Hal is now 2 years and 9 months and has begun to identify emotionally with the narratives in his books. His father, Roger Mills, explains.
A couple of weeks ago my wife Jo gave Hal a gingerbread man to eat in the car on the way back from a shopping trip. Hal is exceedingly fond of gingerbread men and normally the biscuit would have disappeared in double quick time. But on this occasion he just sat and looked at it. ‘Aren’t you going to eat it?’ Jo asked. ‘Gingerbread boy run away’ was Hal’s response, and he carried on looking and not eating. By the end of the ride the gingerbread man was still not inside – an unprecedented act of restraint on Hal’s part.
Jo knew exactly why Hal was talking about the gingerbread boy running away. The night before they had been reading a story together called ‘The Gingerbread Boy’. An old couple have no children. One day the woman decides to make a little gingerbread boy. When he is cooked they discover that he has come to life. He hops out of the oven and runs away, chased by the couple, and then a cow and a horse. None of them can catch him, but finally he is halted when he comes to a river. A crafty fox offers to help him cross, and after a little subtle cajoling persuades the boy to sit on his nose as he swims across. As soon as they make dry land the fox tosses the gingerbread boy into the air and begins to eat him. The final, poignant page, describes the boy’s pitiful cries as he is consumed fraction by fraction until, at last, he is all eaten and the cries are heard no more.
It was obvious to Jo that Hal’s abstinence must be due to reading the story. And it marks, I think, a major step for him. In earlier diaries I’ve described how Hal didn’t seem to identify emotionally with the narratives in his books. The death of Babar’s mother, for example, seemed to make no impression on him a few months back. But something has changed now. The gingerbread boy’s demise seems to have had a big impact on Hal. Enough to make him hold back from one of his favourite treats.
In the earlier diaries I suggested that the reason Hal wasn’t emotionally affected by stories was that, at that stage, he hadn’t developed what could be called emotional self-consciousness. It is the difference between a small child who simply has angry feelings, and one who has the feelings but is also conscious of him or herself having the feelings such that they could say ‘I am angry’. If you are conscious of yourself as a self that experiences emotions, it means that you can start to identify with what other people are feeling. You can understand that other people have an internal world that is full of feelings just as you have.
It seems to me that Hal is starting to cross this developmental Rubicon, and has started to be conscious of himself as a self in a way that is quite different from his earlier life. We see it in other respects too. ‘I did it, I did’ he announces after some little achievement, suggesting that pride, a self-conscious feeling if ever there was one, has joined the party. He has also started to comment on our moods. ‘You cross with me Mummy?’ he says to Jo if she’s been getting impatient with him.
The beginnings of self-consciousness opens the door to connecting with people, and with stories about them, in a quite new way. I’m sure that it made Hal think of the little gingerbread boy as a person, and that the pathos of the little boy’s plight was what kept Hal from gobbling his gingerbread man. The compassion didn’t last, and by the end of the week Hal had returned gingerbread men to the inanimate object category and was eating them enthusiastically once again. But his experience of stories is going to be radically different from now on. The days of just pointing at a tractor and saying ‘tractor’ look as if they are over.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.