I hear about superhero princesses a lot. Frances and the other children in her class play this game of high drama everyday on the playground. Frances reports on the plotlines when I pick her up, while I'm making dinner, over breakfast, etc. It is clearly occupies a big place in her imagination.
Tonight during her bath, Frances told me the bath animals (Sheeprad, Pigrad, Pink Nose the Cow, Purple Nose the Cow, Duckalo, and Five Months the Little Duck -- everyone except Horserad, who was sleeping soundly with Gabriel in his crib) were going to school and they were going to play a scary game. Sheeprad was the Witch! A Bad Witch! And Sheeprad was going to try to get all the other animals. Some violent splashing ensued...Frances looked up at one point, snapped out of the imaginary animals-in-school universe, and told me it was okay that Sheeprad wanted to be the bad guy.
You know, Grandma always liked to play the bad guy in school when she was a kid.
(Frances tells me this with the hanging-in-the-air smile that looks like she is trying to convince herself it really is okay to play the bad guy.)
Lots of kids like to be the bad guys, Mama.
Oh. Do you like to pretend to be the bad guy?
No. Because bad guys shoot people and kill them. I don't like to do that. (She is looking at the newly demonic Sheeprad while she talks). Only the boys in my class like to be the bad guy; they like to chase and kill people!*
The girls don't like to pretend to be bad?
No. In superhero princesses, the girls are the mama, the big sisters, or the little sister. There's no papa in the family. And the bad guy tries to get us and kill us.
Woah. All this killing! Really? I knew there was a lot of imaginary, chasing-around type play in her group, but I didn't know she was understanding the bad guy's intentions as murderous. (And yes, she has thought that through, at least enough to know that 'I'll kill you!' in a game has some relation to actual killing). Back to our conversation:
What do the sisters do?
Well, the little sister is the littlest one in the family, and if the mama has to go out of the house, she knows the little sister can't protect herself from the bad guy, so she has to close the door of the house and lock it when she leaves. So the little sister will be protected in the house. She has to stay inside because she might not be able to run fast enough.
Who's the little sister?
I am. Every day!
Do you like that?
No. But they always wants me to be the little sister.
I am imagining Frances yelling and screaming along with the other kids from inside the little play house that sits in the middle of the play area, watching the others run for their lives. I am imagining her working up her character, playing up the smallness, the vulnerability, feeling a little resentful but agreeing nonetheless. (Oh, to be a girl! Sadly, I'm of very little help with this one...)
It isn't surprising, not really. In a way it's an image that applies to other games I've observed her play with some of her school friends - it's as if she were isolated in that little house in the middle of everything, participating but feeling - and being - a little peripheral. She is the youngest kid in her class (everyone else has already turned five and her birthday isn't until June) and there is something about the inner logic of some of their group games that escapes her. At one classmate's birthday party, I watched six or seven girls jumping up and down on a bed, chanting with great enthusiasm: Tie Heath Up! Tie Heath Up! (Heath was the birthday girl's nine year old brother, and he was getting ready to battle the little girls, with the aid of a slouchy silent friend). Frances was among these crazed girls. She had the reddest face, the widest eyes, the loudest shout, and when the chanting subsided a little she asked/shouted in the same mode: Who's Tie?
Sometimes it's all trees and no forest. I usually chalk it up to developmental stuff, that she's just not there yet. She whole-heartedly buys into mob psychology but doesn't always know why the mob is so worked up; it's just fun for her to go along for the ride. So fun, in fact, that she sometimes becomes a group leader of sorts, her wild enthusiasm blindly propelling everyone forward. (See this post for another example of Frances charming big kids without really getting what the heck game they were playing).
So is there a problem? Is anything wrong with joining the crowd in their games that pit good against evil, even if you don't really understand what's going on? I think for Frances at least, not understanding something can be a source of stress. It gives her that raggedy edge, a frantic fragility. I think the idea of a bad guy killing a good guy (or at least wanting to) disturbs and frightens her. She doesn't have the temperament, the tools, to allow this to pass through her. In short: it's not such a good thing for her to be involved in this play every day at school, and this might explain why she goes along with being shut up in the little play house. Maybe she really does need protection.
A couple of days ago, I scrapped the active, outdoor advent treat for the day (plucked from our calendar that I am so gaga about) after I spent two hours lost on the way home from DC with a grumpy Gabriel in the car, singing I've Been Working on the Railroad far too many times to count. I decided instead of Quiet Waters we would watch a video. This is a major treat for Frances. We've pretty much phased video watching out entirely (with the exception of this sort of thing - magic!). I used to condone library rentals, PBS shows etc, a few times a week. This was last year, when Gabriel was younger and harder and I was more depressed and isolated in Annapolis and under some weird impression that kids are supposed to watch a little TV. But with time and confidence, I came to the conclusion that videos are just not good for Frances. I don't think this is true for all kids. But she processes things so very hard, and the images and characters colonize her extraordinary imagination so thoroughly. It also makes her grumpy. One episode is never enough, so we end up fighting about it. Ugh. So I finally decided: skip it. And I have not regretted that decision one tiny bit.
So, you know I was desperate when I hit Netflix and chose a Sesame Street special at random called Elmo in Grouchland. Mandy Patinkin plays a bad guy, whose badness is really toddlerness (he sings lots of songs about everything being mine mine mine!). Frances asked me no less than twenty times if his character was a real person or not, and was he really a bad guy? I told her he was an actor who is good at acting and singing and probably really nice. But is he nice right now? But is he acting or is that really him? Is he really a bad guy Mama? How could he be nice if he's being mean to Elmo?
So much for zoning out in front of the TV. But it was striking: she couldn't wrap her mind around an actor playing the part of someone bad without actually being bad - ie doing what her friends do every day on the playground. The other day, Gabriel drew a circle with a blue marker on a big sheet of our brown butcher paper. He happily shouted ball, ball! while pointing to his picture. Then he stopped and stared at it. Kick, kick he said, trying to kick the image. Then, with some frustration: Turn! He was waiting for his turn to play with the ball he just created. The fuzzy line between creation/pretend/ representation and real life is especially fuzzy for Gabriel. It surprises me to discover it can be for Frances too.
Mike asked me if I thought the ban on videos was making it even harder for her to figure this stuff out. He asked if we were doing her a disservice, making it more difficult for her to play with her peers and get along with other kids.* As in, perhaps watching videos would give her some more practice and familiarity with things like superheros and princesses.
The conversation depressed me. Must I re-prioritize values in order to make Frances more 'normal'? I do believe that not watching videos has made for a happier, more creative child. I also believe that social skills are important, and she is an especially social creature. Short of founding a school for weird amazing smart and wacky kids in Annapolis, I don't know if there's all that much I can really do to take the edge off Frances's experience of her own difference. She's heading for public kindergarten next year. Brace yourselves for more of these wonderings from me...
*All you mamas with little boys out there, see Amelia's post on boyness for a lovely description/defense of shooting and killing.
**Later that night we watched an episode of The Office (the ban on videos does not extend to us) in which the social misfit character, Dwight, mentioned he had not been allowed candy or movies as a kid. And that he liked to farm with his shirt off. Mike and I looked at each other: Frances! Is she going to become Dwight?? Very little candy and movies, and she loves to take her clothes off, and to talk about the garden. Really, I know she's not a Dwight, but it did give us pause. I guess this is just an example of how those kind of choices are seen as freakish to most red-blooded American TV watchers.