Wednesday, August 08, 2018

A Game Of Give-And-Take

When they're babies we play give-and-take games with them. I remember doing it with with our daughter: I would hold an object, she would reach out and take it from my hand, then she would give it back to me, and we would then repeat it until her interests took her elsewhere. By the time children get to our preschool, however, these games tend to produce different results. Not always, but increasingly, when one takes an interesting item from the hand of a peer, it results in tears and conflict.

I imagine this is confusing. I mean, at home, mom and dad, maybe even older siblings, habitually continue to play the game, allowing the "baby" to take things from their hands, but at school it more often than not devolves into a game that is far less fun. Most kids figure it out fairly quickly, but there are some for whom the impulse to snatch lingers, even for years.

Yesterday, we were playing with an old motorcycle rearview mirror, one of a collection that was donated years ago by a family cleaning out a garage (garages, cellars, and attics providing a sizable portion of our curriculum supplies). When it was my turn, I called it my "flashlight" and used it to reflect the sun, creating an oval of brightness that I directed to tummies, feet, and the tops of trees. Two boys, young three-year-olds, took special interest in it. At one point one of them attempted to snatch it from my hands. I pulled it back, saying, "I'm using this, but if you ask me for it, I'll probably give it to you."

I've been saying this to these particular boys since last fall. I think of it as a way to both "teach" a less conflict-prone method for affecting the transferance of a desirable object from the hands of one kid to another as well as to role-model a firm-but-courteous way to respond when someone tries to snatch a desirable object from you. In this case, the boy to whom I made this statement continued to try to simply take it from me, so I pulled it back, repeating a bit more forcefully, "I'm using this, but if you ask, me for it, I'll probably give it to you." When he once more reached for it, the second boy, the boy who had been watching, asked, "Please? I want to have it."

I answered, "When I'm finished with it." I goofed with it for a second longer, then handed it to him.

Meanwhile, the first boy's attentions shifted from my hands to the hands of his classmate who was now joyfully shining the bright oval onto the ground, on walls, on other people. His hands began to reach for the mirror with the clear intent of taking it. The boy in possession of the mirror turned his body away, moving the mirror out of reach, saying, "I'm using it!" then went back to having fun. There was another attempt to snatch the mirror, which was again thwarted both physically and verbally. After a few more rounds of this, I could see tensions rising, so I said, "If you want the mirror, maybe you should try asking for it. Maybe he'll give it to you."

He stepped assertively toward his rival until their bellies were nearly touching, grabbed hold of the mirror, and said, "Please!" not like a request, but rather in the spirit of command.

Naturally, the boy with the mirror stepped away, protecting his prized object, firmly asserting, "No!"

Not wanting things to ramp up any further, I said, "He's using it now. You can use it when he's finished with it." Then to the boy holding the mirror, "When you're done with the mirror, your friend wants it."

This seemed to settle things. The boy with the mirror began to experiment again, laughing as he did. Meanwhile, the other boy looked on covetously, standing back, one hand still poised as if for a grab while he tucked the other into his waistband as if using it as a form of self-control. After about 30 seconds, however, his attention waned. He turned his back on the mirror and walked away toward the playhouse where he attempted to remove one of the removable panels. The now solo mirror game continued for another 30 seconds, but then appeared to lose its savor, as if the boy somehow needed his rival for the game to make sense. He started to drop the mirror on the ground, but then stopped himself, choosing instead to run over to the playhouse and, to his friend's delight, shove the mirror into his hands.

It was the give-and-take game again, the one they had played as babies. We spend our lives playing this game, and not always very well I might add, taking and giving and taking again. Indeed, it is part of what forms the foundation of most human interaction -- social, economic, political -- becoming ever more complex, yet remaining at bottom the game we played as babies, a game we never seem to fully master.

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