Friday, March 08, 2013

The Gift They Give Me

Parent educator Dawn Carlson tells a story about a young 2-year-old struggling with the idea of which block towers were okay to knock down and which were not. Dawn said, "You can knock down your block tower, but you may not knock down his block tower." After repeating it several times, but to no avail, it suddenly occurred to Dawn that it could be a problem with pronouns and rephrased her statement, "Billy can knock down Billy's block towers, but Billy may not knock down Sally's block tower." It worked.

As adults who work with young children, one of our primary roles is to serve as guides to these humans who are just beginning to explore the idea of "self." We've already had decades to sort out our own ideas about who we are and how we stand in relation to those around us. We've already picked (or had picked for us) the labels that apply. And some of us, in turn, have picked the therapist who is going to help change those labels (or learn to accept them). We've lived through our own personal phases and crazes. We know there are more to come. I can imagine that there are some of us, a rare breed indeed, who have come to view that thing we call our self as more or less fixed, but most know, probably even hope, that a new and improved self is in our future, one that includes the better part of every age we've ever been.

Preschoolers aren't aware of any of this, of course. It's one of the things we envy, that they carry little baggage through the world, able to change who they are on a dime, on a whim, with the donning of a costume or the mere assumption of an attitude. It's an aspect of what we see as innocence, the loss of which, even the prospect of that loss, sometimes freezing us into inactivity, sometimes rushing us into a protective stance. Emotionally, we don't want them to change, to learn the harsh lessons, to have others challenge their sense of self, even as we know they must.

I'll never forget how angry it made me when my own 3-year-old came home from a visit with a beloved relative, to say, "I don't like her any more. She always tells me how I feel. And she's wrong!" With a little more digging I learned that Josephine was objecting to such phrases as, "Oh, you're not sad," or "You don't have anything to be mad about." Even as I understood these cliches as well-intended parenting echos from across generations, it outraged me to think that some bigger, older adult would dare challenge my child's sense of self. At the same time I was proud that Josephine had rallied to the challenge this time, knowing that she, and only she, was the expert on her own feelings.

What we see as our self perhaps starts as a seed planted within us at birth, but how it grows is determined by our interactions with the other people. I think most of us, in our ideal world, naively value the idea of standing back in order to allow the "natural self" to emerge as fully as possible, that self untainted or unrestrained by the rest of us.

But we're already too late. From the moment of birth until the day we die, our self is shaped by the people around us, for better or worse. In fact, I doubt that self even exists beyond the context of others and our relationships with them. No matter how experienced we are in the world, we continue donning costumes and assuming attitudes, and no matter how firmly we assert "I don't care what anyone thinks," we really do: we really must. It's how we discover who we are. I've come to understand self not as something I am or something I become, but rather something I learn. And it's only something that can be understood through the other people. 

Without the other people I don't exist. My self is the gift they give me.

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