Looking for the Face

I have beside me a picture, sized A4.  It is by my three-year-old grand-daughter, and has brought great joy to her parents (a teacher and play therapist respectively).  The joy stems not from the fact that she has produced a picture (she showed me half-a dozen this morning, for example, including one representing daffodils).  No, this picture is qualitatively different.  It is the very first time that she has drawn a human face.

Drawn with a crayon on stiff yellow paper, the face is pear shaped (or, if you like, an inverted droplet).  There are two oval eyes, a nose and/or a mouth, and some hair on the very top of the crown. There are, I think, two ears, one attached to the side of the face, the other at the end of a curving line.  And there are two arms, loosely connected to the face, each recognisable by hands at the end of them. At the bottom of the face there is what is presumably a body and/or legs.

An Archetype?

No doubt a psychologist or therapist would intuit all sorts of inner feelings, projections and even personality traits from the way the face and its constituent parts are drawn.  That is not why I am describing it.  In fact I see it as an archetype rather than as a portrait.  As (I hope) all teachers and therapists know, the first representation of a human being by a child is usually a face to which other body parts such as arms and legs are connected.  There is no neck, torso: the person is essentially a face.

My granddaughter is not stupid, and she is highly aware of clothes and clothing.  She knows that you wear a hat on your head, vests and jumpers on your body, and trousers and socks or tights on your legs.  In other words she is aware that humans have a face and a body, but like nearly all children, she has elected to draw her first human form as a face.

And that raises for me the question as to why this should be so.  My hunch, developed over years of observation and pondering, is that the reason may be rather simple.  It is the face that matters more than anything else: it is in the face that little children come to see and recognise other human beings, to read their feelings, to notice their particular characteristics.  But more than that, it is in the faces of others that they see a reflection of themselves.  Faces are living, vibrant mirrors.  (Janusz Korczak wrote memorably, “A child can read his parent’s face in the same way a farmer reads the sky to predict the weather”. A Voice for the Child, ed. S. Joseph, London: Thorsons, 1999, page 29).


In attachment theory the importance of attunement (a dance) between a mother and child has come to be accepted as fundamental to healthy human development.  It is a subtle process involving rhythms, holding, sounds and sensitive touch.  But for children who can see, it is the human face which is the focal point of attunement.  I don’t think it is putting things too strongly to say that every child is wired for, or born with the desire, to see a human face that looks at them, and looks back at them when they look, and smiles as and when they smile.  The faces of the mother and child are said to “light up” as they interact.  Something new has dawned in their relationship.

It is a human tragedy when babies and little children seek in vain for a loving, responsive, attuned human face.  Such tragedies occur for a variety of reasons: death and the absence of a mother; institutional substitute care where a succession of adults perform practical functions without genuine attachment or attunement; and, possibly as sadly as either of these, a mother who has such low self-esteem that she conveys to her child a feeling of worthlessness and alienation.

I have written before of my admiration for the work of Dan Hughes, notably in his book, Building the Bonds of Attachment (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).  He describes in harrowing terms the feelings and emotions of a child who does not find attunement and bonding: rejection, contempt, disgust, shame, denial, rage, terror, despair, are some of the words he uses, and he concludes of a “path cut through a harsh and barren land…an infant lying among noise, cold and pain…tears that parched and cracked her heart but which caused nothing to grow in her land” (page 22).  It is an almost unimaginably bleak picture that he paints.

Conversely for those children who experience predictably and consistently that magical and pleasurable feeling where they are drawn to responsive eyes set in a smiling, playful face, there can be nothing safer, warmer or more satisfying and reassuring than this spontaneous emotional and physical dance.  No wonder children aged three begin to represent humans with the face!

A Place in the Universe

This leads us on to an even deeper question: what does this longing for a human face represent within the soul?  My sense is that it is to do with the desire (craving) in persons “for a cosmic ordering, self-confirming presence of a loving other that defines what it means to be human”. Built in to human nature and our ego structure is “a cosmic loneliness that longs for a Face that will do all that the mother’s face does, and more: inspiring trust and even worship because it will not go away even in the ultimate separation of death”. (James Loder, The Logic of the Spirit, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998, page 119.)

Something that strikes me about the picture I am studying is that it is symbolic and archetypal. This face represents all faces: the Face that we are born to seek because we are human beings. The great world religions have much to teach about a longing for such a Face.  Christianity sees the Face of God in Jesus Christ.

The purpose of this reflection is not to spell out a moral of the story: I am still wondering about what it might all mean.  Obviously there is a recognition of the significance of good-enough, attuned parenting (and a corresponding wariness of unfamiliar substitutes).  But I guess there is somewhere at the heart of all this a question about whether without traditional religion a child (and later an adult) is still left alone in the cosmos, bombarded with unsatisfying substitutes for this loving, faithful, eternal Face.

Just in case you were wondering what will happen to the picture: it is going back up on the dining room wall where it belongs, alongside several other paintings and drawings by my granddaughter and her brother.

As a coda to this piece, here is a poem that for some reason has resonated with tens of millions around the world.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

–    John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Is it, I wonder, that it symbolises and articulates a universal human longing, not just to see, but to touch the Face that we are looking for?

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