Reality is an Optical Illusion: How to Teach Kids About Perception

by ParentCo. August 04, 2016

My mom was an incredible woman and a talented painter. Driven by a fierce and uncontrollable passion to create, she was the epitome of Susan Boyle’s song, “I am who I was born to be,” and she lived her life accordingly. Without a doubt she was loved dearly and respected by her many offspring.

In honor of her 85th birthday she held a one-woman exhibition to showcase her most recent work. Her colorful paintings, each of which she cherished the way a mother cherishes her children, were a genuine reflection of who she was: vibrant, vivacious, and vigorous.

And then, she fell.

Literally overnight she lost her stamina, her self-confidence, and her will to live. Downhill all the way, it was a slow, agonizing, and fearful process.

My brother and I share not only a deep love and respect for our parents and for one another, but also a lifetime of meaningful experiences and fond memories. And yet, the ways we dealt with my mom’s deteriorating health, emotional state of mind – and eventually her death – were radically different.

Being the son and living nearby, my brother was what my mom referred to as “her rock.” He was there. He took charge of whatever bureaucratic matters needed tending to. Being a scientist, he had a better understanding of her medical situation than the rest of us and was always there to speak with the doctors. Being a pragmatic doer, he got things done.

Being the daughter, I played a different role in my mom’s life. I was her confidante. Somehow over the years our mother-daughter roles reversed. Like a daughter, she talked; like a mom, I listened. She consulted and I gave advice, more often than not reiterating what she wanted to hear.

During the last few years of my mom’s life, my husband and I were working abroad. Every evening after work, we would call our moms back home. It was the one gift we could give them to compensate for the thousands of miles between us.

Some days my mom and my conversations were short and sweet. Other times they were prolonged, as she poured her heart out, sharing with me both past and present. “I never bother your brother with all this,” she used to say, as she rambled on. “He’s so busy! I’m lucky to have you. It’s cheaper than a psychologist!”

As her health worsened, our trips home became more frequent so that I could spend more time with her. And then, shortly before her death, my mom was hospitalized with serious kidney failure. We were a family in crisis and all hell broke loose.

During the first few days my brother and I exchanged fervent emails, in which we discussed my mom’s situation and explored different ways to help her, as she no longer could help herself. We both had good intentions and our hearts were definitely in the right place, but nonetheless our solutions differed drastically, causing much tension and conflict between us.

My brother’s understanding of what was best for my mom, did not gel with my interpretation of her wishes. No matter how hard I tried, there was no way I could persuade him without breaching my mom’s trust.

At one point, he wrote to me in despair, “You’re not here. You don’t understand the reality.”

That is when I began to question if there is such a thing as “reality.” What made my brother more of an authority about my mom’s reality than I? Did the fact that he was “on site” trump everything I knew about my mom and her situation from what she had shared with me alone?

I got on a plane and flew home.

One day in between visits with my mom, I was spending some quality time with my eight-year-old granddaughter. She was showing me the young girl/old woman optical illusion she had recently discovered on the Internet.

She was intrigued how people looking at the same picture could see two totally different images. “Just like Jasmine, Mrs. Cameron, and me,” she remarked. Jasmine was my granddaughter’s friend and Mrs. Cameron was her teacher.

“Meaning...?” I asked, hoping she would continue.

“When Mrs. Cameron looks at Jasmine and when I look at Jasmine we see two different girls! Mrs. Cameron thinks that Jasmine is stupid. No matter how hard Jasmine tries, Mrs. Cameron treats her like she’s dumb or something. If only Mrs. Cameron were a fly on the wall during recess,” she continued using a new expression she had recently learned. “She would hear all the smart things Jasmine says and how funny she is! Jasmine isn’t stupid, Grandma, just because Mrs. Cameron thinks so, right?”

“No, my lovely,” I reassured my granddaughter, “Jasmine isn’t stupid.”

And that’s when the penny dropped. While telling me about the optical illusions in her life, my eight-year-old granddaughter opened my eyes and taught me a profound truth:

Reality is an optical illusion and we each have our own perceptions.

I’m an educator. My perceptions of the world are driven by my passion to teach and to delight. For me, life experiences – big ones like mom’s death as well as ordinary ones like chatting with my granddaughter – are learning opportunities meant to be shared.

We grown-ups sometimes forget that our kids’ perceptions and understandings of the world are often different from ours. Just like with optical illusions and Mrs. Cameron, we can be looking at the same thing and see two different images. It is not for us to judge which perceptions are right and which are wrong. From where our kids are standing, their perception is based on what they know.

As the responsible adults in our kids’ lives, it 's our job to provide them with tools that develop awareness that there is no absolute truth or unconditional reality, because people have different perceptions. We must help them expand their horizons and delve deeper, so that they can continually refine and redefine what they know.

The following family activity does just that.

Scribble Art

  • Using a dark marker, one participant scribbles an abstract shape on a piece of paper.
  • Working together, brainstorm what the scribble could be.
  • Try to come up with as many different ideas as you can.
  • The scribble cannot remain an abstract design and must be turned into something “real” – a person, an animal, something from nature, or any other object.
  • Each player then traces the shape and transforms the scribble into one of the suggestions or anything else that comes to mind.
  • When done, share, compare, and discuss what you discovered from this activity in relation to how people looking at the same object see totally different things.

I recently conducted this activity with my husband and four grandchildren ages three to nine. It was fascinating to witness the different interpretations, as well as what they had to say about the differences.

Try this fun, eye-opening activity with your family and let us know how it goes!



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