At a gathering of family and close friends recently, a young couple asked me a question about their almost 3-year old son. I had observed the child and had found him to be intelligent, charming, and warmly connected to his parents. He also seemed sensitive, perhaps one of Kagan’s “inhibited” children (Kagan & Moss, 1983). The child, whom I will call “David” (not his real name), had been anxiously asking his parents about whether he might be put in jail, about whether he was a “bad guy”. He seemed to associate these fears to bible stories he was hearing in Sunday school, particularly the stories of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, and the story of Jesus being arrested. This was confusing to his parents, because in their understanding of these narratives, it was the “good guys” who were arrested. His parents told me that they constantly reassure him that he is a good boy, that they love him, and that he is safe. David’s parents further explained that he seems to ask these questions about being thrown in jail whenever a stranger is in the house, asking whether that person is going to throw him in jail. His parents decided to avoid stories about jail and to limit the bible stories since many of the concepts seemed too complex for him to process at this age. They asked me what I thought.
This question is fascinating from several points of view. First of all, it highlights the difference between the meanings an adult makes of certain narratives and those made by a preschool child. Second, it underscores the often discrepant levels of maturation of different developmental capacities in the same child. Third, it reveals aspects of a crucial cultural context that forms the way narratives transmit important beliefs and values in a society. Consideration of these factors may help parents in their efforts to talk to their children about complex subjects.
What about what Tronick calls the “age possible” meanings that two people of different developmental ages make of the same story (Tronick, 2007)? An example is offered by the 4-year old whose mother was trying to explain to her the generational relationship of people at a family reunion. The mother explained, “Your nana is your daddy’s mommy.” The little girl thought for a moment and then asked in wonder, “But how did she get him into the car seat?” I am also reminded of a little patient, a 3-year old who witnessed people jumping from the World Trade Towers on television and in a play session suggested to me that children could “jump big” in a playground because it is “softer” (Harrison & Tronick, 2007). I took her to be referring to a “soft landing”, though I knew that no number of soft mattresses at the foot of the WTT could have cushioned the fall of the jumpers. In David’s case, the meaning he derived from “being put in jail” was that you were a bad guy, period. He was not able to consider a nuanced meaning in which a good guy was unjustly jailed. It is clear that good guys and bad guys are on his mind these days. Remember the “terrible two’s”?. His age-typical anxiety about the result of noncompliance to parental demands (whether real acts of noncompliance or imagined ones) led him to fear that his “bad guy” feelings and thoughts would brand him as a bad guy and cause someone to throw him in jail. A “stranger” is a preferable enforcer of that terrible punishment, because a stranger can be seen as “all bad”. If it were one of his beloved parents who threatened him with jail, how could he manage the stress of fearing one that he also loved and depended on?
The second issue is that of discrepant developmental capacities. Human development is not a smooth, linear process. It occurs in a messy process of hits and misses, halts and bumps forward, and reiterative efforts to master. In many children, this messy process occurs at very different rates and in different ways in different domains of competency. For example, some children have precocious motor coordination but are slow to speak. Others speak sophisticated sentences early but struggle to do one rung of the monkey bars or are insecure about climbing and jumping. If you have significant discrepancies in your developmental capacities, you are left with a subjective sense of inner imbalance, sometimes even of incipient chaos, in the background. It does not always bother you, but when you experience a threat, it can emerge. This could be called “anxiety”, but that is a rather crude description of a complicated subjective experience. I do not know David well enough to guess about whether he has a discrepant developmental profile. The inheritance of “inhibited” genes is another possibility. However, I do know many children who fit this picture of uneven development.
Finally, there is the interesting factor of culture. In an earlier posting, I wrote about how another 3-year old sat through a 6-hour wedding dinner with a minimum of fuss. I described what I saw his French parents do in order to teach him to sit at the table for long stretches. In any culture many core beliefs are transmitted by narratives. Children hear these narratives repeated over and over from early on and learn the culturally shared meanings that their parents convey to them. However, the meaning is not transmitted by language alone. Peter Fonagy talks about this process. He says, “Human communication is specifically adapted to allow the transmission of cognitively opaque cultural knowledge, kind-generalizable generic knowledge, and shared cultural knowledge” (Fonagy, lecture IPMH, May, 2012). This knowledge is transmitted by what he calls “ostensive communication cues” such as eye contact, turn taking with contingent reactivity, and special vocal tones. In a study Fonagy cited, infants of 18 months old were asked by the researcher to pass an object, a doll. In the control group, the researcher gave no cues directed to the infant, but in the study group, the researcher first smiled and said hello to the infant. Then in both groups, the researcher smiled at one doll and made a disgust face at the other. At that point, another researcher came into the room and the baby was asked to give the second person a doll. Only in the group in which the experimenter had smiled and said hello, did the babies give the second person the doll the first experimenter had smiled at, the doll designated as desirable . In other words, the researcher had initiated a relationship with the baby and in that context, the baby attended to the “ostensive cues” (smiling or disgust face) she then gave him. The infant trusted the researcher who smiled and said hello and then judged the information she gave him to be reliable.
So, in response to my young friends’ question, I would say that I support their decision to protect David from anxiety provoking bible stories for the present. In avoiding certain bible stories they are acknowledging a dysynchrony between the dominant contemporary middle class U.S. culture and a culture in which bible stories are a primary means of transmitting beliefs. In the latter culture, bible stories would not just be read but from early on would be told as stories, with accompanying “ostensive cues”. In that culture, the parent would communicate – with eye contact, turn taking rhythms, and tone of voice – who the bad guys and who the good guys are in every story, over and over. In that way, David would learn the salient meanings – with associated values – of his culture. Of course, he might still have fears of being a bad guy, because of his age-typical struggles with his aggression and negativity. It is less likely, though, that his fears would focus on bible stories.
Harrison, Alexandra & Tronick, Ed (2007). Now we have a playground: Emerging new ideas of therapeutic action”, J Amer Psychoanal Assoc., 55/3: 853-874.
Kagan, Jerome & Moss, Howard A (1983) From Birth to Maturity: A Study in Psychological Development, Yale University Press.
Tronick, Ed (2007). The Neurobehavioral and Social-Emotional of Infants and Children, WW Norton.
photograph by Joshua Sparrow