Saturday, September 5, 2009

Further proof that children are socially cooperative creatures

One of the most important ideas I took away from reading The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff, is that children are socially cooperative animals. I've written about this before when an 11-month-old Mikko helped me brush the cat to illustrate that children's (and adults') tendency is to imitate the group they find themselves a part of so that they can fit in. I included in that previous article several quotes from The Continuum Concept about how children naturally become like their elders without any coercive measures necessary, which goes against the way our culture tells us that children are innately antisocial and must be brought in line with what is expected of them.

As I've been exploring this theory in my now two years of observing my child, I've come to realize that it's not the child's behavior that's so different in a continuum vs. non-continuum household; it's all about perspective. My particular child is simply behaving in a developmentally appropriate way, not doing anything special. But where some elders would see inconvenience and stubbornness and brattiness when toddlers insist on doing something for themselves, I've been able to glimpse an innate determination in my son to become more like the people around him. Two-year-olds, with all of their newfound abilities, offer some of the best opportunities to witness the concept of innate sociality in action. Here are my current experiences. Feel free to share yours in the comments!

     1. Mikko has started a new and hilarious trick of parroting back anything we say, with hand gestures and intonations, but with only scattered vocabulary. So, if we had said, say, "We'd better call Grandma before we leave," it will sound something like this: "Raa maa blu vrr Grandma frr raa maa." Only with astonishing animation, and a big grin, and emphatic hand motions. If he were a teenager, I'd call it sarcastic. Since it's obviously not, I'm going to have to reevaluate my prejudices against teens as well...

     2. Mikko says "uh oh" whenever something falls to the ground, whether or not he intentionally made it so. A book falling off the table gets "uh oh," but so does a tower of blocks he gleefully crashes into, and so does a toy he throws in pique when he's not getting his way over something. That last one is usually funny enough to keep me out of my own fit of pique during his mini-tantrums.

toddler sweeping broom     3. Mikko loves to help clean, as long as it doesn't interfere with what he's doing. I can't tidy up a box of blocks, say, without his wanting to start playing with the blocks, but he'll do other things to help out. He loves pushing a broom around or flitting with the feather duster. He lives to put things in the trash, no matter if we're at home or out. He even knows that if the trash comes on a tray, that you're supposed to put the tray up above the trash can. (What? We meet friends in a mall food court a lot...) Yesterday he spilled some water and rushed away from it, looking as if he wanted to leave it for his dad to clean up. Nope. Mikko was rushing to grab a pair of his discarded underpants, which he apparently considered an eco-friendly and convenient option for mopping up water spills. He was right.

     4. Mikko and the cat, Mrs. Pim, have a contentious relationship, with all the contention being on her side. Mikko would love to be friends, but Mrs. Pim is (rightly) wary. That doesn't stop Mikko from trying to win her over. He loves to give her her kibble twice a day, which we just kind of pile on the floor or put in a fun little food ball — but then we always lose the food ball because Mrs. Pim bats it into a closet or under a chair, so back on the floor the kibble ends up going for a week until we find the food ball again. Anyway, Mikko loves to scoop his little handfuls of her food out of the big bin we keep it in and toss it haphazardly all over the hardwood floors, where it scatters into corners and sticks to bare feet. It's not the most convenient way to feed a cat, but it makes him happy. The other day Mrs. Pim was hungry enough to actually come running when it was time for Mikko to dole out her rations. She stopped a few feet beyond us and turned her back, playing it cool. Mikko grabbed a handful and ran toward her. I ineffectually tried to convince him to leave her alone, since I wasn't sure what new torture he had dreamed up for her. (He really likes to point out that she has eyes, for instance, which she is not so fond of.) But she stayed put, and he stayed on course, and I was so glad to see what transpired. He carefully placed his handful down right in front of her nose and then backed away to get more. And, miracle of miracles, Mrs. Pim began eating! Even when he came back with more, she didn't shy away. I loved that he was basically hand-feeding her, with more care than even we take.

     5. When it comes to his own food, Mikko will not eat anything alone. He must share. And even when it comes to nursing, if he's holding a doll, he'll let the new baby have a taste of nummies first before he claims his turn. We were meeting the aforementioned friends at the food court, and everyone was eating fries with "dip" (ketchup), Mikko's requirement for every meal now. (It doesn't always have to be ketchup — just some sort of dippable sauce.) Mikko settled in on one friend's lap and picked up a nice long fry, dipped it, and offered her a bite behind him. Then he took a bite. Then he offered it to the other friend. The first friend laughingly warned her off from being the third to share a single fry, but it was beautiful to see the natural generosity at work in a little child (and, incidentally, a lovely example of allomothering).

     6. I bought a couple skirts and dresses lately in an attempt to be cool (literally — for the summer, I mean!). I found to my dismay that I could therefore not stash my wallet and keys and lip gloss in my pockets, because there were none. Fine, I sighed, digging through the closet till I found a purse from high school, the last time I regularly carried one. Naturally, my purse is Mikko's new toy. Giving him his own purse doesn't work, because he wants the one I'm using. Case in point, right now my purse is holding a toy horse, but my wallet and phone have been dumped and scattered. But an unexpectedly favorite item within is my glasses wipe from Costco — a little microfiber cloth in a plastic pouch. Mikko is fascinated with Sam's and my glasses. I try to reassure him that there is no earthly way he will not someday garner his own pair of specs, what with nearsightedness having stricken every member on both sides of our family, but it's hard to wait when you're two. In the meantime, he's practicing. Every time he sees the little lens-wiping cloth, out it comes from its pouch, and he immediately uses it to dab his eyes. Apparently, that will do in the meantime!

