Second childhood…

Frolicking Nick Verron
Frolicking ~ Nick Verron

With the unconscious wisdom of youth, my son decided that he would give me a games console. It is not, perhaps, the obvious gift for a woman about to enter her seventh decade, but then, he assures me that as I am a ‘tweenager’, it is entirely appropriate.

When the boys were young we always made sure they were up to date with the growing technological revolution. From the blocky arcade games of the ancient Atari to our first home computer, they soon became confident with consoles and keyboards and we played as a family, working out the puzzles, learning how to share,  to be patient and to persevere in the days when games took ages to load and progress could not be saved.

Spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination, foresight, reaction times and logic were all well-served, Games that now look primitive were often complex and demanding and to complete them was a real triumph. We have fond memories of those times. The software available for the Commodore 64 and the old Sinclair Spectrum even allowed you, with a little vary basic knowledge, to build your own games. Such violence as there was tended to be of the ‘Tom and Jerry’ variety, with little or no relation to reality and gameplay was often as much of an intellectual challenge as a test of manual dexterity. We hoped that introducing the boys to technology early would stand them in good stead in later years and that has indeed proved to be the case.

I am decades behind the times where technology is concerned these days. Modern consoles do more than play games, it seems, allowing you to access your PC, play music and films and do much of what I now do at the computer from the comfort of the sofa, which can only be a good thing… as long as the dog lets me share. All the skills that early gaming honed for the boys are ones that need to be maintained in later years… and oddly enough, I kept the best of the old games. So, in an unexpected role reversal, my son is giving his tweenage mother a games console for her birthday.

I rather like the idea of entering my tweenage years. The term is usually applied to prepubescent children, but works equally well for those in the nameless limbo between later decades. It sounds better than ‘dotage’ or ‘incipient old-age’, and my son has been accusing me of regressing for quite a while now. I like that idea too; the old saying that ‘youth is wasted on the young’ should really be embraced by those on the threshold of a second childhood. Why should we wait until others apply that term to us in a derogatory manner, when we can throw ourselves into our second childhood head first and enjoy it?

When you consider the characteristics of a child, and the outlook of those older folk who seem to radiate joy, there is little difference. While the young have not yet learned to distrust the motives of people and events, the old have garnered enough experience to see straight through any subterfuge, dismissing the absurdities of human nature, so those at both extremities of life may see the world through clear and untroubled eyes.

The very young do not concern themselves with the far distant future and nor do the very old. At the beginning of life, the future is so far distant that it is impossible to envisage, while at the tail end of life it is so close it becomes transparent. Now matters; for the very young, there is nothing else… later, as tomorrows become increasingly uncertain, there seems little point wasting energy peering into your own unreliable future.

Small children care little about the opinion of others, it is a learned behaviour acquired as a reaction to dismissal and rejection, both real and perceived. The passing years bring a freedom from worrying about how the world judges us too… and this happens at a time when, for many, the responsibilities of the daily grind are lessened as our offspring sculpt lives of their own and grandchildren allow us to play as children again ourselves.

Granted, that is not the story for everyone, but I believe we all have the capacity to access at least some part of the inner exuberance of youth, even when the body is no longer willing to play with as much flexibility as we might like.

Life was carefree as a very small child. I remember those childhood years… the early ones before things got complicated. I remember how it felt to walk barefoot in the snow, laugh at raindrops racing on windowpanes or covering my skin with tiny, tickling diamonds. I remember making daisy chains, blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ to tell the time and digging up bits of pottery from the school playground, wanting as much to be an archaeologist as a dancer. I remember walking on walls, hunting crabs in rock pools and laying in the grass watching caterpillars. I remember feeling every day was an adventure.

With his gift my son has given me more than a games console, he gave me a timely reminder. I don’t need to remember any more. I just need to do it again.

Child’s play?

File:Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Children’s Games - Google Art Project.jpg
Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

She orders him around unmercifully while he looks at her with utter adoration in his eyes.  If ordering does not work, she brings out the secret weapon…the smile, the cheeky glance from beneath her eyelashes. Very seldom does she resort to tears. But, at almost two years old, my granddaughter has all the fabled feminine wiles and knows just how to use them on her father. It is to my son’s credit that he manages to maintain discipline and say ‘no’ when he must, in spite of her entreaties and blandishments. It is one of the earliest lessons she will learn…we do not always get what we want, but will undoubtedly get what is needed, like it or not.

