I’ve written before on my longing to have a child, my thoughts on how I would teach my child about love, and probably strewn throughout many other posts are a lot of my thoughts on childhood and motherhood (and Teri as a father). I think about kids a lot, in part because helping families is one of the things I do, but also because I am so thankful to have gotten the gift of really understanding them from Camp Boggy Creek and my dear, if now faraway, friend and mentor, Dorcas Tomasek.
I have, over time, in addition to my scientific and technical knowledge, developed a strongly-held belief system about childhood. It’s something that made all the difference in my notion of children and my notion of parenting. At Camp Boggy Creek and all the Hole in the Wall Camps, Paul Newman, the founder of the system, believed strongly in the mythos of childhood. That mythos includes a pantheon of characters and experiences, for instances, starting at Boggy Creek sessions with Mr. Spivey, the hundred-year-old man who would paddle across the lake in a canoe and teach children the lessons Native Americans had taught him many years ago, on the same space, instilling in them a belief in magic, and by extension, in possibility. Newman, and by extension all of us who became part of this family he made, believed strongly that this mythos, and its pantheon, must belong to each child, must be their own to add to, to modify, to evolve. As they developed the story of the mythos, so too, the story would develop them.
Bruno Bettelheim was very influential in this thinking, as well. I should point out that Bettelheim was famously and tragically wrong in his belief that the autistic brain results from defective mothering – the “refrigerator mother” – something that would be quickly dismissed as foolishness merely by actually getting to know some autistic people and their mothers. This makes what I have to say about Bettelheim somewhat the reverse of what I had to say about Lovaas. In that latter case, he was incredibly influential in setting the bar high for what autistic people could be helped to do and become, but was problematic in his belief that behaviorism could change the fundamental nature of people, particularly applying it to odious conversion therapies. In this former case, Bettelheim’s ideas about autism are arrogant over-extensions of psychodynamic thinking, but he has some important things to say about childhood more broadly. Bettelheim was a complex figure in other ways, accused of internalized anti-semitism, ultimately committing suicide about 25 years ago, and … in any event, I mention him, and I have friends and colleagues who knew him (and I have been to see the Orthogenic school in its current guise, and it is a wondrous place, even if there is darkness in its past), but I am focusing on the kernel which seems to me wisdom.
That kernel is that fantasy, which we all too often call inappropriate, in children especially, but in adults as well, is not only appropriate but crucial. Rather than thinking of fantasy as a limitation in the young child’s brain (“Oh, he doesn’t know it’s not real, yet!”), fantasy should be seen as deeply functional. In simplest terms, it allows us to add exponentially to our experiences and our interactions with others, both deepening and broadening our understand of the world and our place in it. Bettelheim – who was a survivor of Buchenwald* – knew very well the idea that the future, itself, is ultimately entirely fantasy, and thus without fantasy came death, if not physically, then spiritually. This quote is a great example:
The child, so much more insecure than an adult, needs assurance that his need to engage in fantasy, or his inability to stop doing so, is not a deficiency. – Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
I am well known for embracing a rich inner life of fantasy. And I am unapologetic in it. This is a thing** that, at his best, Bettelheim wanted for all children, I believe in the hope that they could likewise become adults whose fantasy was a source of power and a workshop in which to refine their sense of identity. This is sorely needed, for we seem often to live in a sea of people lacking real, substantial identity (a thing certainly not to be much found in whether one’s iPhone is space grey or rose gold). This is evident in their lack of even an idea of role models, and especially the idea of role models or heroes that are not fictitious in nature, or even more often, not only fictitious but visually represented by actors or actresses, or in the form of comic book characters***.
The American Academy of Pediatrics had previously been staunch in their opposition to “screen time” for young children. They are revising this. Sadly, their logic is simply a fatalistic recognition that it is no longer realistic to suggest that young children not use screens and devices. Apropos of iPhones, however, one thing we have been thinking about as a family is that Teri and I spend a lot of our own time glued to devices. We have a deep and spiritual bond. We are at the moment, together at a coffee shop, both writing on our separate MacBooks. And Teri is close to me. I feel him in my blood. But I am increasingly concerned that we must manage our time – particularly on Facebook or other social media – in a different way in preparation for our child, because our child will not understand how to navigate the deep bond we have with each other in the way that Teri and I have learned to do so.
That is one reason I do not want the mother’s milk of my nurturance to be measured in dots per inch or achievements unlocked. The far greater one, in my belief system of childhood, is that my child will not be great if I do not support them in learning to imagine. My child will not outsource their imagination to Hollywood nor to Cupertino. I simply will not have it. My child will read books, yes, for they are richer in their nurturance of imagination by far than film. But more than read or retell stories, my child will create stories. I want this to be instilled in the curriculum not of their graduate life but beginning in their preschool life. And thus I want them (and Teri and me) to scarcely have time to devote to these screens, so busy should we be creating together.
Through fantasy, like me, my child will live not one but many lives. I hope that, like me, my child will be a multipotentialite (I didn’t know this word until recently, but I know the experience of it very, very well).
But whether my child is multipotentialite or not, through fantasy, my child will live many lives, at once and over time, and each of these lives they live, each of these worlds they create, each of these stories they hone, will teach them things of value about who they are, about who they were, about who they will be, about how they will change the world, and how and when they will allow themselves to be changed by the world. In this way, teaching them fantasy will be the most important thing Teri and I will do for them.
It will be, in fact, the way we give them their future.
* This is a kind of surreal thing. Bettelheim was released from Buchenwald in essence, as a sort of birthday present to Adolf Hitler from Adolf Hitler. One can hardly express or imagine the profound irony of such a thing.
** I wrote, initially, a think – which would be an equally good choice. Our notions of childhood have another think coming.
*** I feel there is much to say, as well, about this in isolation – why do so few young people, today, have role models? To me, this cannot be written off purely as postmodernism. Yes, we live in a more complex, dynamic, and pluralistic society. But, rather than erasing access to role models, to me, this amplifies it – in a world that were less complex, less dynamic, less pluralistic, would Malala be a role model or inspiration for me, for example? And though I seek to be no other person who has come before me, I draw identity from the common values and aspirations I share with my own pantheon of inspiratory figures.