  And if that doesn’t get you to read (or re-read) The Wind in the Willows, nothing ever will.

A man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”  ~ Mark Twain

But here is my point—exposing our children to culture in any format at all—music, dance, theater, great film, great literature, the masters of painting—is never the “in-one-ear-out-the-other” experience we fear it might be.  The arts were always a steeped in part of my family culture and my life; yet of the 4 children in my family, I was the only one who “took to it” as a life path.  I was also the only “born” book worm.  Coincidence?

I do think the arts attract a certain type of personality (MINE!) but I also think that those who are not necessarily artistically inclined will still be enriched and uplifted by exposure to them.  I feel certain that all of my siblings not only consider the arts an important part of life, but also an important part of the family experience.  Due to our age discrepancies, the only family home all four of us occupied together was that house in the Erie suburbs.  My Dad used to call it our “storybook” cottage, because to him it resembled something out of a fairytale.

Our “storybook” cottage was full of family, yes; but also song, dance, film, baking, sewing, reading, creating…living this “fairytale” made us all more intelligent, compassionate, inquisitive and open-minded.  “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales.”  If you want them to be well rounded and open-hearted, expose them to the arts.  Whether you are nurturing an intrinsic nature or just leading a horse to water, there will always be something there for the soul to drink in.