Last night, I attended a birthday party for a one-year old, extremely cute, daughter of friends of mine. Watching her vigorous, always entertaining, even if occasionally tearful, interactions with her two-year old cousin prompted some thoughts on how children exist in an interestingly idiosyncratic universe, one observable by, and sometimes even participated in, by adults, but one that remains resolutely distinct and sometimes distant. It has its own physics and its own moral codes, its own peculiar understanding of property rights. It is unclear how much of this behavior is learned, how much instinct. But its broad parameters are roughly similar across a wide variety of cultures, times and places and provide ample fodder for speculation, entertainment and theorizing.
For one thing, children are acutely conscious of each other in a way that they are not of adults: their attention seems almost exclusively concentrated on their counterpart(s) from the World Of Children. This almost laser-like focus is attained quite soon after entering a domain populated by both; the visitor quickly notes the presence of another child, and from that point on is locked on to its ‘target.’ This locking-on results in a series of encounters that are regulated by a set of peculiar dynamical laws pertaining to children’s bodies: arms, legs, hands, faces, chests make contact with each other in a manner that sometimes evokes cooing admiration from observers and sometimes alarm. For all their delicacy, children can sometimes display the roughness of hardened wrestlers. At these moments, watching adults are reminded of how the vocal chords are capable of sudden amplifications of sound, rising sharply from gentle murmuring to anguished shrieks and wails. Then too, the arena of interaction might require intervention: a pulling-apart, a temporary separation, a cease-fire and truce of sorts. But normal service, with its complex entanglements and encounters, soon resumes.
And then there is the business of property: ownership of physical goods is quickly asserted and a set of non-sharing principles explicitly articulated. These are subject to negotiation, but almost always require external participation–by adults–in order to evolve to more co-operative and generous forms. Otherwise, children deploy an impressive armory of body parts and sounds to maintain and defend their possessions. Here again, vocal chords may be employed in impressive fashion and rapid, reflexive, almost instinctive motions are on display as movements to seize property are foiled with vigor and panache. Sometimes the authorities may be complained to, but in general, children display an impressive autonomy in their assertions of property.
There are, at times, temporary withdrawals from the field. Prompted by unsatisfactory encounters with the Other, children may retreat to the sanctuaries of their parents for revaluation of their prospects, for a sizing up of losses and gains. But these respites are very often found to be unsatisfactory, and soon, they emerge again, to enter yet another round of making contact. The adults on the sidelines, meanwhile, resume their observer positions, ready to intervene, cajole, comfort, and occasionally, vainly, to modulate the Brownian motion on display.