Hal is now four and a half and able to hold an uncompleted story in his head. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills , reflects on the interaction between developmental issues and the part that books play in Hal’s life.
Probably the most noticeable difference in Hal’s reading habits in recent months is the kind of books we are now reading. We always used to read books where pictures predominated and text was never more than a few pages. Lately though we have moved into the realm of the small paperback. Thanks to Messrs Kellogg and Nestlé we’ve been accumulating small paperbacks for some time now, but it is only in the last few weeks that Hal seems to have developed the patience for working the way through a whole book.
I noticed this particularly when we started reading a cereal packet book titled Pirate Brother by Pete Johnson. Pirate Brother runs to 96 pages with illustrations only every four or five pages. Six months ago Hal would never have had the patience for such a long and sparsely pictured book, but as far as I could tell he loved it. What is more we read it over three successive mornings and he was able to remember and pick up the story where we had left off each time we returned to it.
I think it was this last point, Hal’s ability to hold an uncompleted story in his head and not mind about it not being finished, that particularly made an impact on me. In a way, you could say this is quite an adult capacity, to be able to cope with fulfilment deferred rather than instant gratification (though of course adults are extremely good at the instant hit as well). And it does mark, I think, an important developmental milestone.
Small babies are hopeless at delaying gratification. They want their feed/cuddle/nappy change instantly and if they don’t get it they wail. Psychoanalytical and other writers about infant development argue that frustration is experienced almost as a threat to survival at this stage and so, needs must, gratification has to be immediate. As the child grows and develops their ability to understand and predict, the world develops too. The child learns that the absence of a meal does not mean that there will never be any more food, just that there isn’t anything on the table right now.
With these changes frustration becomes less of nightmare, and something incomplete, such as an incomplete story, becomes bearable. This seems to be the kind of shift that has happened in Hal over recent months and it isn’t just in reading that I’ve noticed it. Hal’s threshold for Lego construction not going right used to be severely limited. Either the bricks fitted together at first or second attempt or he’d start whining. Recently I’ve seen him plugging away at Lego problems with a tenacity he would never have had before. There are still tantrums and aborted Lego spaceships are occasionally hurled across the room. But it is a very different boy from last year’s model.