Thursday, June 17, 2010

Children and Make Believe

A very long time ago I was visiting my parents in Vermont along with my son, then four, and his eight year old cousin. I took the opportunity to introduce both of the children to shooting a BB gun. The eight year old clearly understood what was happening—that whether you hit the target (probably a tin can or something similar) depended on how you pointed the gun. The four year old, as best I could tell, did not. To him, it was all make believe, like shooting a toy gun at something. You pointed the gun somewhere, you pulled the trigger, and the can did or did not fall down.

My son grew up and produced a son of his own; last night my grandson had dinner at a restaurant along with me, his aunt, and his wicked step-grandmother. He got bored, so we provided him with paper and crayons. He drew some lines on the paper and then told us that the picture he had drawn was funny.

So far as I could tell (his aunt disagrees), there was no picture, just random lines. My guess was that, like his father thirty some years earlier, he was engaged in make believe. You did things with a crayon and paper and you pretended they were a picture. Aside from bringing back old memories, it also raised a question about sensible child rearing policies. Should I have told him that yes, it was a funny picture? Or should I have said, as I did, that I didn't see anything funny there?

My guess is that my policy was the correct one. Children have to learn to realize that there is a real world out there, hard and sometimes sharp edged; make believe ultimately doesn't provide a way of dealing with that world. Adults who play along—not in the sense of participating in a game that both sides realize is a game (I do lots of that, which may be part of why my grandson thinks I'm silly) but in the sense of treating make believe as if it were real—are making it harder for them to learn that. Which may explain why some people never do.

It is much the same issue that my son discussed a while back on his blog, in the context of playing games with children—indeed with the same child. Do you deliberately lose the game to him or do you treat him as you expect adults to treat each other, with due allowance for the fact that he knows much less than you do about many things, including games? Do you encourage a child to play games with you by letting him win or by adjusting the rules, creating suitable handicaps to make it an even game—and then playing for real?

When I was growing up, we had a ping-pong table in the basement and I spent a good deal of time playing my father. We used a sliding handicap. I started with some number of points. Every time I lost my starting score went up by one point for the next game, every time I won it went down. Gradually, over the years, it crept down to zero.
P.S. My wife agrees with my daughter. She thinks my grandson was really trying to draw a rocket but didn't do a very good job of it.


Jonathan said...

I like this post and agree with what you say—both about being honest with children, and about playing games to win.

The idea of a 'sliding handicap' for a game like table tennis seems a good one.

In the game of chess, I've long liked the idea of a handicap (removing one or more pieces) when players are unequal—as they usually are. This allows both players to try to do their best.

Another option would be to use chess clocks and give one player more time; but I don't think it would work well, except perhaps with fairly small differences in ability.

Anonymous said...

I have two kids at the age of 4 and they do the same thing. I will usually ask them to explain the thing they are imagining, and most of the time I find that they are just playing and pretending, being fully aware that it's make believe. In that case I play along in a way that we both know that's it's pretending. Pretending and using the imagination is part of growing up and shouldn't be discouraged, so long as the kid understands the difference.

Christian G. Warden said...

I think you're policy is the right one to raise children to think clearly.

Did you avoid lying to your children about Santa Claus? How did you handle discussions of God? If I recall correctly, your wife is a theist and you are not.

Paavo said...

"Pretending and using the imagination is part of growing up and shouldn't be discouraged, so long as the kid understands the difference."

My understanding is that children don't really understand the difference. they are not competent adults, but trying to make it there. and they don't have what it takes to understand the difference. Adult not accepting that and demanding that they accept the difference will make the children shyer (more shy, i'm not native speaker) to express their mind.

I'm not sure how much of a difference parents and grandparents make to children. Children understand that peers are the source of truth, and even when parents demand that Bratz or Hello Kitty are not cool, it is the peers that make the call.

A kid will early on learn that depending on a parent she/he will consistently fail to appreciate the approriate age level performance. Evil parents will underappreciate, and goodwilled parents will overappreciate.

My goddaughter is three years old. When she sings, i find it adorable, but of course she isn't a brilliant singer. far from it. can't keep a note. rhytm is all wrong. and mixes up the lyrics all the time.

Objectively is should strongly disagree when she makes claims about singing beautifully. I would hardly call that singing. But of course i should take into account that she is only that many years old, and what not. But who cares. I can give her praise. And she will know that I like her. she will realise that my approval is not enought to make it professionally, or even not enough to make it at the playground.

And my final point is: the greatest feat a child makes, is learning the language. But i don't think any linguist, child-psychologist or speech therapist thinks that to learn a language, child needs any negative grammatical feedback to stop making mistakes. Just ask Steven Pinker.

William B Swift said...

"Actually, they were being treated like children but they had been their whole lives and didn't know the difference.

"Treating like an adult: You're fucking up. Here's how to fix it. Now fix it.

"Treating like a child: You're trying really hard! Good job! It's not the result that matters, it's just that you try!

"(That's actually a functional way to deal with children up to a point. In most cases they can't do a real job. But when they get to the point they can, when they're ready to learn to be adults with adult responsibilities, "it's a good try" should never cut it.)"

-- John Ringo, The Last Centurion

TGGP said...

Before he knew how to read, my younger brother did something similar. He would pick up a book and read, out loud, a story he made up as he went along.

tut said...

Treating like a child: You're trying really hard! Good job! It's not the result that matters, it's just that you try!

How about if you instead said:

"You're trying really hard. I appreciate that! But I think that you would get better results if X", where X is similar to your "Here's how to fix it."

tut said...

Apparently I can't format comments. The one above was supposed to be a response to mr Swift quoting Ringo. The first paragraph is a quote from his comment.

FutureNerd said...

Maybe your grandson found his picture funny because of how bad it was... at least to a pale adult approximation.

Make-believe is a frame that shuts out the world. Realism is a frame that shuts out everything but the world. Play is trying out frames on the world with other people, with nothing necessarily having priority but we'll see as we go along.

So while realism is necessary for life, between realism, make-believe and play, only play is large enough to be practice for life as a whole. Maybe only play can see realism's place in the scheme of things.