Now 22 months, Hal enjoys pictures of animals but can he identify with the drama of a story? His father, Roger Mills, explores.
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae has become a popular bedtime book with my son Hal recently. It is a touching story. There is a jungle ball. All the other animals are good dancers but Gerald the giraffe is hopeless, his four left feet tripping him up whenever he tries. At the ball the animals take turns to strut their stuff before the assembled gathering. But when it comes to Gerald, with all eyes on him as he steps out onto the dance floor, he freezes. Humiliated and miserable he leaves the dance. In a moonlit clearing he strikes up a conversation with a friendly cricket who suggests to Gerald that perhaps the problem is not his dancing, but that he has been trying to dance to the wrong music. ‘Listen to the swaying grass and listen to the trees, to me the sweetest music is those branches in the breeze,’ says the cricket. Gerald tries and finds that, to this music, he dances superbly. Not the foxtrots and tangos the other animals do to be sure, but a unique, swooping dance that is all Gerald’s own. Little by little the other animals come to the clearing and the tale ends with everyone lost in admiration for Gerald and his new strange dance.
Reading the story with Hal I was struck by what he made of it. He liked identifying the animals, calling Gerald an ‘arf’ and pointing out the monkeys and lions. And I think he enjoyed the images, though I’m basing this on the way that he looks at and seems to take pleasure in the pictures. But what I got no sense of was Hal engaging in any way with the drama of the story. The fact that he is as happy going backwards through the book as going forwards would seem to suggest that, for the time being at least, the emotional content of the narrative is not one of Hal’s reading pleasures. It made me wonder what has to be happening for a child to get interested in the drama of a story. What capacities does Hal need to have to be affected by Gerald’s humiliation and later triumph?
Stories work, for the most part, because we can identify in some way with what the characters go through. Most people probably have had some experience of the paralysing self-consciousness poor Gerald has to endure. Most of us probably have an inkling of what his humiliation feels like. But Hal doesn’t seem to connect with them. Why not? One answer would be that he hasn’t yet had these experiences. But there is another, more fundamental reason, I think, why Hal doesn’t really connect with Gerald’s story. Children not yet turned two like Hal don’t really know what it is to be conscious of themselves. They have passionate feelings to be sure. But they don’t think about having them. It is the subtle difference between feeling, say, angry, and feeling angry and knowing that you are a person experiencing anger.
I would argue that it is only when we have a sense of ourself as a self-feeling thing that we can start to see others as selves who feel. And without that sense, the emotional drama of stories can’t really work. As I suggested in the last issue I do think some identifications are possible at this stage. Hal gets excited by tractors and cars and sees in them, I think, embodiments of his own energy. But this is a kind of connection that is available to him without him having to have a consciousness of himself as a self. To connect with Gerald’s poignant tale he needs to have a much richer sense of what it is to feel like a self than he has now. Self-consciousness is easily seen as a curse, opening the way to a great deal of pain. But it is also a doorway through to the boundless pleasures of stories.
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees (1 84121 565 1), is published by Orchard at £4.99.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.