It’s a fact that children inspire a sense of wonder and joyful awe in adults. Watching dandelion fluff disperse or seeing a frog’s throat expand with a two-year-old or a five-year-old is simply better than doing the same activity alone or with another adult. That’s the simple truth.
As kids grow older, though, they seem to lose some of this wonder. I’ll never forget the first time my kids noticed a ladybug and didn’t exclaim—and how much it surprised me that it didn’t surprise them. Some of this is simply a result of a shift in attention: Now they’re in awe of the inexplicable forces of love, or wonder about distant galaxies. But it also seems to me that, as preteens in 2012, some of their life energy has dimmed. They’ve reached the age when sentiments and feelings start to get corrupted—by other’s opinions, by expectations, or by life experiences that make one more cautious. And, yes, they’ve succumbed to the inexorable siren song of bright computer screens.
On a recent evening, I sat on the couch and watched my two kids, aged 10 and 12, and I realized I felt nervous. It took me awhile to identify why, and then it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard them be delighted by anything, or cry out in awe, or seen their eyes light up in surprise recently.
It might be the natural progression of things—we can’t go around our entire lives exclaiming at every frog we see, I suppose—but right then I decided if there’s one thing I could, and should, give back to them (a re-gift, so to speak) it would be a way to prevent the loss of that wonder. I wasn’t exactly sure how to do that—I’m an expert at nothing, really—but I had the idea that some sort of action is critical. This is the age when, perhaps, the neurons start firing in paths that will ultimately determine our approach to the rest of our lives.
So I sat there, wondering if there was a way to sidestep most of that desensitized, routine-ridden existence, and if so, how I could make it happen? And that’s when I decided to embark upon one of our vacations, the kind of trip that my kids have come to call Our Very Grand Adventures.
Yelapa, Mexico—which sits on the Pacific coast south of Puerto Vallarta and has a population of 715—has one small beach and one huge jungle. There are no cars because there are no streets, just burros and cobblestone pathways, which are often very steep and cut through people’s yards or through the middle of their restaurants. As we soon discovered, the jungle contains red snakes, purple flowers, spikey trees, and waterfalls that create swimming pools. The ocean is home to sea turtles, which you don’t want to miss, and to manta rays, which aren’t dangerous like stingrays—but you might want to avoid them anyway.
My hope for this excursion to rural Mexico was about more than just throwing my family into a new situation with good visuals. My husband and I had a small budget and big plans: to prevent the loss of incorrigible passions and wonder for life, which may sound grandiose, but wonder is grandiose, and plans to foster it are unapologetically so.
It’s true that travel can contribute to “neuroplasticity,” a neuroscience term that refers to the ability of the brain to rewire itself through new experience. Seeing new places and experiencing new cultures (or any intensely new experience, for that matter) can contribute to better cognitive functioning and awareness. And, admittedly, it is pretty easy to be wonder-filled when whales rise from the ocean surface—especially when you’re used to life in Colorado.
Just showing up at a village in order to increase my kids’ brain function, however, wasn’t my goal. What I really wanted was something to spark our souls, to forcibly remove us from routine and smack us alive. To create a mindful sense of who we are, why we’re on this planet, who we are as a family, and what we should be noticing and doing with our time—those big existential questions that get lost in the everyday.
What I am hoping for, in other words, is to raise a couple of philosophers (call me crazy, I know). And removing my family from our little Colorado foothills home and plunking us down in Yelapa did, in fact, work its wonder. There was no big bang. There were no epiphanies, per se. But the evidence was there in small moments, like seeing my kids in a tiny tienda, trying to buy new and strange candy, their brains furiously attempting to work out conversion rates and count pesos. And then seeing their eyes go wide as their taste buds expanded with something completely new, like red licorice covered in chili pepper spice. Or when they used their stilted first-semester Spanish and tried to speak to a local on the beach. Or when an Internet connection was located and the first thing they did was Google “types of red snakes in Mexico” rather than loading a game they’ve played a hundred times. Or when my son stood staring at some wild iguanas climbing over each other in a big tree and said, “Well, here’s another crazy crazy thing,” and my daughter said, “Yeah, when are these crazy crazy things gonna end? My brain is tired.” There was something in their voices that reminded me of their earlier years—a mixture of surprise, curiosity, and awe.
All this observational wonder led to the bigger kind of wonder I was hoping for. We all curled up on the couch at night and, with no window pane to separate us from the outside, looked out at the ocean and were quiet together. There was a buzz of love in the air, and it was a small moment, and yet so huge.
Intense new experiences are what childhood is about. Everything is new—until it’s not. And when things are no longer new and exciting, we become bored. Boredom is everywhere. I see it around me, and I hear people complain about it, and I see people trying to resist it.
I think it’s fair to say my children haven’t yet been bored with life (sure, once or twice they’ve said they were bored on a long, hot summer day, but a few minutes later they were building forts or whatever), and I think it’s also fair to say I’ve yet to experience boredom. In fact, I often wish to experience it, so that I could know what it feels like, and also because that would mean that my jobs would be done, my interests and curiosities would be satisfied, and my dreams would be realized.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if given enough time, we’ll all feel it. Do we, as we age, from childhood to adulthood, become a bit more numb? Do we start feeling dull about the world and its mysteries? Do our interests and curiosities actually get fulfilled? Do we start looking for antidotes for boredom? Or do we just get tired and sort of give up?
I have to believe it’s part of our job to consciously resist that, to keep trying to live the well-examined, self-reflective, full life that most of us inherently want—if only because it will keep us from boredom and despair. And in the end, that’s why I’m a fan of these sudden, odd trips: new culture, different language, surprising food, red snakes, weird varieties of chickens, and donkeys as a primary mode of transportation.
When we got back to Colorado after our winter trip, my lips immediately became chapped, my eyes got scratchy and dry, and the kids returned to schedules of school and violin and swim lessons and computer games. I was so happy to be home, to have hot water and water pressure—both at the same time! To have familiar meals and drinking water I didn’t have to purify! But I also noticed that when I took my daily walk in the hills, that everything was a little sharper, a little clearer. It felt, in fact, that I had taken some sort of drug that brought life into focus. Again, it was the little details: how the ice cracks on the nearby stream when the sun hits it, for example. Or how long my son’s eyelashes are, or how bright my daughter’s laugh is. And it all made me very in love with life, and that was my hope for my children, too: That they find ways to live with sharp awareness, and have an entire lifetime that abounds with a sense of wonder.