Did you know that what we call the “fall colors” of leaves are actually their glorious “true” colors? The leaves don’t change to new colors in autumn, but instead revert to their original colors. I learned this years ago when my oldest daughter asked why the leaves change color.
As a way to bond (and hide my ignorance), I suggested we search the internet together for information. We found that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “the four primary pigments that produce color within a leaf are chlorophyll (green); xanthophyllis (yellow); carotenoids (orange); and anthocynins (reds and purples). During the warmer growing seasons, leaves produce chlorophyll to help plants create energy from light. The green pigment becomes dominant and masks the other pigments. … As days get shorter and nights become longer … the fading green allows a leaf’s true colors to emerge, producing the dazzling array of orange, yellow, red and purple pigments we refer to as fall foliage.”
Equipped with this knowledge, we annually observe the emergence of fall colors differently. It’s a richer, more wonder-filled experience for our family. I thought of this phenomenon and its relationship to parenting while reading Alexandra Horowitz’s recent book, On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation.
In the book, Horowitz takes 11 neighborhood walks with different experts to experience the same scenes with different eyes. The results are remarkable. Horowitz realizes “I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see” and nothing else.
From a geologist, she learns “limestone, a popular building material, is full of the shells, remains, and other traces of ancient animals. … Taking this in, my view of the street was entirely changed: no longer was it passive rock; it was a sea graveyard.” From a field naturalist, she learns “even when you see no bugs before you, even when the ground looks still and the air looks clear, they are there.”
Learn through how children observe the world
Most relevant to parenting is what Horowitz learns about observation from her 19-month-old son. For him, a walk is “an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.” An infant “has no expectations, so he is not closed off from experiencing something anew.” Also, the relative absence of language enables very young children to “sense the world at a different granularity, attending to parts of the visual world we gloss over; to sounds we have dismissed as irrelevant.”
Horowitz views a child’s acquisition of language in paradoxical terms. She acknowledges that language is key to a child’s development and navigation of the world. Hence, language could be compared to the necessary green pigment that fosters growth on leaves. But Horowitz also laments that the naming of objects in a child’s environment gradually limits his or her ability to observe and perceive additional aspects — or what might be called the environment’s true (and masked) colors — more fully.
She notes the bittersweet onset of language for her growing toddler: “I knew I did not have long before words, enablers of thoughts but also stealers of idiosyncrasies, muted his theatricality. And so our family had together created a fluid vocabulary of expressions, facial and bodily, that could be applied to a new situation.”
This poignant passage no doubt triggers every parent’s memories of those infant-to-toddler days when sounds were not yet words. One of my daughters at that age would repeat the sound “ta-doo” in varying tones. For weeks the family tried to discern the meaning of the sound, until one day an older cousin simply said: “Maybe it just means ‘ta-doo.’” Somehow that settled the debate.
Every parent also remembers entertaining formulations from their children’s early language days. My older daughter once told me: “Dad, I’m a little bit big and a little bit little.” My younger daughter once wrote in her journal: “My dad has hair on both sides of his head and nothing in the middle.” That last one burned a little bit.
Improve your observational skills
Selective attention is necessary for life, but parents should try not to narrow their attention too rigidly. Follow the example of very young children before language development. Try to maintain an open mind that does not allow habit and expectation to become blinders that restrict understanding.
A great way to embody this message might be a family nature walk this fall. Slow down and inspect the surroundings together. Keep a sense of wonder about all that reveals itself — like those “true colors” in the trees that the pandemic cannot cancel. Try to keep seeing the world with fresh, unmasked eyes.