Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Life Cycle of the Butterfly, or The Price of Freedom


Recently, I was talking to the mother of a young woman just graduating high school, about to head for college. Her mother was worried about her, wondered how she was going to manage on her own without her mother’s protection. As I listened, I reflected on an event at the preschool the week before.

The preschool has a tradition of studying the life cycle of the butterfly during the second half of the year. Each class grows a butterfly by keeping a caterpillar in a container in the classroom, feeding it, watching it spin a chrysalis and after some time, hatch into a beautiful butterfly. All the children in each classroom were very invested in this potential transformation. They watched the caterpillar disappearing inside the chrysalis with fascination and would periodically check on its progress. When the butterfly started to appear, the excitement was electric. The yellow butterflies became the classrooms’ new pets; the children frequently passed by the container to admire them.

In the 4-year old classroom, the final ceremony of releasing the butterfly was about to begin. The ceremony had a special poignancy because of the symbolic correspondence to the children preparing to leave the classroom where they had felt safe and comfortable during the school year, say goodbye to their beloved teachers, and and to some of their classmates who were moving on to a new school and not following them into the 5-year old classroom next year. The children, like the butterfly, were preparing to leave home.

The ceremony was held in the playground. The teacher brought out the container and opened it. All the children watched as the butterfly flapped its wings and sailed gracefully into the sky. Then, in front of all those eager little upturned faces, the unthinkable happened. A bird swooped down, there was a short flutter of small yellow and big black wings, and the butterfly disappeared. The dismayed teacher struggled to deal with the situation, while the children looked on in horror.

How does one help young children accept the brutality of Nature and the inevitable losses in life? The teacher’s attempts were as successful as possible, but the best solution was demonstrated by two boys in the class whom I happened upon in the sandbox later in the morning. I interrupted their busy activity to ask them what they were building. One of them looked up with a wonderful frown and grimace. “A bird trap!” he exclaimed. I thought to myself, “the magic of pretend”.

Later, I suggested to the teacher that when they are older the children may look back on this event as a “teachable moment”  and appreciate that there is no freedom without risks.

Trouble on the Playground III

img_6417-scaled1000This is my third posting for “Trouble on the Playground”. It describes another 5-year old scenario that displays the superlative skills of a teacher, whom we will call Pat. The same group of “George”, “Polly”, and others, were playing pirates. Jack was desperate to play. He eagerly claimed the role of “third mate”. The game involved multiple pirate activities – building a fire and tending it, going on treasure-hunting expeditions, looking out for enemies, hunting and gathering, and more that I can’t remember. To make things worse for our friend, Jack, it was taking place in numerous venues. The fire was being tended in one part of the climbing structure. The look-outs assembled in another part of that structure. Small bands of pirates would episodically take off on a treasure-hunting or food-gathering expedition in what seemed to me to be a dizzyingly unpredictable manner (but I am not 5-yo).

But what I really want to highlight is Pat’s talents. She posted herself at the top of the climbing structure so that she could be in the best position to keep an eye on Jack. Her job was actually multifaceted. While keeping an eye on Jack – who periodically got distracted and wandered off – she made sure that all the numerous new pirates who were attracted by the raucous pirate cries broadcast throughout the playground had pirate jobs (“Susan, could Tommy help you tend the fire? No? There are too many cooks? Well, let’s see if Jamie needs help in the lookout tower.”), she ran interference in disputes over the proper comportment of pirates and other things, and she made sure that there were no serious accidents. I watched her in amazed admiration.

Jack was very happy. However, the next day he couldn’t find his way into George and Polly’s play again and was bitter and downcast. We tried to help, but this time it didn’t work. Then a strange thing happened. Polly went away for a week’s vacation with her family, and suddenly Jack and George were playing together every day like the best of buddies. I could understand the logic of this happy eventuality, but I was surprised at the rapidity of the transition and the degree of Jack’s success. It got me to thinking about how mysterious friendships are anyway, especially for young children, and how sometimes a small factor in the mix can make such a big difference. I found myself waiting with anxiety for Polly’s return.

Trouble on the Playground II


Another example of trouble on the playground is that of my old friend, “Jack” (5-years old), who claims “George” – somewhat unilaterally – as his best friend. George is very socially competent and frequently pairs up with another socially skilled child, “Polly”, on the playground to create elaborate pretend games that are a little beyond Jack at the moment. To help you understand what Jack is up against, I will give you an illustration of one of these games. The bear hunters search the playground for bears that they plan to catch and eat. When they find one (invisible to me) they “freeze” him with a “freeze gun” that derives from a game on a previous day. Suddenly, Polly – apparently having a crisis of conscience – declares that they really shouldn’t hunt bears because they might look like teddy bears. They should hunt lions instead. This change in itself could throw a child like Jack off. If he had been distracted (as he often is) and missed the shift in target of the hunters, he might refer inappropriately to “bears”, and attract the criticism or even scorn of his playmates. (“Bears!? We aren’t hunting bears!” – a 5-yo would not be likely to explain, “We used to be hunting bears, but now we are hunting lions.”) At any rate, the children race after the lions and point their freeze guns at one in the bushes when, suddenly, Polly again seems to feel conflicted and declares that a “friendly trap” is a better idea. Since Polly was in the position of leader at this point and George was backing her up, the group readily agreed and pointed out the location of the trap on the ground near the bench. If Jack had caught up with the play at this point and had tried to rejoin them he might have unwittingly stepped into the trap and earned the opprobrium of the other hunters or – worse – he might have been commanded to “be the lion” and stay in the trap for the rest of the playground time.

