As many of you know, our son and his family live in Hong Kong, so we have the pleasure most years of visiting them and each time we do, I get the thrill of being with them and our two grandchildren and then come home to think about what they have taught me. In the last few years, I have shared some of these ideas to those who read these posts on Real Answers. This week, my wife and I returned from a trip with them together and we had the great joy of spending many days together. Our grandchildren are now 5 ½ years old and 21 ½ months old, both granddaughters, so what follows are some thoughts they both inspired.
The Usual Questions about Child Development
When we talk about how our children develop we usually talk about milestones in early childhood. Think about it, development is usually about when someone first did some skill, such as smiling, rolling over, sitting, crawling, standing, walking, first words, first phrases, talking. These are extraordinary achievements, shrouded in mystery. A newborn arrives with limited abilities, they cannot do any of the things on this list, and without any special activity on the part of us as parents, beyond showering love, feeding, clothing, and caring, they suddenly seem to be able to do these very, very complex tasks.
These steps are truly wondrous. Here is our child, totally unable to sit, seemingly out of nowhere over the course of a few weeks now able to sit very well! From being totally unable to talk, in a few years they can chatter away just like us, in any language we expose them to regularly! No wonder much that is written about child development and, to this day, much of what is discussed has to do with the amazing appearance of these skills.
Further, much of pediatrics’ attention in child development is tied to a clock. That clock is set to the average age that any of these steps appear. For example, one way to understand at what age a child begins to walk is by recording at what age say 1 million children first begin to walk, add up all the ages and divide by 1 million, yielding the average age that children first begin to walk.
That number, the average age a child achieves a new skill, is in many ways quite useless. It is helpful to know around when kids attain a developmental achievement, but by definition, about half of humanity does something before the average age it is first done, and half after.
Recently, so much attention has been paid to the average age that it is increasingly common to see a child who starts to walk after the average age as delayed, even though half of all children who will walk quite well, normally won’t start until after the average age.
The Next Step: Putting the Basic Skills to Work
On this trip, however, our granddaughters drew my attention to a different set of phenomena. Now that they are getting older, I am drawn to how these basic skills that children develop are put to use.
If much of our interest in child development is focused on when basic skills such as smiling, sitting, and talking appear, then that means thinking about what children do with their new skills is not given as much attention. That changed on this trip.
Let’s start with watching our 5 ½ year old granddaughter. Within about 90 seconds of waking, our charming granddaughter begins to weave stories, and only stops at night when she falls asleep. In fact, on our last night of our trip, she went to bed, and while lying in the dark we heard her continue to weave new stories. She clearly has a song in her heart, and if activities of the day allow, she is very happy to sing that song all day long. The stories are rich with imagination, and all share one aspect in common- relationship. Each is about the life of many characters she has carefully created and adopted in her mind. At times the character does something surprising at which point she gasps in wonder, with great feeling, other times they are in danger and she cries out her worry, sometimes they do something funny and she breaks into peals of laughter, and other times they do something very caring which elicits a heartfelt sigh All day long the goings-on in her stories frequently lead her to burst out in singing. She is deeply absorbed in these stories, to the point of not paying attention to happenings in the world around her, such as eating, getting dressed, going out.
My point here is not to say she excels at creating stories, but to observe something most people who have 5 ½ year olds will see. It’s a pattern described in one of the best books on how children learn to be ever written, The Magic Years, by Selma Fraiberg. I have long admired this appreciation of the magic in children’s imagination. It is very magical. Anyone who spends time with a young child can’t help but be charmed. There is often a luminescent joy in their approach to the world, and as they emerge into the world, their imagination starts life unbounded.
The Power of Story
As I enjoyed the magic of our 5 ½ year old granddaughter’s spinning of tales spiced with song, all day long, I noticed something that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. The power of story.
The concept of the power of story has been of interest to me for years. One could make a convincing case that there is no single thought I can have without it being part of a story, or narrative. This comes clear in response to the following challenge: consider any idea you care to have, it can be about someone you know, a political concern, a piece of art or music you can remember. Go ahead and think about that one idea, and notice, it is impossible to have that thought without a story or narrative coming along with it. The point can made in single words. Say you are asked to think of one word, the word that comes to mind happens to be “sun.” It is impossible to think of that word without thinking about what you remember about the sun, what it is, its warmth, its color, its shape- put these associations together, and you have your story about the sun.
The great historian-philosopher Yuval Noah Hariri has written extensively on this subject, and all his youtube videos are astounding. Here is a link to his great approach to the power of story in all human life and history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTchioiHM0U&t=97s.
His lectures on the power of stories illustrates that one of the great powers of the human mind is our ability to create stories, hold large numbers in mind, and change even the most complex of narratives very rapidly. As our stories change, our understanding of that part of our world changes. A good example is a warm day in February. Many years ago, the story I had in mind if it was warm in the middle of winter was the story of weather, how it changes so easily, how hard it is to predict, how full of surprises it is. Now the story has shifted. If it is 65 degrees in the middle of winter the story of greenhouse gases and climate change comes to mind. A hot day in winter now is the story of man-made changes in our climate and an increasingly powerful sense of impending danger. The examples of how narratives can change in our human minds are endless, likely infinite.
