The Spiritual Life of Children — Part I
The constraints of culture are often invisible; they coerce us, but we don’t think of them in connection with our ideas, our values, our inclinations, our likes or dislikes. Twenty-five years ago I was talking with black and white children in New Orleans; they were going through the ordeal of school desegregation — amid considerable street violence, shouting mobs, and an attempted white boycott of the two elementary schools to which a mere four black children had been assigned. I was interested in how a black girl of six (from a very poor family) who is heckled and threatened every day manages to get on — her “adjustment,” as we know to put it these days. (I have, I know, referred to this in earlier columns.)
As white children slowly came back to school (for a while one black child, Ruby, was at school all by herself) I talked with them too — wondered about their sense of things as they took part in a significant moment of historical change. Trained in pediatrics and child psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I did my job by talking with the children or playing games with them; by asking them to draw or paint pictures and discussing with them, thereafter, what they had in mind as they did their artworks; by talking, too, with their parents and teachers.
I had in mind, of course, certain notions of what happens to children under stress — the “defenses” they mobilize, the “symptoms” they sometimes develop. These were not flimsy or foolish notions, and I do not mean in any way to deny their legitimacy, so to speak: the years of arduous, painstaking clinical work that can enable someone like me to make all sorts of helpfully instructive and clarifying observations and interpretations — the heritage of a particular culture, in this case, the medical and psychiatric side of that culture. Still, as I watched those children, asked them my questions, recorded their answers, made my surmises, and came up with my conjectures about the future, I was myself being watched, and conclusions about me were being made — by the children I was getting to know, by their mothers and fathers, their uncles and aunts, their grandparents.
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