“The best way to make children good is to make them happy.”
This article is an excerpt from Glad to Be a Dad by Tim Myers.
Shilly-Shally plays a game with me that reveals, I think, some of the deepest fears and desires children know.
We call the game “Koe-chai” or “King and Koe-chai.” You could say she invented it since it was all her idea, but in fact it just seemed to well up within her. We played our most recent version when my mom, having come to visit over Thanksgiving, took us all out to eat on the evening of the big day. (Not having to do dishes certainly put me in the spirit of thankfulness). Naturally, Shilly-Shally talked more loudly, fidgeted more energetically, complained more bitterly, shaped her food more creatively, commented on other diners more pointedly, and finished far earlier than any child in the history of restaurants. So, as usual, I ate fast and took my restive three-year-old outside while everyone else finished their rather expensive meals. Standing on the sidewalk under the restaurant awning, day slowly dying around us, she started up the game.
“You be a king,” she told me, shivering a bit in the late-November air, “and I’m a little girl who’s lost, and you find me.”
With that she sat on the step and put on the forlorn look she sometimes gets: eyes big with sadness, head bowed slightly, hands folded in her lap, knees and feet drawn together–the very picture of a Pitiful Pearl doll. The street was deserted. But if a casting director for Annie had happened by, Shilly-Shally would’ve won the lead on the spot. She loves to assume this expression as she acts out her endless versions of what you might call “Comfort-the-poor-little-weeping-one.”
I walked off a few steps and then came back along the sidewalk, strutting like that stumpy mustachioed guy in the tux on the Monopoly cards. Suddenly I stopped in pretend surprise. “Little girl!” I gasped, with deep sympathy and kindest eyes. “Why are you out on this cold night all alone?” I knew my part, you see, and had begun to pay attention to what she was so passionately but wordlessly saying.
“Well,” she answered quietly, looking up so I’d be sure to get the full effect of her sorrowing fawn-eyes, “my mother left me forever and I’m all alone.”
(When I told my wife about this later, she winced. It’s very difficult for her to leave Shilly-Shally every day. And though she understands the Electra complex–the tendency of daughters to bond more readily with their fathers–that knowledge doesn’t bring her much comfort).
Then Shilly-Shally looked down sadly at the sidewalk, quiet and utterly still, just waiting, a behavior so unusual I wondered if she’d gotten some bad turkey and felt sick to her stomach. But that wasn’t it, of course. The drama had captured her completely; for the moment, she really was the winter orphan.
And here I realized in full what was actually going on. Sometimes we don’t listen to our children simply because we’re in that habitual fog of thinking about other things, or even the habitual fog of thinking about the practical things we have to do for them at the moment.
If you’re open to it, spending time with a young child is profound, engaging, and fulfilling. But it’s not adult brain-food. I’d been thinking about my work, about the grown-up conversation I was missing back in the restaurant, about how to keep warm in the cold of deepening twilight. And I was gauging just how I could entertain my charge with the minimum amount of mental and physical effort on my part–a state of mind which, I hate to admit, I slip into far too often. The words left me forever and I’m all alone cut through my fog like a bright light. In that instant I realized she was speaking to me straight from her little heart, calling out from her depths, whether she knew it or not.
When they’re given some theatrical or representative way to express themselves, children are remarkably open to their own deepest feelings. Puppets or other character toys, stories, games, and, in this case, dramatic play–all of these can bring out the most heartfelt emotions and concerns. Shilly-Shally knew instinctively that she had to reach past her ordinary self for this important bit of playing. So she became the Lost Girl, and by doing so opened up a world of fantasy from which to look at the real one in which she must live.
It may be objected here that so young a child doesn’t really understand the loss of parents or being orphaned, particularly if she’s never been separated from her mother and father. And it’s true that Shilly-Shally still has a hard time grasping what “pre-school starts again in two weeks” really means; a concept like “forever” is completely over her head. But children don’t have to understand abstractions in order to feel anxious about separation from parents. In our experience, a child’s first strong reaction to learning about death takes the form of an overwhelming fear of that separation. And even a three-year-old has already learned the hard lesson that bad things can actually happen. Perhaps in overhearing some of her parents’ arguments and frustrations Shilly-Shally has even glimpsed the meaning of “divorce,” that frightful reality shadowing American childhood today. I certainly worry about the general effects of divorce, and I know something further about it: When a family falls apart completely, a spouse leaves a spouse–but a parent abandons a child.
How often are children actually abandoned? Infanticide was, apparently, far more prevalent in the past than most of us realize; babies with deformities or abnormalities were often left to die, and sometimes simply because they were female. In other cases, famines or similar pressures led to infant abandonment as a desperate form of birth control. And sometimes children were disposed of simply because they weren’t wanted. Nor were such practices restricted to “primitive” cultures; according to The Well Baby Book,
“During the Middle Ages [in Christian Europe] the
killing of infants–especially females–was not
infrequent, especially among poor people. During
hard times children were often sold into slavery or
abandoned and left to die. As late as the mid-1700’s
in Europe…abandonment and infanticide were still
But are we in the modern world so utterly different? Most of us can recall news stories in which infants have been found in dumpsters, public bathrooms, or the like. Besides, abandonment can take less obvious forms. Various sources report that something like 40 to 50% of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and The National Catholic Reporter quotes Sylvia Ann Hewlett from her When the Bough Breaks: “Half of all divorced fathers fail to see their children in the wake of divorce, and two-thirds fail to pay child support.”
