It was coming to the end of a lovely day, Charlie’s Mum, Sam was baking meringues, Charlie’s Dad, Mark was oiling the garden furniture, I was sitting on the garden bench drinking tea and Charlie, aged 23 months was playing in the garden. Covering the ground at the bottom of the garden beyond the lawn, next to the garage and stretching up to the back gate are small stones. Charlie fell on the stones and began to cry, “Mummy”. Sam came out of the kitchen and thinking that he was not really hurt said, “Up you get Charlie”. But on this occasion Charlie was not going to get up and continued to call, “Mummy”. Sam judged that he wanted her to pick him up. She ran down the garden, scooped him up in her arms and, cuddling him like a baby, strolled back down the garden saying, “Do you want a cuddle Charlie, do you want to be Mummy’s baby? Ah, what a lovely baby. Look at my lovely baby Nana, look at my lovely baby Daddy.” Charlie was soon laughing and giggling. Sam put him down near Mark and myself and returned to the kitchen. A few minutes later Charlie went back to the stones and pretended to fall over accompanied by wails of, “Mummy”. Sam looked out of the kitchen and made a judgment about Charlie’s needs at this time and again ran down the garden, scooped him up and repeated her actions, cuddling him like a baby and kissing him she said, “Oh, my lovely baby, look at my lovely baby.” Charlie laughed and relaxed in her arms. She then put him down again and drew his attention to Daddy and Nana before returning to the kitchen, “Look at what Daddy’s doing Charlie, he’s oiling the chairs. Look at Nana Charlie, she’s having a lovely cup of tea.” Charlie watched Daddy for a while and then ran down the garden and ‘fell’ in the stones and again called for his mother. Sam again responded and the whole scene was repeated two or three more times.
Whilst I was watching this it occurred to me that I was having two possible reactions. I could hear my own mother’s voice in my head, “You’ll make a rod for your own back. He’s just manipulating you. He’s not hurt – leave him – he’s got to learn. He’s only pretending.” The second voice comes from my wiser self, the self who wants to understand Charlie, the self who has been observing Sam and Mark’s parenting and reading about child development and reflecting on what a toddler can do. The second voice won and in this blog I am exploring why I know that my daughter and not my mother have the best understanding of how to raise a small child.
We know that context is everything; to understand a child’s actions we need to know about their life. Charlie’s mum is having another baby and we all talk to Charlie about the new brother he is going to have. “Edward is in mummy’s tummy.” When we see other babies we tell Charlie, “you’re going to have a baby like this, a baby brother”. My daughter is also finishing her PhD and is working hard to get it done before the new baby comes. Charlie goes to nursery three days a week, spends Thursday with his Mum and Friday shared with his Dad and his Grandpa. Recently at weekends Sam works on Saturday and Charlie spends the day with Daddy. In the two weeks before this incident occurred, I had visited to look after Charlie on Thursday and Friday one week and Friday and Saturday the following week. We all noticed that Charlie found it hard to cope when all three of us were there together; he was crying and fretful. I found it better to stay out of the way first thing in the morning when we were all in the house. Once his parents had gone and we had waved goodbye at the window Charlie was fine. He didn’t cry and played happily enjoying the things we did together. I wondered if his fretfulness was because he knew that if I was there, both Mummy and Daddy were going away.
Sam knows that Charlie misses her and she misses having time with him and when she decided to join in with his game and make him ‘her baby’ I believe she made a decision to do what she always tries to do – validate his feelings. She was telling him it’s OK to want Mummy to come and pick you up and cuddle you, you are still my baby, this is a game we can play together.
My own mother would have seen this as manipulation, something not to be encouraged. I can remember being conflicted myself as a young mother with my instinct to ‘give in to the child’ and guilt that I would ‘ruin her’. As a grandmother I have the time to reflect and to try to understand this most complex of relationships between parent and child. I have the pleasure of watching and learning from my daughter who has very clear ideas of how she wants to parent. And to this observation I also bring the voices of researchers like cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik and psychologists Terry Brazleton and Stanley Greenspan and the new sociologists of childhood who are able to tell us so much more about the developing child than either myself as a young mother or my mother knew.