Watching her play with friends, you can already see the dynamics of adulthood begin to form in her interactions with others. You can see the first shoots of her own strength of character and begin to see how she will face the world when she is older. You can discern, too, the lessons she is being taught as she plays, learning the basis of the rules by which society is bound in order to live together in any kind of harmony.

It is through play that a child first learns about sharing, generosity and patience…and about letting go. Determination, the necessity to keep on trying till you get things right and how to read the intentions of others are also learned early. At not-quite-two, Hollie is old enough to understand games of ‘let’s pretend’ and serves you tea in empty cups. She sings, dances and laughs… but she is not yet old enough to understand being teased; her language and social skills have not yet reached far enough to allow her to tell the difference. That too will come as she continues to learn. The subtleties of expression and tone will slowly unfold, page by page, until understanding people becomes second nature and she will know the difference between the gentle teasing of affection and the barbs of self-interest.

Or so I hope… she is a gregarious young lady and grows secure in the love that surrounds her. That will not prevent her from meeting those whose motives are not so gentle. The teasing and the games will not always spring from love…there will be barbs, unkindness and jealousies. Especially if she has siblings. But that too is part of the learning process and, when learned early, allows a child to grow with enough discernment to tell the difference and sufficient tools to deal with whatever social situations may throw at them.

BRU - CHD 29.jpg

Play seems to be something we just know how to do as youngsters. We may have to learn the various games, but the spirit of play is innate. You have only to watch young animals to realise that there must be an evolutionary benefit to play or it would have been discarded with other redundant behaviours. With our growing understanding of the mind we can understand how empathy, cooperation and compassion many be rooted in early games.

When Pieter Breughel painted ‘Children’s Games’ in the 16th century, the faces of the children were shown with expressions as serious as if they were adults going about their daily toil. The painting held a moral, a commonly held belief at the time that a child’s game is as important to the mind of God as anything an adult might do. More recently, science is recognising the importance of play, in adult lives too.

The necessity and the richness of experience gained through play is something we understand for children, but that we ourselves leave behind, more often than not, when we set about the serious business of adulthood. Play is seen as a pointless and purposeless waste of our time. Apart from those sports that attract so much money and attention, and which, by their competitive nature do not really qualify, play is often deemed unseemly for adults. Yet it is that very pointlessness that makes play a time out of time, a release from stress and relief from the pressures of adulthood, that can render it so valuable.

There is no hard and fast definition of the verb to play. The dictionaries describe rather than define it as ‘engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose’. It is something that gives pleasure, attaches no real importance to a competitive element and is both flexible and voluntary. For adults it is also a time when the constraints of adulthood can be left behind, even when engaged in ostensibly adult activities. It may be difficult to define…but you know when you are doing it.

BRU - CHD 03.jpg

The psychological and physical benefits of play for adults have been studied and are well documented. The spiritual benefits of play are not difficult to see. There is a well-known biblical reference to becoming ‘as a little child’ in order to enter heaven. The next verse suggests that those who adopt the humility of a child,  will reach a higher state than those who cannot do so. There is an innocence to child-like play that leaves behind the ego and allows is to be Fools…and enjoy the process. There is a real humility in that.

In an area of life where ‘know thyself’ is one of the first maxims we come across, play allows us to tease apart gently the strands of who we are, putting aside the acquired masks that we wear to face the world and finding access to the child within. This child-self the key to understanding how we have become who we are. there is little guile in a child and nowhere to hide from the clarity of their gaze. It is possible that this inner child is the real adult in our internal relationship with ourself and has a wisdom greater than our acquired knowledge.

The lessons of childhood do not have to remain there. Empathy, creativity, and an openness to the world can still come to us through play. The inner child is a part of us that will always have access to wonder and delight… and to that ‘lightness of being’ that is the result of both play and the spiritual journey.

BRU - CHD 06.jpg