Readers — This is a letter I got from Chris Byrne, who is always deep and wise about childhood. He was responding to the post about a new, less “scary” rhyme kids have picked up from My Little Pony. Instead of the age-old “Cross my heart and hope to die/Stick a needle in my eye,” they’ve learned, “Cross my heart and hope to fly/Stick a cupcake in my eye.” – L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: Like so many things (“Ring Around the Rosie” being related to the Black Death), these were the ways children played with fear. “Cross My Heart…” is an interpretation of the kind of vows that knights would make when taking off for medieval “Hangover”-like road trip called The Crusades. The intent was to imagine the most horrible thing that could happen as a way of showing the intensity of the pledge.
“You won’t tell mom I put Larry in the dryer, right?”
“Cross my heart…”
In this case what would happen to my brother for ratting us out would had been far worse than a prick in the eye.
This is how children typically have talked for centuries, to mirror in their childish ways what they see as the adult norms. Now, you might think in this world that there is no pledge that has the kind of power this implies, and you might be right. (I have too many friends for whom the marriage vows of fidelity are transitory, sadly.) But still, this is an appropriately childish way of cementing a relationship. What kids learn from the intensity of this language is the making—and keeping—of promises helps define who we are in relationships. Getting a cupcake in one’s eye is just messy, and hoping to fly is a different kind of fantasy. So the question becomes, where do kids practice the intensity of a one-to-one pledge that is character building? No idea.
After I read this, I was thinking about the things we used to do. My brothers and I would end up in protective custody today, I’m sure of it. (Access to explosives alone would have had us tried as adults at age 8 or less.) We would flatten Wonder bread and take “communion” before battles in the backyard. I became “blood brothers” with a couple of friends. You know, that’s when you both cut yourself and press the cuts together. Usually, best accomplished when you’re covered head to toe in dirt from climbing trees and spying on the “witches” who lived down the block. (Adult reality lets one know that these two elderly sisters probably didn’t have the means to keep up their house, but a child’s mind makes peeling paint into a sure sign of demonic presence. We told each other stories about them to scare each other, and we knew a kid who knew a kid who had gone trick-or-treating there and was never seen again! Works like a charm with the little kids — the ability to scare them is a marker of being grown up because you know better and have cast off the power of superstition.)
In any event, this was where play comes in—helping children to interpret and make sense of what they see around them in the adult world as refracted through their present cognitive abilities. It’s like playing church or school, or fireman or policeman, it helps kids locate themselves in a culture at a particular time. Without these ritualistic forms of play (and, no, watching “Dancing with the Stars” is not a ritual, though it may seem to be one), kids can’t be integrated individuals, able to deal with pain, loss, betrayal, death as well as the many joys of life, which one hopes gain in value given their ephemeral nature. (Actually, watching “Dancing with the Stars” does locate you in the culture, but not in any but the most superficial way.)
Anyway, I think there’s something in here that’s bigger than you’ve had a chance to explore. Thanks, as always, for what you’re doing and for making me think. – Chris
Made me blink! Er…think!