The point is that we understand our world, each event and experience through the narrative we weave around or attach to it. As adults we do this all day long, all the time, even in our dreams. But we are not born able to do this. It is not clear that newborns experience narratives or stories, we just do not know.
The Emergence of Narrative
Whether a newborn has stories in her or his mind, or not, they certainly give less indication they have stories in mind than a child does later in life. One could reasonably surmise that the newborn mind is mostly an unconscious mind. Clearly they are aware of hunger, cold, wet, and also touch and love. They know how to respond to each, and many more realities. But well-developed narratives are not an apparent part of a newborn’s life. For most of us, stories are tied up with words, with language. Can you think of any story in your life right now without using any words?
And, so our sense of developing the ability to have a story, a narrative, is tied closely to the development of talking.
Now my time with our 21 ½ month old granddaughter comes to mind. At this age, children have an extremely variable range of language abilities. Some are talking like grown-ups, others have no words yet, and everything in between. As noted in the brief reference to the development of milestones above, the age at which you acquire a skill has little to do with how good your skill will be. Someone may not walk until they are 17 months old and go on to be an elite athlete.
Our younger granddaughter is in a wonderfully balanced moment of leaping forward in her ability to talk. As readers of Real Answers may remember from prior posts, there are many steps to learning to talk. An early step is ironically absolutely silent. It is learning to understand what someone is saying. I only have that ability fully in one language. In many thousands of languages, if someone speaks to me, I will have no idea what they are saying. Through processes we barely understand, nearly every healthy human will emerge at age 15 months old able to understand what their parents and others are saying in their native language(s). One cannot talk until one understands what is being said. Imagine trying to say something in Italian without understanding or knowing any words in Italian. I am pleased to note our younger granddaughter achieved this skill around 15 months and clearly has the ability to understand the English language when we speak to her.
When we arrived she was able to say a good range of single words, the beginning of voicing speech.
But think about this moment. Imagine being able to understand much of what people are saying, and starting to be able to put together an understanding and a sense of what you want and even what you’d like to do or say, but you can only say a handful of single words, mostly nouns, and words like No and Mine. Your eyes would give away that you have a lot more to say than you can say.
So it is with so many children ages 1-2 years old, including our granddaughter. Her sense of quite well articulated and conceived purpose is palpable. Her entire body is nearly always poised to act, her eyes glisten with intent, and all of her says, I have an idea in mind. And her ideas are not always so simple, she is clearly starting to put various threads of thoughts together. This is the beginning of how people weave stories together.
During our time together we were deeply privileged to see her able to say many more words and even some early phrases. Our sense that stories were clearly being crafted in her mind was openly confirmed. It was very exciting to see these steps taken, and it opened my eyes to another step in how we create our stories, our narratives.
Steps to Being Able to Create Stories
Thinking about both of our granddaughters, one can imagine some of the steps necessary to openly, consciously, verbally, share stories one has created:
- Even before birth, and certainly afterwards, listen to the speech of those around you, slowly developing over the course of the first 15 months, the ability to understand the language(s) of your family. At the same time observe your family’s gestures, facial expressions, and actions to tie words to all these clues of others’ intents and purposes.
- Begin to voice single words, at the same time deepening a sense of understanding of the world, your place in the world, and how to make sense of each moment.
- Begin to voice phrases, and later, sentences. As these abilities proceed, one can begin to see the weaving of more and more complex stories.
- Eventually the power to craft a narrative begins to shape all one’s thoughts and will the rest of a person’s cognitively healthy life.
Some Closing Thoughts
First of all, what a treat to be with our son and daughter-in-law, to be with family, and to be grandparents. It remains a great joy in our lives and part of that joy is simply sitting around watching our grandchildren busy in their day, and playing with them and getting to know them.
On this visit, as the kids get older, it is only natural to begin to think about what happens after a newborn gains basic skills in the first 2-3 years of life. We move from wondering, will they be able to sit, or walk, or talk, to wondering what they will do in their life with these skills?
Watching our 5 ½ year old granddaughter, I was moved to think how wonderful it is for young children to imagine, pretend, sing, dance. By the time we emerge into adulthood we have to be on our game in the very real world. But you simply cannot get to these high level abilities without trying them out first. Trying things out is the essence of play.
And that’s what 5 year olds do, they play with the advanced skill of building stories to understand the world and operate in it. By playing with this scenario, then that one, one builds a certain adeptness, flexibility, even repertoire of ideas to bring to bear on real world situations later in life.
So we celebrate our 21 ½ month old granddaughter’s powerful thinking, strong sense of purpose, as her words now begin to reflect all the thoughts she has, and our 5 ½ year old granddaughter’s song in her heart and devotion to weaving countless stories all day! It’s fun to watch, to be part of, and turns out to be so important.
- We once again had a great time being together. We love being together!
- On this visit, what stood out was beyond the usual discussion on child development, namely specific milestones, basic skills that emerge in the first 3 years of life. We began to pay more attention to what one does with these skills, specifically the emergence of the ability to understand the world through stories.
- It turns out we cannot really have thoughts that are not part of a narrative, but we are not born able to weave complex stories.
- This visit highlighted how the ability to weave complex stories emerges and how important it is that our children be given the opportunities to play with their new and emerging sills.
I hope everyone gets the chance to enjoy their families, too!
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin