It was not very long ago when children wore little adult clothes and were expected to act like little adults (or rather act as if they didn’t exist) in an adult world. Cultural expectations obviously play a huge part in the way children are expected to behave. It’s easy to tell when you’re doing something that is a cultural outlier. You can feel eyes on you like you can feel a slow mounting chill in the wintertime, but when you dare to look up and glance around all eyes quickly avert. There is a lot of judgment out there. This little video says it best- without saying anything at all, surprisingly!
As harshly as parents are judged in this society, children are judged just the same. A well meaning aunt will ask about how far along she is on potty training. Grandparents will ask my daughter to sing the alphabet song on Skype. Strangers will comment on how well behaved she is, or ignore us completely when she isn’t. All of these little innocent and minor realities of toddler life forms the current of social pressure to which most all children begin to feel they must succumb.
As dark a picture as this may paint, I do see those small shimmers of real childhood emerge, moments when a child is acting more like the human mammal that they are than the prettily packaged set of rote skills and “cuteness” of a Huggies model. Today when the kiddos and I were outside on a hot afternoon, there was a bit of a spat over sitting in the wagon. It seemed there wasn’t enough foot room at the floor of the wagon for four toddler feet to occupy simultaneously. As you would expect, many an accusation and a high pitched whine was traded. After a while, my older toddler decided to put his feet up and so that they hung over the sides of the wagon. This idea delighted both children, and they carried on making up stories and entertaining half-conversations with one another. Somehow, as time went on a piece of chalk was acquired by all three toddlers. First they began chalking upon the wagon, but at one point my daughter shoved the chalk into the older toddler’s face.
“Owww!” was the natural response. I wanted to immediately intervene and proclaim a positive but limiting phrase from my discipline repertoire (chalk is for using on the sidewalk, not on faces), but something told me to wait. Happily, the waiting did pay off, as the offended toddler began to giggle and chalk my daughter right back. What ensued was about a half an hour of chalking on one another, lots of giggles and exclamations of surprise. The wildness in which they “assaulted” one another reminded me of lion cubs wresting and nipping at one another, getting ready to hunt down prey. It made me think of a time when I was in grade school, probably in 3rd grade, back when I was a complete and utter tomboy. My buddies and I all came up with this nonsensical game in which we stood in a circle and quickly stepped on one another’s feet before hopping back into place. Some kind of silly, quick footed version of wack-a-mole. My father used to come to school to help out once a week (THE BEST Dad!), and when he came I proudly demonstrated our idiotically enthralling made-up game. Immediately I was put in my place. “You’re gonna break your toes!” he protested.
Back to sitting on the bench or waiting in line for tether ball I guess….
Which brings me back to my train of thought. Sometimes we just have to give up on putting on the charade that we are all sophisticated humans, with intelligent tools made for very specific, quantifiable, understandable things and just be the impulsive, creative, social mammals that we are. ALL mammals play amongst themselves when they are young. This play often looks like fighting or aggression, but it is obvious that it is a frisky sport in which the fun is in the play, for no purpose other than the fun itself. The strait-laced, “use toys as they are intended, no talking in the halls, no running indoors” attitude toward children is stifling to them, and it is debilitatingly exhausting to enforce for us. If they cannot have the opportunity to truly play with one another the way nature intended when they are young, then when?