Another common answer she gives to the question, “What did you do today?” is to start listing the names of friends she played with that day. They tend to be the same few names, which would suggest that she has a little group of friends in her classroom. We understand the names she gives, and we know the kids she’s talking about. There’s one kid who has been in her class with her since they were roughly two months old, and she always mentions him. To protect this poor kid, we’ll call him Mike. I’ve written about “Mike” before, in one of the conversations I recounted in this post. As it turns out, Curly Fries mentions Mike nearly every day. And she also tells us, nearly every day, that Mike got “mad.” I’ll ask her what Mike got mad over, and the answer differs. Sometimes it’s that he wanted to go home. Sometimes he wanted more milk. Once or twice, she told me he wanted a “chair.” On one occasion she told us about a particular mess that Mike made in his pants, which he then spread across the room. “Yucky!” she told us emphatically. After mentioning this to her teachers the next day, we had the story confirmed that poor Mike indeed made a mess in his pants and took it out and spread it across the floor and that it was truly yucky.
We had a new experience of Mike the other night. Curly Fries, during her nightly bedtime ritual of reading books, took to reading a book to us. She sat in her bean bag and “read” a book out loud to us. She held it up, opened towards us to show us the pictures, and said, “See?” She turned the page, “read” the story, and held the book up and said, “See?” Then, obviously reenacting her classroom storytime in the role of teacher, she said, “Sit down on your bottom.” We were already sitting, but it became clear that she was speaking to her imaginary peers. She turned a page, then again: “Sit down!” And then, to add to the hilarity of the recreated scene, she said, “Mike! Sit down! Sit down for me, Mike! On your bottom!” She pointed to “Mike” sternly as her mother and I stifled laughter.
Poor Mike. He has clearly become the whipping boy. At least, he has in our daughter’s construction of how she understands her classmates. I’m sure Mike is not the only child who has gotten “mad” over milk or a chair or something or other, and I’m sure plenty of kids mess their pants and don’t sit down during storytime. But for our little girl, Mike is the bad kid who always gets in trouble.
Perhaps Mike really is the bad kid. Maybe if we polled the teachers, they would all agree. I’m sure our little girl isn’t making this up out of thin air. But it also seems like an illustration of the particular developmental stage our little girl has entered. Child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to this stage as the “preoperational” or “intuitive” stage, in which a child is able to perceive her world and express her experience of it through language, but without an understanding of how the child’s own perception conforms to “operations” or systems of thought. It is egocentric and dominated by how the child feels or perceives the world – intuitive experience, and not rational or concrete thought. Erik Erikson described this stage as being about developing autonomy vs. shame and initiative vs. guilt, and Lawrence Kohlberg noted that this is evident in that a child determines a sense of morality based on the magnitude of consequences that follow an action instead of the motivations of that action. For example, a child that accidentally knocks over a hundred blocks is more at fault than a child who purposefully knocks over ten blocks.
All of this is essential to understand the work of yet another developmental theorist, James Fowler, who wrote an influential book about the development of faith in children and adults. He describes this phase in his book Stages of Faith as “Intuitive-Projective Faith.” Fantasy and imagination become powerful motivators in the child’s understanding of the world, and it is the beginning of the child’s exploration of images and stories. Fowler writes that children in this stage “combine fragments of stories and images given by their cultures into their own clusters of significant associations” (128) and develop “the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings towards the ultimate conditions of existence” (134).
I realize that I have thrown a lot of child developmental theory into the last two paragraphs. I share it because I’m a nerd and I love this stuff, but also because it is a potent way of understanding what is happening when our little girl recounts the trouble that Mike creates each day. Even at such an early age, she is developing “faith” as an understanding of what is ultimately important and meaningful in this life. She may not yet be able to speak to the identity of God, but she understands that the world in which she lives has expectations about what sort of behaviors are acceptable and what happens when one behaves contrary. She has fixated on Mike, and all of the images and stories she carries about the trouble Mike gets into – whether he’s getting “mad” about something or making a mess or whatever – are a way of her inner fantasy incorporating the concepts of being good and being bad. Mike is bad, and by contrast, she is good. When she sits and acts out storytime by telling Mike he needs to sit down, she is inhabiting the role of teacher, or moral authority, enacting her nascent but already compelling sense that “good” kids sit on their bottoms and listen to the adult.
This is good. She is engaging her experience-world with imagination, fully inhabiting her intuition about the images and roles she has witnessed throughout the day. Any parent would be glad to know that his child understands some difference between being good and bad, and every parent wants his child to be a “good” child. But as a conscientious parent who seeks to raise a grounded and well-rounded child, this is also a little scary. Fowler writes, “The dangers in this stage arise from possible ‘possession’ of the child’s imagination by unrestrained images of terror and destructiveness, or from the witting or unwitting exploitation of her or his imagination in the reinforcement of taboos and moral or doctrinal expectations” (134). In other words, if we’re not careful, our little girl can become so consumed at such an early age in trying to be the “good” child, and in unconsciously vilifying the “bad” child, that she loses the ability to fully develop, consumed by anxiety that she might slip up and act out the role of the “bad” child. And the consequences of this might seem, within a young child’s intuitive mind, to be quite frightening. There are plenty of ways that our culture does exploit a child’s imagination to force a particular behavior. (“He sees you when you’re sleeping…”) At such a young age, it’s important to me as a parent that she not develop an unhealthy, terrorizing image of adults or, worse, of God.
What encourages me is that she keeps playing with Mike. So he’s the “bad kid” in all of her stories, but he hasn’t disappeared. He still comes to school and, every time I see him, he’s smiling and playing like all the other kids. It’s developmentally appropriate that our little girl is struggling to please the adults in her life, and notices when other kids (and also she herself) displease adults. But what makes this fertile ground for growth is that she can rely on what Erikson described in his earliest developmental stage: trust vs. mistrust. No matter what, I want Curly Fries to know that she can depend on her parents to love her, and that the teachers and parents and adults in her life will not spurn or destroy her for being the bad kid. This reassurance that she can trust us is what gives her the freedom to grow and imagine, to fantasize within her own intuitive experience of the world.
So tonight, I fully expect her to tell me whatever trouble Mike got himself into during the day, reenacting whatever story she has about his shenanigans. But Mike still has parents that love him, and teachers that teach him, and friends like my daughter that play with him. Isn’t that what all of us want? In fact, this is the very story of my faith, which is reenacted with her every time Mike gets in trouble but is still comforted and accepted. That’s the story I reenact with my own daughter, and that’s the story of the God in which I put my faith. What better story is there?