Have you ever encountered a book that simultaneously reinforced your long-held beliefs, those you have retained in spite of the prevailing opinions, while also opening up new vistas of information and insight? In my research on children’s emotions, Mike Lanza suggested The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik. In the book Alison combines the best child behavior studies with the most up to date information on brain development. Reading her work gave me the confidence to write this column.
My intent in the previous columns in this series, Playing With Emotions, is to help us understand children’s play needs from their perspective rather than ours as adults. One of the most confirming messages I got from Alison’s book was that we should really be thinking about children as a whole separate species, as they are so profoundly different from us adults.
This difference in a child’s emotional life and an adult’s are multifaceted and in this post I will only focus on how children and adults experience and express love. The primary difference between adults’ feelings of love and those of a child are that adults have very complex ideas and feelings about love. Adults, of course, have to deal with the complications that sex introduces. I think it is safe to say that from the time we begin to have our first teenage urges until well into adulthood, if then, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how love and sex intersect.
There is no purer adoration than that of a baby for her immediate family, especially mom. As Alison points out, for children less than 2 years old there is no “I,” that is, until children acquire language there is no interior observer recording their feelings; the child simply “is” love, uncomplicated and pure.
For adults to even achieve an approximation of the infant’s emotional state we have to go to the core of what love is. When we substitute “nurture” for “love,” we get closer to the core of the emotion of love as children experience it. We love those we nurture. We love those who nurture those we love. And if we are healthy emotionally, we nurture those we love.
Mothers are preprogramed mentally and biochemically to fall deeply in love with their babies. So much so that parents will do anything to nurture and protect their children. Growing up means extending the bubble of love to family and other caregivers and eventually to many others.
As the love bubble expands, the child begins to find all sorts of variability in the patterns of nurturing they receive. By three or four the child has developed enough personal identity that they can even become conflicted about how much they are willing to extend their love bubble. This reluctance is inevitable, since loving is being very vulnerable as there is always the chance of rejection. Even more profound is the fear that if I love too much I will lose myself. This may appear to be an extreme assertion, but a brief review of poetry will show that this is the main concern of the romantics.
My partner recently reminded me that “When trust is lost people’s hearts grow distant and bonds between them are destroyed.” Parenting is always stressful and no one is perfect and thus the capacity to provide uninterrupted high quality nurturing is impossible. From this, children learn very early that love/nurturing can be withdrawn. I suspect that the fear of loss of nurturing is one of the reasons that babies are so joyful when we do make an imitate connection with them and reassure them of our love.
We communicate our love to children through our nurturing. When our nurturing is inconsistent, the child becomes insecure. There is a large body of research and knowledge about this process and for those interesting in the subject I recommend, The Attachment Connectionby Ruth Newton PhD.
Inconsistent nurturing comes in many ways: inattention, impatience, over protection, etc. The child has to navigate these negative moments and to make the calculation that on balance the love of the parent can be relied upon.
As children mature, their circle of nurturing support grows larger and becomes a community effort. This is where play and playspaces become important. An environment that allows parents to focus full attention on the child is extremely helpful in allowing time for the bond of nurturing to be supported. The play setting that allows children to explore as freely as possible supports the child’s hardwired drive to investigate and communicates to the child a sense of trust and confidence in them.
As designers, creators, and users of play spaces we need to look at them critically and ask, “Is this space as nurturing as it can possibly be?” And more importantly we need to commit to changing the spaces or moving our children to a different setting.
I want to be as clear as possible. I am making the assertion that when dealing with children we should use the language conversion that Love = Nurturing. But I want to be equally clear that the formula Nurturing = Protecting is not correct.
Let me give you an example to let you get a sense of how children take in “over-protecting” behavior. Recently a whole school district outlawed playing tag on their playgrounds. This sends a very clear message to kids. Its says, “We do not trust that you have developed the capacity to self regulate your behavior and furthermore we do not trust that you will learn to do so and are thus removing a threat to your safety.” Could any policy statement be less nurturing?
As an exercise in becoming familiar with this idea of “nurturing play spaces,” I recommend you spend some time at Paige Johnson’s Pinterest page. For the largest collection of images for you to practice on join the Facebook page of Svane Frode. Compare these collected images with those in play equipment catalogs, mainstream designers, and your own neighborhood play spaces. I think two things will stand out for you: 1) there are great nurturing play spaces and 2) we can do better.