If you want to make a toddler angry fast, insist that his/her mother is not their mother but is, in fact, YOUR mother. Those are fighting words, partner. Some may say that the toddler does this due to egocentricism, but I prefer to believe that in that game you mess with the elements of that child's “Story”, which is part of their essence. If I played that game with a child, I always ended it by telling them that OF COURSE that was their Mommy – and not mine. I needed to reassure that I indeed would abide by their script in this, the most important of roles to them.
This leads to an interesting segueway – as it leads to a second article I wandered into, “Mazes of Meaning: How a Child and Culture create each other” by Jean Briggs.
I found the title was wildly intriguing, as it forms a cornerstone of my dissertation inquiry. The idea that a child is created by a culture....and then moves into a larger social group in a classroom and recreates not only their personal culture, but must then blend that personal culture into a new group culture negotiated by all members of the classroom.
As I read the article, I was a bit troubled. The author describes her life among the Qipisa Inuit and while it started out promising with quotes such as:
The notion that meaning inheres in culture and that people receive it passively, as dough receives the cookie cutter, is rapidly being replaced by the idea that culture consists of ingredients, which people actively select, interpret, and use in various ways, as opportunities, capabilities, and experience allow. But it is not the individual that creates meanings, it is the individuals who do so.” (p 25)
YES! Now this is what I had been looking for! Briggs further sets the stage by describing the community and some of the communally held tenets regarding child rearing and education. How adults in this community use the asking of questions to their children as a means of communicating values and posing problems to be solved. “Well yes”, I thought, “who doesn't do this?”
It was the next paragraph that woke me up. For the questions posed in this community to their children were framed in dangerous and dramatic language. Briggs writes:
“In this way, adults create, or raise to conciousness, issues that the child will perceive to be of great consequence for his or her life: “Why don't you kill your baby brother?” “Why don't you die so I can have your nice new shirt?” “Your mother's going to die – look, she's cut her finger – do you want to come and live with me?”
I was a little disturbed. I mean who tells a three year old that their mother is going to die? Who suggests to a child that they kill their new brother or sister? How on earth is someone supposed to answer these questions?
However, as I continued to read, I began to understand that in this community, this is how children are prepped for life transitions. These questions which seemed unduly cruel to me were the tools by which this Inuit community helped it's individual children clarify issues of attachment, belonging and possession. The author writes that the adults in the community only enact this verbal dialogue with children until the children are old enough to know that the adults questioning are not to be taken seriously. These questions brought directly to the surface impulses and thoughts which could have long term consequences if not managed through the adult group members. Through this question and answer exchange, children can test responses, seek alliances from trusted adults and come to understand the pre-eminent role of their parent(s) as primary caregiver.
As I pondered on what a strange series of questions, and how these questions seemed a bit unreasonable and harsh...I flashed back to my own games with Toddlers.
All of the “No, thats mine” game, where I would pretend to put on someones coat or shoe – or take a bottle or binky away resulting in both hysterical delight and more than a bit of apprehension that I was going to take their belongings. The “That's my mommy, not yours” games. The “pretending to be asleep/dead and then jumping up game” or the “I'm going to eat your lunch” game.
I played the exact same games with the babies in my care as described by Briggs, albeit with different verbiage and the cultural construct in which I lived.
As I reflect, I had no concious knowledge of imparting cultural specific knowledge to those children – but I was. We played with their deepest fears – abandonment, loss of parent, loss of belongings, the role of their interdependence on adults for their sustenance and comfort. By co-creating these stories, each child and I would engage in a delicate dance among the real life monsters of a child world, the fear that lies just on the edge of security. However, while I always knew it was a game, I never gave thought to the idea that the child did not necessarily believe it was a game, but that these scenarios could be quite real. The edge of relief and panic would mix with laughter in each child as I would sit up from my feigned and exaggerated “death”. The laughter would become hysterical at times, for what I now realize may have been hysteria.
I was unknowingly scaffolding for these toddlers their entry into coping with fears that, left unaddressed, could compromise their ability to make important life transitions in not only their social capabilities but their cognitive development as well. I became another player in a social drama that seems to have it's roots in something much deeper than play between a child and adult.