Friday, November 08, 2019

Baby Games

A child psychologist friend once told me that he kept a doll house in his office, explaining that he could often learn more about a child while playing "family" with her than in any number of hours of traditional talk therapy. I'm no therapist, but I can certainly see the potential there.

"I'm this baby."

"I'm the mommy bunny."

"I'm a baby too."

"But I'm the littler baby."

"I want to be the littlest baby."

Just in how they choose their roles, there's a whole world of aspiration and query. Over the years I've noted that more children want to play the "baby" role, the younger and more helpless the better. For a long time, I assumed that "mommy" was the power role, the one that went to the child with the strongest urge to be in control, but I know now, as every child knows who has ever lost her place in the family to a younger sibling, it's the baby who really wields the power. Their helplessness demands attention and that's what the babies do in these games.

A group of our four and five year olds had been playing "baby" games for most of the year, typically assuming the roles of baby tigers or baby polar bears or other types of baby animals. There were no mommies in these games, but rather owners who were forever wrestling those naughty babies back into their beds or cages or caves or homes in order to "keep them safe." I'm sure my child psychologist friend would have a field day with these games filled with misbehavior and compulsion, these games where the baby, no matter how it behaved, continued to be cared for and loved. But as a teacher, I don't need to know what it means: I simply need to understand that the children are engaged in experiments they have designed to answer their unique social-emotional questions.

There have been times when I would drop to my knees in the midst of these games and assume the role of "middle" or "oldest" child, the roles that appeared to me to have the least power, then attempt to role model how one can assume power (or satisfaction or control or whatever) from this role. Or maybe I would take on another role, hoping to somehow "teach" a lesson through my behavior within the game. They were misguided efforts at best: I had taken over their game to answer questions they weren't asking, skewing their data, scuttling their journey, making it about my adult attempts at social-emotional engineering rather than their own purposeful and meaningful exploration of the real world as they experienced it.

Today, as children play house, I simply listen, even when they say things that make me cringe, even when the mommies boss the babies or the babies behave like mini-tyrants, even when I notice that no one wants to be the middle or oldest child. It's not my job to know what it means, that's for them (and perhaps a future therapist) to know. Mine is to create the space, to step back, and to wonder.

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