But we don’t need statistics to know that many children are also suffering from another great social ill, another form of loss of parents–children whose parents are, either by necessity or choice, rarely at home, or not emotionally available for their kids even while they’re in the same room with them. I think of a New Yorker cartoon I saw, one in which humor vies with bitter revelation: A boy has just opened a birthday present, holding a toy car as his father stands over him, hands in his pockets. The boy is grateful. “Tell your assistant,” he says, “it’s perfect.”
And of course there are the horror stories. My local paper recently reported how a mother in Tennessee left her one- and two-year-old boys strapped in car seats for up to ten hours while she drank and played video games with friends until falling asleep, waking at 1 p.m. to find the outside temperature almost 90 degrees and her sons dead in the car. Such stories have become all too common in the national media. This parent didn’t intend to abandon her children, but in effect that’s what she did. And for every case of this kind that ends in tragedy, how many more occur in which children are “merely” injured or hurt and manage to survive?
How much of all this was my three-year-old aware of? None, I hope. But the suffering of so many children around us brought a poignancy to our little game. As we stood on the sidewalk, a icy gust suddenly shook the windows along the street.
“My mother left me forever and I’m all alone…”
Now I knew what she was saying to me. Young children often speak to adults almost as dreams do, indirectly, through image, suggestion and symbol. Sometimes when Shilly-Shally and I play this same game, she uses a slightly different version, saying “My mother went to Florida and left me all alone.” But what strikes my adult sensibilities as humorous is still deeply serious to her. Standing there on the sidewalk I reminded myself how it must feel for her to have to share her parents with two older brothers, and then share them with Grandma during the Thanksgiving visit. Where need is absolute, fear will always be present.
You can see this universal fear quite plainly in folktales. The best known example in Western culture is probably the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.” It’s sometimes forgotten that this story begins with impoverished parents agreeing to abandon their children deep in the forest and so “be quit of them.” Other cultures have similar tales. Around the turn of the century, Knud Rasmussen collected Inuit stories in which thunder and lightning and the all-important sea-goddess Sedna each began as abandoned children who were then magically transformed into vengeful powers. For the Arctic peoples, fear of having to abandon children during the famines that often beset them, and the inevitable guilt such desperate measures created, seem to have led to the conception of the goddess on whom life depended. In other words, the abandonment of children was seen, in some way, as a crime against life itself, including the lives of individual adults and of society as a whole, just as Sedna the sea-goddess could grant or withhold the precious sea animals everyone depended on for food.
This connection between the welfare of children and the welfare of society is a reality for us too. We don’t face the kinds of catastrophes that make child abandonment necessary, and yet children in our society are sometimes abandoned. And abandonment of children, in whatever form, seems to contribute directly to crime, poverty, unemployment, psychological crises, and general malaise. In spite of this, we don’t seem to take the connection very seriously overall.
Edward Curtis recorded a similar story from the Gros Ventre, a Plains Indian tribe, which he calls “The Deserted Children.” In this story, two children are left behind when the adults break camp, children who later acquire the ability to kill people and animals simply by looking at them. This is of course a powerful metaphor for the righteous anger abandoned children may feel, and for the guilt adults must face if they’ve committed such crimes. And it’s echoed with uncanny similarity in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Circle in the Fire,” where three adolescent boys, traveling on their own, are looked on suspiciously and ultimately rejected by the adults they encounter. The boys then set fire to nearby woods. O’Connor presents the violence of their arson as an almost prophetic manifestation of the wrath and desperation of children abandoned in more contemporary ways.
Stories like these–just like Shilly-Shally’s game–sprung up because such feelings are profound and universal in both children and adults. And such stories speak to the horrible damage wreaked both on individuals and society when the bond between child and parent breaks down, when parents betray the aching need so deep within every child.
Bringing all this to mind, I saw clearly what my character and spoken lines should be in Shilly-Shally’s little psychodrama. I knew I had the opportunity to help transform her fear into the perfect story: the kind with a happy ending.
“Oh, little girl!” I said passionately, “what a terrible thing! Left you all alone?! You must come home with me. At once. Will you come home with me and be my little girl?”
She nodded bravely, still stony-faced.
“You see,” I continued, “I’m a great king, and the queen my wife and I have dreamed about having a little girl. An old witch”–(here she shot me that “Make-it-a-good-witch!” look)–”a good old witch, a kindly old witch–told us that someday a little girl would come into our lives, and be ours, and we would be hers. So we have our palace all ready for her.”
She looked up at me. “You made a room for her?”
“Oh yes!” I said, and described her own room to her as if she’d never seen it.
“And you made toys for her?”
“Yes, lots of toys!” I said, and described her own toys. Then I ticked off all the wonderful things she’d find in her new home: soft bed, good food (“Do you have Wheatables for her?” she wanted to know), shelves full of books, Disney videos. And right next door two little princes to play with.
We went on and on, cataloging her life, laying it out for her to see, reinfusing it with wonder and preciousness. And I kept saying that we’d waited for a little girl to love, and here she was, and we’d be her family, the queen and I and our two fine sons.
I paused for a moment. Cold winds now flapped steadily in the awning above us as night settled over the city. “So–will you come and live with us, little one?” I asked her gently.
“Yeah, sure!” she said, smiling and jumping up. “As soon as the queen’s done with her turkey, and your fine sons.”
I smiled down at her. “Oh, by the way, little girl,” I said, “what’s your name?”
“Koe-chai,” she answered without hesitation, making the name up on the spot. But only the name was original; the character she played was as ancient as humanity’s deepest fears and fondest hopes, a presence in our oldest stories.
I took her hand and pulled her into my arms. “Oh Koe-chai!” I declared, “we’ll love you forever!”
She held me as tightly as her little arms could. “Oh king!” she murmured.
photo of old abandoned doll above the muddy pond by Shutterstock.com