Charlie was doing what toddlers do; he was playing, using his imagination to create a game and using that game to manipulate the world around him. Gopnik documents how from around eighteen months toddlers are able to start pretending and can present counter-factuals, imagining the way things might be different from how they are. Charlie was pretending to be hurt in order to get his Mum to pick him up and cuddle him, he was imagining a world where his Mum was totally available to him and when she responded to his game and ‘pretended’ he was a baby, he responded. It became a collaborative game.
What does this tell us about Charlie’s development? He obviously has a good understanding of both physical and psychological causality. If you fall on stones, you can be hurt. If you cry because you are hurt, someone will comfort you. He was using play to experiment, ‘if I pretend to fall and be hurt, will my Mum comfort me?” Charlie was trying to get his mother to give him what he wanted, her attention and comfort through his pretend game. He has a theory of mind; he knows that other minds are different from his and that he can influence them.
Charlie also knows what the people around him are like. He understands the psychology of his mother; he knows that his mother and father always try to validate his feelings (even if they don’t always succeed). Since he was a baby he has been watching her and listening to her, he has learned that she will respond to his needs. We can’t fully understand Charlie’s behavior without considering the psychological, social and cultural influences on him. The nurturing environment that Charlie has grown up in has influenced his behavior.
Charlie’s feelings and behaviours, like all toddlers are complex and Sam’s ability to empathise with his feelings and respond compassionately to his behavior is nurturing his capacity to feel empathy and compassion. Brazelton and Greenspan argue that nurturing emotional relationships in this way is the most crucial primary foundation for intellectual and social growth.
Sam and Mark seek at all times to develop a secure, empathetic and nurturing relationship with Charlie. I believe that his behavior in the garden shows he has learned to communicate his feelings, reflect on what he wants and share that with his mum. In sum, I would argue that Charlie’s actions demonstrate his ability to be an active agent to get his own emotional needs met. By responding to Charlie as she did, Sam shows him that it is OK to ask for her attention. She is helping him to build his mental understanding of relationships through their emotional interactions. Just as Charlie learnt as a small baby that he can cause other people to smile by smiling at them, he has learnt that pretending to be sad can cause his mum to comfort him. We know that the ability to understand another person’s feelings and to care about how they feel is learnt from the experience of such nurturing interaction.
In recounting this story to others I have found that lots of people react like my mother would have done; they believe that in responding as she did Sam was not doing the right thing. I disagree. I believe that this experience, along with many other similar experiences will help Charlie to grow up able to feel empathy because his parents have been empathetic and caring with him.
Let’s for a moment consider what it would mean not to validate Charlie’s feelings at this time. What is it we saying about children if we are to deny their feelings and override them with our own interpretation of what they mean. What if Sam had decided not to respond to Charlie’s call for comfort and justified this by saying, ‘it’s for his own good; ignore him, he’s only trying to manipulate me, if I give in this time, I’ll set up a pattern and make a rod for my own back’ etc etc. Following recent work by Elizabeth Young-Bruehler I would now name such attitudes as childist.
If Sam had denied Charlie’s feelings she would be saying her needs as an adult should be privileged over the needs of her child. It would reinforce the view that Charlie as a child couldn’t know his own mind, that as a child his emotions were somehow less important than hers. It denies the ability of the child to judge their own emotional states and needs and denies children’s agency and competence. Such attitudes position children as ontologically different from adults and that ‘difference’ is couched in terms of children being somehow incomplete, which allows adults to justify their behavior towards them in terms of the adults they will become, not the children they are. It legitimizes the exertion of adult power over children, as adults are both judge and jury in deciding what emotions/behaviour should be attended to and which not. It reinforces an adult view of how children’s lives should be lived, how they should develop and respond to events in their lives. Such attitudes render individual children invisible and legitimate children’s subjugation to the world of adults. It means that the needs of children are not met. This is what I mean by childism. However, such childist attitudes are so embedded in our culture that we find it difficult to name them as such. The most recent research from sociology, child development and psychology shows us that children have been underestimated and this has led to childist attitudes. We know differently now and our job is to unpick these attitudes, realise they are based on false information and change them.
From Charlie’s point of view, it is his parents’ attitudes toward him that matters most. However, he is growing up in a society where childism is prevalent and he will encounter many, if not the majority of adults who have childist attitudes and will deny him his right to be heard and fail to meet his expressed needs. Confronting childist attitudes and naming them as such has to be both a personal and a political act. I am on that journey – join me.