This situation calls for adult intervention. On the playground of this preschool – contrary to many elementary schools, particularly – the real teachers (not “recess monitors” – the name tells it all) are on the playground to help the children negotiate social situations. I watched these skilled teachers support Jack. One of them tried to help him keep track of what was going on so that he would not get left behind. When finally that did not work, she helped him begin a play with another child – equally intelligent but at a similar level of social adeptness – with whom eventually he found a happy alternative.

Trouble on the Playground


This posting is the first in a series about a problem that challenges many parents that I know – how to help their child with problems on the playground or the lunchroom at school.

In this case, the child comes up to the parent and complains that kids were being mean to her at school. Now, of course, first you have to find out if this is correct. If it is true, it is an important problem and a subject for another blog. Here I am talking about a child who frequently perceives herself as a victim in social interactions whereas the teacher and you suspect that the real problem is the child’s difficulty negotiating a complicated social situation among her peers. Let’s imagine the case of a 9-year old girl, Sophie. The story the Sophie tells you will be something like this: “Janie was mean to me today and then Mrs. Jones was mean to me, too. I just can’t take it any more.”

Inside, you feel sad and frustrated at the same time. You have heard this story or one like it many times. Sophie has trouble keeping up with the rapidly flowing improvisational process of 9-year old girls on the playground. It is easier in the classroom, where there is structure – planned activities, assigned roles – but on the playground she can’t figure out to join a group, or when something changes in the fluid activity of the girls, she often seems to just get lost and drop out of the action.  As a result, Sophie frequently has no one to play with and has little success in initiating play with her classmates. You wonder why the teachers seem to disappear at recess, when your Sophie needs them more than ever. On top of everything, you are upset by Sophie’s including Mrs. Jones in the “mean” category. You thought that Sophie had a good relationship with Mrs. Jones, in contrast with her last year’s teacher, so this makes you feel even more disappointed.

Here are my suggestions for handling the situation. They derive from Peter Fonagy’s model of “mentalization” (Fonagy et al, 2011).

1. First, wait until she is calm to talk to her. If she is in an agitated state or begins to get into one when you begin to respond to her, comfort her and tell her that you will talk about it later. You also pay attention to your own feelings. If you are upset, you will not be able to comfort her, and talking to her calmly will be difficult.

2. Do not argue with her. That will turn you into a bad guy. For example, do not ask (even if you are thinking it), “Do you think you might have done something to make Janie upset before she was mean to you?”


3. Sympathize with her feelings. “It must be terrible to feel that everyone is against you!’

4. Break down her description of events into small pieces. Parent: “Help me understand. You were just playing a game with Ann, and Janie came up and asked if she could play with you, and you said, ‘No’.”  Sophie: “It was a game that only two people can play.” Parent: “Oh, of course. Only two people can play that game. But didn’t you just tell me that recently Janie didn’t save a place by her at the lunch table and you felt very sad?” Sophie: “Yes. She never saves me a seat, and I always save one for her.” Parent: “Hmm, but I guess you must felt kind of sad and left out when you had to sit at another table?” Sophie: “Yes, and I never do that to her.” Parent: “OK. But you know how bad it feels to be left out.” Sophie: “Yes.” Parent: “Just for a moment, what if we imagined that Janie felt left out when you were playing a game with Ann for only two people.” Sophie: “No, because it was for only two people.” Parent: “You are exactly right. The game was for two people, but I am guessing that Janie might have felt left out anyway just the same way you felt left out at the lunch  table, because there might have been a reason she didn’t save you a seat since I know Janie really likes you.” Sophie: “Well, she did say that she tried to save me a seat, but I didn’t believe her.” Parent: “I know. It is hard to believe someone when you feel so terribly disappointed.”

5. Slowly continue to introduce the inherent inconsistencies in her story (It may take several iterations of this experience to get to this stage) so that you can help her arrive at a version of the story that is not as black and white as she perceived it initially.

This process has been described by Fonagy and his colleagues and has as its goal the achievement of the developmental capacity of what they call “mentalization”, related to the cognitive psychology concept of “theory of mind” (TOM). TOM is demonstrated in the “false belief” experiment (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). In this experiment, a child is shown something deceptive (such as a doll in a crayon box). When a stranger comes into the room the child is asked what the stranger expects to find in the box. Three year olds generally said that the stranger will expect to find the doll, but five-year olds realize that the stranger isn’t privy to the deception and respond, “crayons”. This capacity to imagine another’s mind and realize that your own beliefs are not necessarily “real” vanishes in everyone in some contexts, such as under extreme stress, but it is hard for some children to achieve in the first place. That is not because they are unintelligent but because that particular developmental step needs extra help. Our imaginary “Sophie” might be perfectly capable of empathizing with another person when she is not stressed. but when she is stressed, such as when she is on the playground or lunchroom at school, she may lose this capacity. You can help your child by realizing that she is struggling with this part of her development and scaffolding this process.

Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist E, & Target M (2011). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, Kindle Edition.

Gopnik A & Astington J. (1988). Children’s understanding of representational change and its relation to the understanding of false belief and appearance-reality distinction, Child Development 59:26-37.