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A New Vivian Paley Book
Vivian Gussin Paley has a new book out, and that is always a cause for celebration for me. Especially when the title is A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (The University of Chicago Press). Paley taught nursery school and kindergarten for many years, and her books --such as You Can't Say You Can't Play, Kwanzaa and Me, and Bad Guys Don't Have Birthdays--are like jewels, compact and beautiful. Her new work is about how fantasy and dramatic play are disappearing from most preschools and kindergartens, replaced by academic lessons and "school-readiness."

I agree with Paley that this is a tragic error in education and child development, especially since real readiness for school comes from the stories that children invent in their play, not from worksheets or flashcards. Paley writes, "Nearly everything in my training as a teacher led me to believe that the questions were supposed to come from me. Preoccupied by my own questions, I did not perceive that the books I so eagerly read to the children were not the only or even the primary source of stories in the classroom. The children were, in fact, natural-born storytellers who created literature as easily as I turned the pages of a book."
The story below provides an example of adults who are so preoccupied with their own questions for children that they forget to listen for the child's own story.

The need to connect
Excerpt from a talk by Larry Cohen in Needham, Massachusetts, 2004

Emma, my thirteen-year-old daughter, told me about a father and daughter she observed at the park the other day. The girl, around five years old, was curled up in a corner, crying and fussing. The dad came over and asked her what was wrong. She told him to go away and leave her alone. So he left, but the girl immediately whined for him to come back. Frustrated, he came back, and asked her again what was the matter, more forcefully this time. She pushed him away again, he left, and once more she wailed for him to come back. This went on for some time. Emma told me she wasn't sure what the dad should have done instead, but she said she wished she had a copy of Playful Parenting in her backpack to give him!

That story reminds me that we always need to reconnect when there is a disconnection--like when that little girl was so upset at the park. But we can't force children to restore that connection exactly the way we'd like. This dad wanted to talk to his daughter and help her with her upset feelings. So far so good. Why then did she push him away? Because he came over with an agenda, a specific idea for how to interact with her. He insisted that she tell him, in words, exactly what was the matter. She had a different idea.

It would have been lovely if she had said, "I don't want to talk about it in words quite yet, could you just hold me or sit nearby while I cry about it, then I'll tell you what happened when I am ready to?" But alas, this was a real kid, not a wild fantasy. So instead, his questioning agitated her, and her agitation frustrated him.

Why did she wail for him to come back? Because she still wanted a connection, but her way, not his way. That might not be fair, but after all, she was the one upset, and she is the young child, so I think it's important for us adults to bend a bit and let children decide how these reconnections ought to go.

What did she want? Probably just for him to sit quietly nearby and stop asking all those nosy questions, while she let out all her upset feelings. Quite often, children express these feelings first through tears, and only later, after the tears are done, can they tell the story of what happened. They may hear our "helpful" questions as an interruption, and just want us nearby, listening. They might also worry that if their story isn't "good enough," then they will be told to quit crying and get over it. (Adults often do say silly things like that).

I laughed when Emma suggested that what this dad needed was a copy of Playful Parenting, because I can remember countless times when I made the same mistake--with her and with other kids. I would rush over to comfort a distressed child, but my idea of comfort would not be what they had in mind. Instead of pausing to see what they needed from me, I would get all huffy, like this dad, about being rejected. I'd feel, like he seemed to, that nothing I did was right, since I got pushed away for coming close and screamed at for leaving.

Eventually, I learned a few rules that have helped me in situations like this. First, I try to keep my mouth shut as much as I can, to listen more than I talk when a child is upset. Second, if they tell me to go away, I take a few steps back and ask, "Is this far enough?" It sounds like a joke but I say this in all seriousness--I really want to know how close they want me to be in order for them to feel comforted but not intruded on. Third, I try to remember that tears and tantrums follow their own timetable, not mine. Kids are relieved and rejuvenated when they get to release a big pile of feelings, even if they are crying about "nothing."

Finally, I try to take a broad view of what counts as a connection--it isn't always a deep conversation. It might be a handshake, a hug, a long look in each other's eyes, a high-five. It might be, as with a young boy named Pete, having his action figure shake hands with my action figure. After Pete did this, I pointed out to his mom, who had described him as "unable to connect," how creative he actually was in making contact. He couldn't handle too much emotional intensity, but he found a way to shake hands with me his way--a playful way. She said wistfully, "You mean he isn't going to sit and tell me every detail of his day and every nuance of his feelings, like my girlfriends and I do?" Sorry. Happily, she was able to start recognizing that Pete's ways of interacting--like pillow fights and bumping his head into her side--are just as meaningful and full of connection as a deep conversation.
 
Larry Cohen
phone: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com

 
Larry Cohen
1680A Beacon Street | Brookline, MA 02445 | Tel/Fax: 617-713-0568

email: larjack@playfulparenting.com