It started with her playacting our bedtime routine, which included the struggles and disruptions. She lay down in her bed and I pretended to say goodnight. “Now stay in your bed!” I said with far more glee and mirth in my voice than I usually have when it’s way past her bedtime. I closed the door and heard her, giggling, run to the door. When she opened it, I playfully shouted “Get back in bed!” It was a nice change for both of us that I could do this playfully, because on most nights when she is refusing to stay in bed I am barely able to contain my frustrated rage. She squealed, I chased her back to bed, and she immediately announced, “Do it again!”
Each time, I began to back away from the door a little further so as to draw out the suspense she would feel peeking out of the door. Then I hid in the bathroom, forcing her to venture out of her room to see where I had gone. “Do it again, Daddy!” she shrieked each time she found me. Before long, she was counting to five and I was hiding in all over the apartment: in the closets and bathtubs, under the kitchen table, behind counters and chairs and beds. At one point I snuck into her room after she had left it and hid behind her chair in her room. It didn’t even faze her that I had somehow found a hiding place in the same room she had been counting in. If she was having a hard time finding me, she would call out, “Where are you, Daddy?” and I would answer, “In here!”
And then I suggested she should hide. She clapped and jumped with the novelty and excitement of this idea. “I’ll hide in here!” she announced, opening up the linen closet in the hall.
“Don’t tell me!” I protested.
“You go in there,” she pointed to her room, “and count to five, and then come out. I’ll hide in here and you can find me.” I once again tried to explain that she wasn’t supposed to tell me where to find her, but she was having none of it. So I complied; I counted to five, then I came out of her room and went straight to the linen closet. She laughed and yelped with delight, not the slightest bit perturbed that it had taken me hardly any time or effort to find her. Apparently, finding and being found are more fun to her than hiding.
D.W. Winnicott, my all-time favorite child development theorist, often played a game with children in his therapy where he would draw a line on a page and then let the child draw another line in addition to that line. Back and forth they would go, taking turns drawing lines on the page as a picture took shape. No rules or restrictions were expressed beyond the expectations that each would take turns and the lines would be on the page. This game provided the child with a safe and open activity to explore collaboratively in a creative and unrestricted way, but with enough boundaries for the exploration to have structure and, therefore, meaning. This is the kind of play children are naturally drawn to engage, and if they can find a safe and inviting environment with willing co-participants, they will find a game like this on their own. Hide-and-Seek is a universal game not because of some toy manufacturer’s ubiquitous marketing; this isn’t “Candyland.” It’s the natural evolution of play that comes from a child’s inherent curiosity about seeking and finding.
All of us can relate. Perhaps Hide-and-Seek was a favorite game of yours as a child. When I was a teenager, my church youth group loved to play a game we called “Sardines,” which was a bit like Hide-and-Seek in reverse: one person hides while the rest of the group searches. Once someone finds the hider, they too hide in that same place. Eventually everyone is packed into a small place like the eponymous fish product. I’m sure you can imagine how fun this would be for a church youth group, involving dozens of people and the endless hiding places afforded by a church building. You don’t have to be a little child to appreciate the joys and thrills of seeking and being sought. (I’m sure there’s something to explore in the developmental stage of an adolescent needing to hide in the same place as all of his peers, but I’ll save that for a different post.)
Curly Fries loves to be surprised, and yet she also loves to be in control of the surprise. She tells me to hide, then asks for regular clues as to where I am. She owns the thrill of finding me as if the work were hers alone, despite my helping her by sounding out my location in answering her calls. The joy comes further in the repetition; she knows what it’s like to find me, and yet the excitement of finding me again and again – sometimes in the same places – only increases. But when it comes to hiding, she wants to be found out right away. As she gets older, she will find a new delight in the ability to stump her pursuers, looking for hiding places that make it ever more difficult to be found. Right now, however, it’s the being found, not the being sought, that delights her the most.
There have been a lot of times in my life when I have wanted to be found without being sought. I’ve not always known how to make it clear to others where to find me. Sometimes it’s because I’m ashamed to go against the rules and give away my position; other times I don’t have the voice to call out my position; still other times I’m not even sure where I am to direct others to find me. I’m touched by the glee that Curly Fries found in telling me where she would be hiding even before she hid, directing me exactly to the hiding spot she’d already chosen. The thrill for her wasn’t in making me work to pursue her, but in being found.
This is the same joy she saw mirrored in me each time she discovered my hiding place. She enjoys pursuing me, with a little guidance. Her excitement is in the achievement of seeking and finding, and seeing my own delight in being found. And hear me, people: for a 6’1” man in a 1300-square-foot apartment, I found some pretty good hiding places. I mean, I even fooled her mother in one particularly good spot, which I am going to keep secret.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Play is serious business. It’s where we discover and exhibit our true selves, and it’s fundamentally important for children. I’m reminded of how important this naturally evolving game of Hide-and-Seek was for me. I’m reminded me of how healing and connecting it can be to feel found, even when I’m not sure I want to be sought. Perhaps you might also ponder the ways you hide, the ways you seek, and ways you are healed when found. May we all be found a little bit more readily.