Going from the known to the unknown, from sameness to difference, from comfortable to the challenging equal CHANGE. Change is the basic motivation of a child from birth until, well, until we the parents, or we the child’s community, or we the child’s teachers, switch this natural, inborn motivation to its opposite: don’t rock the boat, maintain homeostasis at all cost, don’t change!
Somewhere along the line we tend to forget that homeostasis (sameness) is the well-earned rest and relaxation (R&R) after the strenuous effort of going through some change. The heart does it: it beats, then relaxes. Workers do it: they work, then have a weekend off and in any given year, they have at least one holiday. We all do it: after each day of wakefulness, we go to sleep.
If we follow the natural rhythms of a newborn child through its toddler years, we can even conclude that ‘change’ is the very purpose of life. This is what M. C. Pearce has to say about it:
A mother who carries her child with her, on her body,
at all times during its first year of life "makes no accommodations for
the infant’s sleep…During the day, he sleeps whenever the need arises,
amid the hustle and bustle of his mother’s daily life. Motion is the natural
state of the this infant, and he sleeps far better in motion than in stillness.
Stillness, in fact, is the most alien of all states to the newborn and
early infant. Safely ensconced within the ‘known’, that is, the sling or
the backpack, the infant "moves continually into highly stimulating new
experiences. New sensory data comes pouring in with the mother right there
for continual reinforcement of the basic set of conceptual patterns to
which all newness can be referred. This is the ideal learning situation,
an automatic stress-relaxation cycle giving continual stimulus and security."
(The Magical Child, p. 68)
Before a child becomes mobile, before it can crawl or walk, it has approximately nine months of sensory input during which its point of reference for security is the mother. Imagine, then, what happens in a culture where the mother is encouraged to ‘go out and get a life’ without the child. Who remains as the child’s point of known reference? As long as there is a living caregiver, be it a relative, a baby-sitter, a professional nanny or even a dog (as in the story of Peter Pan where Nana, the Newfoundland dog, looked after Wendy and her brothers), the child has a secure base of reference. But without someone to touch, such as when the infant is in a crib or a toddler restricted to a playpen, the child finds itself without a home base, a safe place, and automatically goes into the survival mode.
A parent might not recognize the child’s change of motivation. Lack of ‘matrix support’ (where ‘matrix’ is the Latin word for ‘Mother’) forces the child to become defensive, to avoid change, and, therefore, forego learning. Or, rather, instead of learning with joy through interaction with its limited environment, the child will learn, instinctively, through fear how to manipulate its environment for its own perceived safety. This change in motivation is not something a child is conscious of at all. Any such change of motivation is a direct result of the child’s relationship (or lack of it) with its primary care-giver.
At the stage where a child begins to walk and becomes a ‘toddler’, its environment suddenly expands. The field of possibilities for new stimulus becomes almost infinite. The child by this time has reached object constancy, in that it can now concentrate on any given object and follow it out of sight and remember it. Such object constancy is necessary for exploration because the toddler, in an ideal setting, will leave its mother’s lap, explore a new area of the living room, then scurry back to the mother’s lap for R&R. This dance of going forth into the unknown and coming back to the known is the essence of learning.
The type of learning a child goes through at this state is called ‘concrete operational thinking.’ The child learns to live among the myriad of ‘things’ surrounding it: the physical environment, the world of matter. Now here is the rub: as long as the child can do its explorations with a primary caregiver nearby to whom the child can run and touch and from whom it can receive the required sense of security, that child will learn with joy, enthusiasm and lack of fear.
At this point, the reader who has been made wise through caution, fear or real experience of tragic proportions, will say such exploration, which is usually accompanied by a sense of abandon, can be dangerous. There are, in fact, two sets of factors which make this mother-child, shared exploration perfectly safe. The first stems from the child’s inborn intelligence, which makes its explorations basically cautious. The abandon comes only after a sense of familiarity or habituation sets in, when the learning has been completed. Secondly, the constant presence of the caregiver ensures its attention upon the child.
Therefore, the ideal situation for the child, exploring the physical world and learning its own relationship to its life needs is a joyful experience. The problems arise when the young child is temporarily abandoned and/or physically restricted in its movements. We will explore this cultural interference in a toddler’s life in the next essay.