Hal is now nearly four and is beginning to look at his books as things that can help explain the unfamiliar. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, continues to explore the interaction between developmental issues and stages and the part that books play in Hal’s life.
Here is an excerpt from a conversation that I had with Hal on the way to nursery last week:
Hal: Daddy. Do you do the same work as mummy?
Me: No. I do something different. Mummy makes television programmes. But I’m what is called a counsellor. I work with people who aren’t very happy. My job is to try to make them happier.
Hal: Do you make funny faces at them?
I quote this little vignette, not just for its enchanting final line, but also because of something it made me realise about Hal. The journey to nursery was the first time he had ever asked me about my work. Until now, as far as I can tell, Hal’s main understanding of my work has been in the terms we talk about it to him. Work is the explanation for me going away from home. Work is how we get hold of money without which you can’t buy food or toys. Hitherto Hal had never shown any interest in wanting to know more than these very incomplete accounts of what my work involved. What seemed so new about his question on the way to nursery was a quality of curiosity which I hadn’t heard before.
But it is not that asking questions is new for Hal. At least since he was three, he has been firing questions at us constantly. But they have been of a rather particular kind. Typically they would come in chains, one question immediately leading to the next. A sequence might be ‘What’s the sky?’, ‘The sky is what is up there, it is made of air’, ‘What’s air?’, ‘Air is what we breathe, it’s made of gasses’, ‘What’s gasses?’ at which point we would be stumped and have to change the subject.
The problem with this kind of questioning, with its endless whats and whys, was that it led to ever more abstract answers, and it was pretty clear these meant very little to Hal. But despite the answers being unintelligible, he would always push on to the next question rather than pause or show any kind of bafflement. Stuck in these question and answer sessions I often felt that Hal wasn’t really interested in what he was asking about. That he was, in fact, more interested in seeing whether he could get me to respond to him. What he asked me about my work though felt different. ‘Do you do the same work as mummy?’ had a particularity which seemed to indicate a quite genuine desire to know something about me.
This shift in curiosity is something that I have also begun to notice in Hal’s attitude to books. At Easter time we bought a Dorling Kindersley title called A Street Through Time. The book presents a series of pictures of the same stretch of landscape, showing how it would have been inhabited from the Stone Age 10,000 years ago, through the earliest farmers, the Iron Age, the Roman Period and so on right up to the present day by which time it has become a contemporary city. Six months ago Hal’s interest in the book was fairly straightforward. All he wanted to do was see if he could see knights in armour or castles. He would look over the pages trying to spot them, and anything that wasn’t a knight or castle left him cold.
A couple of days ago I was looking through the book with Hal and I realised that his interest in it was beginning to broaden out. The military stuff was still a major draw it has to be said. But Hal was also curious about some of the other pictures. I noticed it particularly when looking at the double page spread showing the effect of the Plague. This hadn’t generated any interest a few months ago (presumably due to the absence of knights). Now Hal wanted to know why the people had died, what had made them die and why they buried them in a hole.
This feels like a huge shift. I would argue that Hal’s earlier approach to A Street Through Time was to use the book to gratify a need. In psychoanalytic terms this would be seen as an innate energy/aggression seeking external counterparts in images of soldiers. Now, however there is a turnaround. Hal doesn’t just want the book to fit in with a need of his. He is looking at the book as something unfamiliar that can tell him things he doesn’t know. When I had almost finished writing this piece I was talking to my wife Jo about it and she told me of a question Hal had come up with the morning before. ‘Mum’, he had asked, ‘where do I come from?’ Time, I think, to get hold of an encyclopaedia or two.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.