Sunday, January 23, 2011


Our greatest strength as an important adult in the life of a child, and our greatest weakness, is the number of years we've spent on the planet. On our good days we call it experience; on our bad it's baggage. Whatever we're calling it in this moment, it often makes it impossible to see the world the way it really is for young children.

When our daughter Josephine was a preschooler, one of these vastly wiser beings read a book about the nastiness of middle school girls, the back-stabbing, the ostracizing, the cliques, reflected on her own girlhood, and concluded that my daughter and her clutch of 3 friends were destined to a life of meanness based upon their experimentations with excluding others.

She was wrong. Today, Josephine is an 8th grader, and while I'm sure she's been far from perfect in her relationships with others, I'm proud of how inclusive she is in her friendships. In my 12 years in preschool classrooms, I can't think of a girl who hasn't at some point played the game of choosing who is in and who is out -- it's a way to feel powerful in the world and the only way to learn about it is through experience, from both sides. I suspect that those middle school mean girls are the very ones who didn't have the chance to adequately learn about the dynamics and emotions of exclusion when they were young, so now they're catching up.

Preschool is the natural time to learn about these things and just as the only way to learn about a hammer is to hit your own thumb a few times, the only way to learn about relationships is to experience the sting of rejection from both sides, often over and over until it sinks in. Young children have short memories and resilient emotions for the same reason they have bodies that heal quickly: they are designed to learn this way. And when these lessons are somehow saved until middle school, those broken thumbs and broken hearts take much, much longer to heal, and often leave more lasting scars.

A child psychiatrist once told me that when treating victims of sexual abuse, some of the worst damage is caused by the overreactions of the loving adults in their lives; those who bring their "baggage" to bear on what for the child is often just another "owie" inflicted by a bigger, stronger other.

Responding to yesterday's post about "violent play" among boys, Sylvia and Zachary's mom Toby commented:

In general . . . I think there's a lot of judgement and fretting over this sort of play. Adults tend to bring their baggage and read it as if the children are fully aware of the implications of their play . . . which, at four, they're simply not.

Even using the label "violent play" is an unfair, inaccurate judgement on my part. It's more like "fantasy action" play -- at least that's how I remember it feeling as a boy. That is the truth of it. The "violent" aspect is something we as adults lay over it.

In a very real sense, young children live in a different world than the one in which we do. It's part of what makes childhood a magical place. They are still forming their judgments, exploring all the angles, and thinking about those questions that we, in our wisdom, consider settled law.

It's natural, of course, that we with our broader perspective would see behaviors in our children and worry about what that portends for their future. But the better part of wisdom can be found in the phrase so often on the lips of grandparents, "Oh, it's just a phase." Everything passes. Chubby kids become thin. Shy children blossom. Hitters grow into gentle giants. Cryers become philosophers.

Naturally, we steer and warn and teach. Our experience, after all, does have value. We don't leave children entirely to their own devices because we do have the ability to look forward to anticipate the dangers ahead. But at the same time, we have to remain aware of our own "baggage" and how much that hinders our ability to see the world through our children's eyes.

Last night, Josephine and her friends went to a party wearing their short shorts. My first reaction was to warn them that they'd be cold, but the next was the urge to blurt the classic line, "You're going out dressed like that?" Oh my head was full of all kinds of judgments, from the perspectives of both father and former teenaged boy, neither of whom could see the world the way she did. Fortunately, I think, I kept my mouth shut, instead reflecting that it must feel pretty good to be able to turn heads, especially within the relatively safe confines of a like-aged, chaperoned dance party. Just because she's trying out the power of sex-appeal as a 14-year-old, that doesn't mean she's destined for a life of . . . (insert derogatory term for a sexually assertive woman here). In fact, as hard as it is for a father, I have to know that, developmentally, this is the time to start experimenting with that whole thing, like dramatic play, to learn some skills before it all becomes real.

Ah, it's such a muddy, impossible thing this looking at the world as it is, not just for ourselves, but for the children we love.

We know so much more than they do that it's easy to take the wrong path, to run ahead, to get everyone lost.

It's tempting to want to put them in a box and only let them out when they're older, but if we did, of course, we know they'd have to run out and make all those mistakes, learn all those lessons anyway, because after all, everyone of us has baggage. And looking forward in all honesty, we know they will too. It'll just be different baggage than yours.

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martha brown said...

This is a great post, Tom! Thanks.

Juliet Robertson said...

Like everyone, I have baggage. Like Hermione in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I mostly try and keep mine in a neat little clutch bag, that only opens occasionally when it needs a wee bit of sorting. I hope my clutch bag compliments and accessorises my personality nicely! LOL!

Unknown said...

You always have the most wonderful ideas to share.

Floor Pie said...

Tom, thank you for this post, and the one yesterday. You've articulated a lot of thoughts that have been floating around for me lately.

The pre-K year is a big time for kids to experiment with power (whether it's exclusionary play or action/adventure play or whatever). It's their "senior year" of preschool. They've mastered a lot of the challenges around them, they know something bigger is coming next year. It's a natural time for things to go this way.

Rather than try to tamp down the enthusiasm, I like the idea of trying to steer it in new directions. One day at The Boy's preschool, his teacher brought in a blender and the kids all made smoothies. It was a small thing, but amazing to see how the whole class broke from their usual cliques and routine and came together for this exciting new project. Another time, our pack of boys excavated a huge rock that had been buried deep in the sandbox. They were so proud and powerful, all working together. They even came up with a schedule for who would get to take the rock home each day.

And, as I mentioned on your FB page yesterday, teaching empathy is key. It's the perfect companion piece to all this experimenting with power that they're doing. When we do compliments at circle time, the kids really get that concept. The challenge is for them to translate it to active play time...."Look at your friend's face. Is he happy? sad? scared? What can we do to help our friend feel better? What game would we both like to play?"

Same with planning the pre-K play. "Who are some of our friends that will be in the audience? Would Sylvia be scared? Would this person or that person be scared? What sort of things do our friends like? Could we include some of the things they like in our play?" etc.

It takes a lot of practice, but it sinks in. They get it. Sometimes it even becomes part of their experience of feeling powerful. (You should see The Boy puff up with pride when he does something thoughtful for his little sister.)

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Great Post. I also agree with the comments made by Floor Pie. My belief is that the effect of giving Pre-K's (and Middle Schoolers) opportunities to take healthy risks, is that it generates the kind of power that shapes decisions/ideas. Power can be a wonderful thing.
While we do have to learn how to live with disappointment and rejection, perhaps there would be a little less pain in the world if less children felt so insecure in it.

kristin said...

ah, yes, yes, yes.

on every level, yes.

and just returning from walking with my nearly 13 year old with her dark eyeliner through the grocery store, this is the post i needed to read.