Lessons in Representation

Today I was talking with an editor in my group about why she wouldn’t be in the office this afternoon. She was taking her two children to see the Wiggles. Now I admit that even though I’ve watched a bit of television in the past couple of years with my grandchildren, I’ve missed the Wiggles. Robin had been telling her daughter (I think her daughter is about four) that they were going to see the Wiggles. The little girl was excited and wanted to know whether the Wiggles would be on a big screen. Robin had to explain that they would see the Wiggles in person—and perhaps the little girl would actually get to touch a real Wiggle. At this point in the conversation, I told Robin a story about my daughter Bevin and books. It’s surprising how often I find myself telling stories about Bevin to explain the meaning of life. Bevin, now in her twenties, is developmentally disabled. When asked about her mental age I often say that Bevin is like a very, very, very, very, very experienced (but, even as I mother I must admit, not particularly accomplished) one to two year old. But charming. Oh so charming.

Children’s books were lost on Bevin, the toddler. She would have nothing to do with them—which means she tore them up, threw them away, hid them away in the back of closets, threw them down the stairs to the basement. From her I learned just how complicated the representational routines are that most kids master by the age of one or two. Viewed through Bevin’s eyes, I was astounded of what we were asking of a kid when we handed them a Richard Scarry book. Dozens of funny-looking little animals dressed in clothes and acting like people—driving vehicles, cooking food, working in hospitals, building buildings, flying airplanes. I finally taught Bevin ta bit about he meaning of books by filling one with photos of her family. That struck her as vaguely interesting, almost funny. Nathan standing before her (though she always called him Heea, go figure), Nathan in the book. Sarah here, Sarah in the book. Her dad here, her dad in the book. Something here, something very like it (but not quite real) there. That’s representation.

We all know how tricky it is to teach little children about reality. (Now here I could, but won’t, tell you a story about Nate causing mayhem on the pre-school playground, beating up kids because he thought he was Spiderman. At this point in his life, by the way, he also insisted on wearing Spiderman Underoos at all times.) Perhaps Richard Scarry, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Maisey, Franklin—they just aren’t helping in the basic lesson of life. The basic lesson of life: representation. This stands for that but isn’t that. This is real, that’s an image, a meditation on the real. Mastering the lesson of representation makes it possible for us to learn. That’s what allows us as humans to write novels, history. Paint masterpieces. You get the idea. . . . . (And Bevin really never quite got the idea. She taught me mostly how amazing it is that most of us do.)

This morning as I was talking to Robin about the Wiggles, her daughter, and Bevin’s encounter with books, I recalled a study I heard about on the radio a couple of mornings ago. About small children watching television. Lots of details I can’t remember about why the researchers concluded it’s bad (attention deficit, obesity. . . .). But the final statement in the report stuck with me: children under the age of two shouldn’t be allowed to watch television. This stuck because, of course, I’m guilty. Personally guilty with all of my grandchildren. . . . . But this morning, as I listened to Robin, I began wondering if the problems being caused were previewed in my experience with Bevin. Perhaps children, who unlike Bevin should be able to, aren’t learning the basic lesson of representation. Robin’s daughter didn’t understand that the Wiggles she sees on the television are pictures of real people playing the Wiggles. Children need to learn the rules of narrative, of drama, of representation. That’s where the world begins to go wrong. . . . . .

10 comments for “Lessons in Representation

  1. By the way, I want to make it clear that I’m not really complaining about Richard Scarry and Peter Rabbit. Mainly I’m just standng amazed at the complex lessons small children learn about representation, reality, fantasy. Traditionally (if you take a look at children’s lit), we really do put the little ones through their paces. I think that’s all to the good. Somehow a steady diet of tv seems to dead end the complex circuits that traditionally have been connected as we put children through the rituals of childhood–reading, books, stories, pretend. . . . . . These rituals seem to be the ground of a good life.

  2. Susan, it is amazing how quickly kids do this stuff that takes us whole semesters to take apart and put back together in philosophy seminars! Last night I had an amazing discussion of semiotics with my three-year-old, Sam. He has a hooded towel that is identical to his brother’s, except they’re both monogrammed with the kids names. So Sam had his on and was looking at the letter upside down. He said “this is Peter’s.” I said, “No, it’s yours. See, there’s the S-A-M.” He said, pointing, “that’s not an M.” I said “oh, it doesn’t look like an M because it’s upside down.” He said, “Well, all letters do is look like letters, so if it doesn’t look like an M, it can’t be an M.” Time to start reading Saussure for bedtime stories, I guess.

    And thanks for the tidbit about Nate’s Underoos–I’m sure we’ll be able to use it to advantage at some point :)

  3. Not only is it amazing what we (appropriately) expect kids to learn about books, it is amazing how quickly they do so.

    I’m already thinking of ways to use this information about Nate’s underoos. But the playground incident was no surprise. In philosophy classes, he was always confusing himself with the philosophers we studied.

  4. My oldest child (age 4) has recently learned about representation in the Book of Mormon. It’s neat to see him realize that these are real people we are talking about. He is also convinced that Nephi’s arms are, in fact, as big as they appear in the illustrations and thanks Heavenly Father every night that Nephi has strong arms (I can’t explain this fixation). I’m waiting for the day where he pretends he is Nephi and tries to assert his dominance on the playground.

  5. my brothers used to have that Freiburg painting of Nephi on the boat above their weight bench–must be a boy thing!

  6. “Now here I could, but won’t, tell you a story about Nate causing mayhem on the pre-school playground, beating up kids because he thought he was Spiderman. At this point in his life, by the way, he also insisted on wearing Spiderman Underoos at all times.”

    Thanks Mom… ;->

  7. I feel called upon to defend my husband. He no longer wears underoos to bed. In fact, to my knowledge, he doesn’t wear any Spiderman paraphenalia of any kind, ever.

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