All right, it's your turn. How have your children demonstrated their inherent social cooperation? Does it make you as giddily happy as it makes me? (That last one was kind of a rhetorical question.)


Betsy B. Honest said...

My baby hands over a portion of whatever he's eating to anybody who says anything or looks his way whenever he's got food. Soggy cracker, grain of rice, pork chop -- whatever he's got.

It's not always easy to ascribe positive motivation to everything a toddler or preschooler does though -- they are so the type of people to bonk someone on the head with a toy to get their attention. But I find it helps infinitely to love love love 'em if you can remember that they just earnestly can't think of a better way to get someone's attention.

Kuddos to you and your mommy wisdom for trying to understand your wee one from this perspective.

But my opinion is that little people are essentially cooperative only as long as they are adequately napped and fed -- if not they are wild drunken gorillas and all bets are off!

Cave Mother said...

Mine is only just one, but she is already trying to copy so many things. Give her a cloth and she wipes any surface she comes across - the wall, the floor, whatever. She strokes the cat (as opposed to pulling her fur, which she used to do). A couple of months ago I gave her a hairbrush to occupy her in the middle of a supermarket and she immediately started to pretend to brush her hair. And, like you little one, she refuses to eat alone. Everything is shared by being waved at me until I pretend to take a bite. She shares her drinks with whoever is around. Yes, it is so cute and so amazing to see her social instincts developing right before my eyes.

Melodie said...

My toddler loves to sweep. She freaks out if I don't let her do the dustpan part, and the funny thing is, she is actually really good at getting all the dirt in! Her fine motor skills are better than my almost 5 year old's! She also must talk on the phone if I am and she loves to go into my purse, take everything out and pretend to be me. She even puts on my lipstick. But unfortunately her fine motor skills go right out the window with that one!

Ayie said...

kids always want to have a hand on whatever the elders are doing or having

Lisa C said...

My little guy has been trying to mimic us since he was only about four or five months old. He just keeps doing more and more things like us. And he's been very social since he was about 2 weeks old!

He loves to help when he knows what to do. Like when he pees on the floor he grabs a cloth to wipe it up. He loves to sweep, load the dishwasher, dig outside with his dad, brush his hair and teeth, share his food, he tries to feed other babies, he wants to do everything.

He's learning to be more cooperative all the time, though he's reached this stage where is loves to run away from me. I am SURE it is just a game to him (and games are about cooperation, right?), but it sure can be frustrating sometimes.

Seriously, though, it is exciting that he can be so generous and helpful without my ever even asking it of him.

mom said...

My LO is only 8 months, but already he'll offer a bit of whatever I offer him to eat back at me. He also refuses to play with anything that has not been "played" with by my husband or I first.

mamamaemae said...

The other morning at about 5:30, my 1 yr old & I were up & at 'em. My husband was out of town for the 5th (of 8) days and I would've preferred sleeping until at least 6. But, we were finishing breakfast & Zeke grabs the washcloth (that I had used to wipe him up & he had then thrown to the floor) & wipes up the food that had fallen on the floor, as I do after each meal. It just made me laugh and got the day started out on a better foot. Good work, buddy!

Lauren Wayne said...

Yea — so fun to hear everyone's stories! And "wild drunken gorillas" made me laugh!

All this sweeping and sharing sounds just like around here. I forgot the lipstick thing till Melodie mentioned it — Mikko has to put lipgloss on me, on his chin, and then on Sam's beard. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't know. I haven't read the continuum concept and maybe I am off-base from the concept here when I say that I don't think that children can fit into a box of what they need. Some children do need coercion. I live in a neighborhood with two other families that keep in close contact and we all have 5 year olds. It's interesting to watch the difference in how these children respond vs. who their parents are and how they are parenting. I would definitely say that positive behavior requires active involvement in showing the ropes and explaining some things so that better choices can be made that are indicative of community. Allowing a child to choose their own ways may not lead to an awful adult but it certainly gives a better chance of some children having less people who want to hang with them because they become insistent on their own ways as children. Certainly not what I would call social.

Lauren Wayne said...

janasmama: That's not been my experience in observing other children, but I don't know the specific families you're speaking of. Most of the children and adults I know who are unpleasant to be around were coerced quite frequently growing up, as that's the norm. I do agree that "active involvement in showing the ropes" and explaining choices that were made could still be done respectfully. By saying that children are naturally social and cooperative, I don't mean that we as parents leave them to their own devices. Quite the contrary — they need to be integrated into every aspect of our lives so they can see "the ropes" and learn through observation (at first) and trial (as they grow) how to behave within that particular group. Children who are insistent on their own ways might be going through a phase (this is normal at certain developmental stages) or might have other issues (disorders that make it hard for them to understand social cues, for instance); for most children, having people not want to be around them leads to self-correction in behavior.

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