Sunday, December 23, 2007

Waiting for Mr Claus

With a fender-bending crash, Lightning McQueen scores a victory against his old adversary, the battered NYPD patrol car that has been setting land-speed records up and down our hallway. The toy-trashing ceases momentarily, then Isaac's voice calls from the other room. 

'How does Father Christmas get down the chimney?'

'He has to squeeze in really tight.' 

'But his tummy's too big.'

I feel a white lie turning into a black one. 'He can just about make himself small enough to fit down a chimney.'

'But how?'

'You know, like when you're trying to squeeze into a narrow space and you pull your tummy in.'

I'm not trying to fend off a child's creeping doubt, not yet. Unlike his older sister, who now accepts talk of Father Christmas with the shrugging tolerance of someone who knows she is being spun a yarn, Isaac still subscribes willingly to the Santa Claus story. In The Baby in the Mirror, I suggested that the toddler Athena's willingness to enter into pretence scenarios foretold her eager self-immersion in the imaginary storyworlds of middle childhood. When you are pretending, you follow the rules of the world you have created, no matter how far-fetched they might be. But you don't lose sight of the fact that that world is invented; you keep one foot in the real world, even when the imaginary action is at its height. 

Many developmental psychologists, such as Jacqueline Woolley and Paul Harris, would argue that children deal with these made-up contexts pretty much as adults do. Kids are not fundamentally confused about the distinction between fantasy and reality, any more than adults are immune to such boundary-blurrings. And yet Santa Claus, and other fantastical entities like the Tooth Fairy, may present us with a special case. Isaac knows that the old man we saw at Alnwick Gardens yesterday, who sat in his grotto dishing out presents supplied by an elf with a walkie-talkie, was not the genuine article. He knows that there is a realer version out there, planning his visit in the dead of Monday night. Given that he will see no other evidence of that visitor than a chewed carrot and an empty sherry glass (and maybe, if he's good, a well-stuffed stocking), it is perhaps surprising that his belief in the bearded one is so strong. My own white or off-white lies probably make little difference in this regard. In one study, children's strength of belief in such figures hardly correlated with parental encouragement of those beliefs. Isaac would probably have come to buy in to the Santa myth anyway, with or without the efforts we have made to make him seem real. 

Perhaps this explains Isaac's concerns about the practicalities of Mr Claus' arrival. He is not trying to point out logical flaws in the Father Christmas story, so much as fit a fact that he is already pretty certain about (Santa's existence) into his existing understanding of the world. He is more concerned with the logic of how that story can happen than with the bigger metaphysical picture. Santa is a flesh-and-blood person of certain fixed dimensions, who has to worry about squeezing through narrow spaces just as any other rooftop-travelling geriatric would have to do. In time—perhaps when he is better able to think through the practicalities of single-handedly performing several billion overnight deliveries—Isaac will probably imbue Santa with supernatural powers to go with his purely physical accomplishments. As with other metaphysical matters, children look heavenwards for explanations when physical ones fail to suffice. Jingling his bells, Santa will attain the powers of a god, just before he vanishes from Isaac's life for ever. 

Monday, December 17, 2007

Parking sensors

He’s a boy, therefore he needs a train set. Brio looked pricey, so I bought him a Tesco version for less than a tenner. He is on the living room carpet, fitting the toggle end of one carved piece of softwood into the slot of another. His faintly downed upper lip is beaked in concentration. At his back is a civil engineer’s dream of a bridge system: two Sydney Harbours flanking a Humber. The train’s magnetic links have been connected, the red oil tanks loaded. As he turns to gather a final piece of cargo, his feet cantilever into the bridges, flattening them. ‘Uh-oh.’ He sets off to inspect the damage, trampling right across the track he has just laid. I suggest he get up and walk around the model to the bit that requires attention, but his needs lead him in a straight line: making a detour to reach the thing he wants will require a little more self-discipline. 

Since the wobbly days of babyhood Isaac has developed amazing motor control—he can pick things out of his bath that I can’t even see—but the body that makes it possible remains a mystery to him. It exists, as physical and permanent as anything in his toy box, but he has a hard time making allowances for it. Without an awareness of how big it is, and how heavy, it wreaks destruction as quickly as it puts things together. Like his sister before him, his idea of playing hide-and-seek is to stand in the corner and cover his eyes. ‘Watch that body of yours,’ I want to tell him. ‘There’s more to you than you think.' 

Awareness of our own bodies seems a relatively recent evolutionary achievement. At the University of Louisiana–Lafayette, Daniel Povinelli has been investigating how only some species of apes (chimps, orangutans and humans, but not gorillas) can recognise their own appearance in mirrors. He argues that our awareness of ourselves as physical entities stems from our common ancestry in the trees. To plan their passage through the canopy (and, in particular, to avoid being dumped on the ground by less sturdy branches), arboreal species need to be able to factor their own weight into their calculations. Land-lovers like gorillas can get by without any such sophistication. For Povinelli, this is a clue to why only some species of apes show mirror self-recognition. Learning the lesson of yourself, it seems, requires some hard bumps in your evolutionary past. 

Mirror self-recognition is usually tested with a simple task. A blob of rouge is applied surreptitiously to the participant’s face, and the observers wait to see whether, when confronted with their own image in a mirror, the chimp, gorilla or human infant will attempt to remove it. Toddlers typically pass the rouge test at around eighteen months. To test whether this translates into a practical awareness of one’s own physicality, Chris Moore and his colleagues at Dalhousie University present toddlers with a supermarket trolley rigged up with a blanket attached to the handle. In order to reach the handle to push the trolley, the toddler has to stand on the blanket. The results can be comical. The little volunteers know how the trolley works—nothing satisfies a toddler so much as pushing a trolley—but it takes time for them to realise that their own bodies are impeding its movement, and devise strategies such as kicking the blanket out of the way. 

The jury is still out on whether toddlers fail this task because of a general problem in understanding the physics of weight and obstruction, or because they specifically fail to see their own bodies as the obstacle. Isaac still crawls under tables to retrieve something and then stands up straight and clunks his head on the underside. Perhaps he needs parking sensors, or at least a little more experience of how much of him there is. Getting used to the vehicle he gets around in is, like many things, going to be a matter of time.

Into the blogosphere...

The final edits of The Baby In The Mirror are now finished, and proofs will be arriving any day. Plenty of things didn't make it into the final mix, and plenty of the questions that got me writing the book in the first place will need returning to, if I am to maintain my sanity. The Ladybird Papers will be a place for all that. If you like what you see, spread the word - and leave your mark here, too.