Tuesday, August 10, 2021

"I'm Going To Drown The Baby"

A few years back, someone donated a box of swimming and waterpolo trophies and medals to the preschool. It's the sort of thing we treasure. For a time, they dominated our playground, finding their way into the every game or story. They were mostly plastic, but made to look like gold. The shiny medals with their fabric ribbons became both jewelry and coin-of-the-realm. The statues of fit young women in mid-stroke were especially popular: the children thought they looked like superheroes. 

Over time, the statues became separated from their bases and arms were snapped off. Some became lost in the depths of the sandpit. It's the story of loose parts on our playground: gradually dimming, dwindling, and wearing away. The bits and pieces of the trophies never regained their initial popularity, but they still surfaced in the children's games for several years. Today, they are largely a memory, although last week I spied the upper torso of a muscular male preparing to throw a ball. 

The children asked me for a story. On the playground this has a specific meaning. We start by gathering up a collection of loose parts, then convene in the sandpit row boat where we use them as props to tie together "Once upon and time . . .," "Meanwhile . . .," "It was about this time . . .," and "The end." I found myself holding this torso. I said, "And then along came . . .," then paused for the children to offer their ideas.

Someone shouted, "A baby!"

"Along came a baby . . ." and we continued our story featuring this baby. There is never only one story. The props often transform into new characters with each new story, but in this case the baby remained the baby, playing a part in a half dozen impromptu tales of friendship and adventure. One boy in particular took an interest in the baby, wanting to be responsible for it. At one point he asked me, "Is this metal?"

I replied off-handedly that I thought it was plastic, but he apparently wasn't convinced. As the story-making session began to wrap up, he asked me, "Can I have the baby?"


"Okay, I'm going to drown the baby."

"What did you say?" I was certain I'd misunderstood.

"I'm going to drown the baby."

Of course, it's not unheard of for children to incorporate death, even killing, in their games, but these words struck me as particularly brutal, especially as he delivered them in such a matter-of-fact, almost scientific manner. There was none of the "I'm being a bit naughty" delight that usually accompanies these games and I found myself, not worried, but certainly wondering. The boy ran off with a friend to "drown the baby."

I don't know this boy very well, nor his family, so the comment wasn't as easy to dismiss as it might have otherwise been. There was nothing I'd learned about the boy so far that worried me, but drowning babies isn't an every day theme. If there was a baby at home to be a rival for mommy's attention, it might have made sense, but the boy was the youngest. Where had he picked up the idea of drowning babies? It doesn't turn up in children's stories or programming, but maybe he had access to more grown-up fare. The media can certainly plant upsetting ideas in the minds of children. Children often talk about all manner of things at preschool, but it was the sort of emotionless way he had said it -- "I'm going to drown the baby" -- that really struck me.

Presently, I became engaged in other matters and forgot about the boy until he rushed up to me, full of information. "I tried to drown the baby, but I couldn't do it!"

"Well, I'm happy about that," I replied, "I don't like the idea of drowning babies."

"Come look!"

I followed him to a bucket of water where the baby floated in the water. "See?" he said, "The rocks drowned, but the baby floated."

I said, still not getting it, "The baby is swimming."

He looked at me as if I was a special kind of idiot, "No, Teacher Tom, it's floating. That's because it's plastic. If it was metal it would have drowned."

As I stood there appreciating his moment of "Eureka!" I was happy I'd simply wondered, which is, most of the time, the proper stance of an educator. I'd been wrong in all my suppositions and musings. Anything I would have done or said would have been, at best, confusing, not to mention wildly off the mark. My inaction created the space for this perfect experiment designed by him to answer his question.

I said, "Plastic floats and metal sinks."

To which he replied, "That's what I said."


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
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