Observers of life
I have been reading histories of childhood written by various authors. Some have been autobiographical; others have been sociological accounts of bygone ages; some were accounts by adults who were evacuated out of the major cities during the War as children.
The personal histories in particular held my interest and I was especially fascinated by the prospect of the child being the observer in their own life. It is a theme I wish to develop during this article.
Last week I had dinner with some friends and during our conversation I stated that despite my life being hectic and challenging, the life that I lived inside my head was as peaceful and still as ever. This was clearly a puzzle for them. I explained that there was a quiet world within my head that allowed me to become an observer on other people’s lives or it gave me the space to consider my own options.
Contemplation comes from the Latin root templum (from Greek temnein: to cut or divide), and means to separate something from its environment, and to enclose it in a sector.
Strategies developed during childhood
I am sure that I developed this skill during my childhood years when as an only child, there were times when I didn’t want to speak to imagined friends. I just wanted to think to them. Piaget spoke of the egocentric child who is initially limited to understanding the world only from their own perspective. He also wrote about how children ‘look on’ during the play of other, older children.
There will be a percentage of children who have retained the ability to watch the world as it and its inhabitants go about their business without getting involved themselves. Some children are too busy just being alive and active to focus on other aspects of their childhood.
‘I’ve learned many things from my four daughters, but one of the most important – and probably the one I pay the least amount of attention to – is slowing down and looking at the world through their eyes. They don’t pointedly teach us parents something as obvious as that. When children observe the world around them, they are only doing what comes naturally to them. They notice the tiniest, sometimes most insignificant things that we wouldn’t see if it weren’t for them pointing things out to us.’ George Ayres in Children Today makes apt comments about his four children and how much they can teach the busy, frantic adults.
When one of our dogs, a Clumber spaniel, was a puppy, she was diagnosed with a serious heart condition which caused her to undergo an operation before she was twelve weeks old and from which she was not expected to survive. She made a remarkable recovery from the surgery, but had so many medical conditions that her life consisted of numerous visits to the vet and several stays in hospital. Despite all of this, she remained a very stoical and placid creature up to her death almost ten years later.
In the mornings when she was still very small, Briar would wander outside, perform her bodily functions and then just sit and watch the day unfold. She watched the garden birds fly very close to her; she looked into the sky if she heard a plane or saw a hot air balloon. It seemed to me that she wanted to take it all in. In a lot of ways she reminded me of those children who become observers, not necessarily through life-threatening conditions but because their nature allows them this stillness.
When I was a child, we lived in rural Cumbria. I have walked on the fells since I was two years old. I remember watching lambs in the field at the back of our house running along the walls and jumping over each other. I saw the outline of a fox at dusk before it began to look for food for itself and its family. I noted the changing seasons, each one more dramatic than the last. I recall the squeaky sound of snow under foot. I can still smell the cows standing waiting to be milked. I was often allowed to ride on the back of a quiet animal whilst it was being milked. It was such a warm, safe place to be despite the very bony backbone. I was happy to spend time watching from my bedroom window as the world passed by.
My father was the story teller in our family. He would make up tales about two badgers, Bill and Myrtle, each night. The stories were very simple. They were a shared event between the two of us, each one contributing something to the tale as it wound its way towards a satisfactory conclusion. Because I had been able to watch badgers in their habitat, I understood their behaviour and expected the stories to be realistic and fairly uneventful. They still held my attention so something must have worked.
Ways and means
Children do not observe merely to copy or model the behaviour of those around them although that must be an essential contributory factor to growing up with attitudes and expectations of themselves in their world. They need to see the ‘fit’ of things – how adults communicate and interact; how cooking something for too long makes it smell and taste bad; what Mum does when the other children walk into the house wearing muddy shoes. All of this is natural behaviour, developing cognitive skills and forming concepts.
The story of Matilda by Roald Dahl, the very clever child born to very stupid parents demonstrates in part what I am trying to say. Matilda had no role models as such. She certainly couldn’t have aspired to be like either of her parents. She developed in spite of them. The child observes the world from the quiet place within, draws their own conclusions about how to behave, how to work through problems and who to trust.
I am so grateful that I have retained some of my strategies from childhood. I could not manage without my peaceful small self which helps me ride out the crashing waves of adult life until they become calm and still once more.