Thinking of Thoreau by William Crain

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. In recognition of the occasion, celebrations have highlighted the better-known aspects of his life and work. For example, events have featured Thoreau’s two years of spartan existence at Walden Pond and his decision to go to jail rather than pay taxes to support the Mexican-American War and slavery.

I would like to call attention to a relatively neglected theme in Thoreau’s thinking: The high value he placed on childhood.

Thoreau’s thoughts on childhood are particularly relevant today. Our education policymakers are so focused on preparing children for the future that they ignore how children think and feel. Hoping to get children ready for the competitive global economy, policymakers are raising academic demands at younger and younger ages. Today even kindergarten classes are highly academic and assign homework, which becomes heavy in the grades that follow. Many children are stressed out.

Even in the mid-19th century, Thoreau objected to the hurry to prepare children for adult society. Although he saw the need for academic instruction, he knew school could be stifling and wanted children to enjoy free time out of doors. In his journal, he wrote, “I remember how glad I was when I was kept from school a half a day to pick huckleberries on a neighboring hill. . . . A half day of liberty like that was like the promise of life eternal. It was emancipation in New England.”

In Thoreau’s view, childhood is the precious time when we are most receptive to the miracle of nature. With fresh and keen senses, children experience animals, ponds, flowers — indeed, every aspect of nature they encounter — with wonder and awe. 

Thoreau said that adults, in contrast, perceive nature through society’s conventional categories. They see what they expect to see. Little is truly new. Thoreau emphasized that scientists also view the natural world through conventional nomenclature and classifications, rendering their knowledge stale and dry. 

Thoreau asked us to consider the child’s discovery of fishes. “Was it the number of their fin-rays or their arrangement, or the place of the fish in some [classification] system that made the boy dream of them?” No, it was their beauty and “a faint recognition of a living contemporary, a provoking mystery.” 

Our great task as adults, Thoreau said, is to recapture the fresh outlook of the child. We should try to open ourselves to nature’s sensations as if we were experiencing them for the first time, receiving impressions just as they come to us. If we can do this, we will be enchanted and uplifted. 

Thoreau recognized that it is difficult to clear our minds in this manner. We value our accumulated knowledge. We take pride in being in the know. We don’t want to be ignorant. 

Thoreau himself sometimes struggled to observe nature as freshly as he wished. He found it helpful to drift in his boat or take long walks with no goal in mind so he could be taken by surprise. When he encountered animals, he sometimes stood still for hours, allowing the animals to overcome their fears and engage in natural behavior he hadn’t observed before. 

And unexpected observations fill Thoreau’s writings, especially his journal. He was frequently astonished, for example, by the beauty of birds’ songs, each song making him happy to be alive.

Many of Thoreau’s neighbors thought he was a loafer, but children did not. One of Thoreau’s biographers, Walter Harding, told about a girl who was careful not to disturb Thoreau while he stood all day at a river’s edge, watching a mother duck and her newborns. That evening, Thoreau went to the house of the girl, who said, “While we ate our suppers there in the kitchen, he told us the most wonderful stories you ever heard about those ducks.” 

Can we follow Thoreau’s advice today? Can we appreciate the child’s joy and wonder in natural settings, and recover a measure of the child’s feelings in our own lives? 

It won’t be easy. We are often so focused on children’s academic achievement that we cannot see the value of their explorations of parks, woods, and beaches. And we are frequently too concerned with our own occupational success to see any point to adopting childhood attitudes.

Adding to the problem is the popularity of mobile devices like smartphones. Even when people go outdoors, they often fix their attention on the phones’ screens, ignoring breezes, birdsong, and other natural sensations. And of course electronic devices are more and more popular with children, too. 

Still, if Thoreau was right, we cannot lead fulfilling lives unless we open our senses to the beauty and mystery of nature. 

In honor of Thoreau, then, let’s take his recommendations seriously. Let’s make sure children have opportunities to explore natural settings, and let’s set aside time to relax and freshly observe nature in our own lives. Residents of the East End can do this in beautiful surroundings. But urban residents can find a bit of greenery and open their senses to nature.

As a specific strategy, it can be rewarding to take a walk with a toddler, letting the child take the lead. The toddler typically walks with no destination in mind, just enjoying the walk and stopping to examine objects that catch her eye — a leaf, a worm, a puddle of water. Each object is a source of wonder. The child, in short, meanders in the manner of Thoreau. If we can see the world as the toddler does, enchantment can re-enter our lives.


William Crain is a professor of psychology at City College and a part-time resident of Montauk.