Developmental dramas

Working with preschoolers has offered me access to a particularly eventful stage of human development. In my experience, these are children aged two to four, roughly. Kids who walk and talk (usually), little citizens possessed of will power, but incapable of taking care of themselves. I’ve worked with this lot long enough to realize they may seem quite fully formed, even, say, a “mini-me” of one of their parents or even grandparents, but they are not. The ensuing years, especially the latter single-digits and hormonal teens, will be crucial to who they become.

Certainly events in infancy  – both traumatic and nurturing – are of paramount importance. But in my experience, the preschool version is still a preliminary sketch, even if it appears otherwise. The kid I thought was a budding sociopath? Actually a solid, charming young man now. The sweet, loquacious little girl? Now a sullen, misanthrope-in-training. The tyrant? Now a socially conscious, optimistic athlete. It seems they are trying things out in preschool, testing limits, gauging.

Very few recall their colorful rough draft personas. If they do, it’s usually like a dream. That is true for myself, and for almost every kid I’ve worked with in the last 16 or so years. Memory seems to really kick in right around the time a kid begins to read, which for most is around age five. (Some way before, some way after. It’s a spectrum.)

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But because they fascinate me so, and because I tell their stories, I vividly recall the preschoolers. Aspects of this age I find especially captivating are 1) skewed perception of time, 2) compulsive honesty, and 3) acknowledgement and understanding of mortality. Number 3 almost always occurs in the latter stage, age four-ish.

Regarding skewed perception of time, this first occurred to me when a parent dropped off a child screaming with separation anxiety. The scene has repeated over the years. No matter how much you tell the child, “Your parent is coming back in three hours,” they have no idea what that means. They understand the words, but not the concept of the passage of time. They think the parent is gone forever.

The only way to teach them otherwise is to let them feel that terror until the passage of time dawns on them. Which is really hard. Similarly, you can converse with a preschooler about next week, next month, next Christmas, last summer, and it doesn’t take long to realize they’re not on that time-space continuum with you. It fascinates me that so much is online with a kid’s mental skills, and they can sometimes converse better than adults, but they can’t quite grasp the past, present, and future.

Some catch on quick, a few will take longer. But they do catch on. It feels like pulling them from a dream into consensual reality, from their little brain Eden into the flow of time.

Regarding compulsive honesty, that can be a little bit of what we call “an ouchie.” Because they will tell you that you smell like chicken soup. Or they’ll brazenly refuse to dance with so-and-so because, they’ll say for all to hear, that they like someone else better. Or they will simply look at you and say, “I hate you.”

They do say the darnedest things. Right around age four, however, you can see certain kids spinning tall tales, exaggerations of their home, their pets, their travels. And they’ll begin to grasp that their caregivers may be lying, too, suspicion in their preschooler eyes. When they carry on, younger kids will gasp, and the fledgling liars will lean in. Occasionally, when called on their bullshit, they’ll confess, and they’ll grasp why it’s bad to lie. But some will double down and insist, crying, that they have a dragon in their bathtub.

Regarding understanding of mortality, several times a child has come to me bereft about a deceased family member – usually a pet or grandparent. In the same way I recall doing when I was about five, they are horrified at the abrupt realization that it happens to every living thing, including them.

Meanwhile, most of their peers cannot wrap their heads around it. The bereaved come to preschool processing it all, suddenly appearing significantly older than the others.

Through tears, a four-year-old said of his beloved grandfather, “But dead means forever, and that’s for all time!” I took him to the edge of the woods near the school and told him to look at the autumn trees. The leaves were falling from the maples, red and orange and yellow. I told him they were dead, yes. But the tree was alive and would stay alive through the winter and into the years and years beyond.

“Really?” he said, although he knew I was not lying. I nodded, hugged him, and we went inside to play.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.