Friday, October 11, 2013

The Lonely Little Pony

"Mami!  Play ponies wif me!"  I winced inwardly.  This little girl is the delight of my eyes, but I hate playing.  Confession time: one of the best things about having four kids is that they have built-in playmates.  At the moment, however, her older siblings were all engrossed in a group video game, and I sensed that she really needed this.  "OK."

I reached into the pile of ponies and randomly chose one. "NO!  Not dat one pony!  Dat one pony's mine!  Get anudder one pony!"  I meekly reached for a different one.  "NO!  Not dat one eider!  Use DIS one pony wif no tail."  I accepted the mangy-looking pony, which had suffered from an unfortunate encounter with a pair of scissors and was also missing chunks of mane. 

"Look at my pony!  She's fwying!"  I held my balding pony up in the air to fly alongside hers.  "NO!  Dat pony can't fwy!  She's too little.  She has to stay on da gwound."  Yeeeep, I could tell this was going to be a fun game.

I trotted my pony around listlessly for a few minutes, resisting the urge to peek at my phone.  "Fluttashy is leabing.  Dey are all leabing in da van for icecweam.  You stay heah.  You aw too little."  The phone won out for a split second, but apparently I was more crucial to the scene than I thought.  Before the Facebook app had opened, she shrieked again.  "Mami!  Play ponies!"

Each attempt to engage was ruthlessly squashed.  "No!  You can't do dat!  Her wings don't work!  Stop, mami!  Your pony is too little!  She doesn't know how to do dat!  No!  She can't come.  Stay heah by yoursewf."  A nice little lecture on reciprocity in play was on the tip of my tongue, when it hit me.  The theme to the whole game was powerlessness and loneliness.   Suddenly, I found myself much more invested in this game.

I began to give her words.  "I feel lonely when I am left behind."  "Yes!  Your pony feels sad, Mami."  "I want to do things, too!  Even though I am small, I can do a lot."  "Yeah, mami!  Be her!"  I was clearly on the right track.  We spent the next hour playing empowering themes.  I let her ponies take the lead, admired her skills and resourcefulness, and gave words to my own little pony.  By the end of the hour, we were both having fun, and I had heard something incredibly important from this little baby girl of mine.

If you had asked me how often she hears that she is too little or that she can't do something, I would have told you that it was extremely rare (and she has never been left behind or excluded from icecream!).  In fact, my concern would have been closer to the spoiling end of things--her brother and sisters dote on her, and even the nine year old will stop and play ponies or anything else with her.  She is the apple of our eye.

Although my girls have never been discouraged from playing princess themes (the eldest actually wore elaborate princess gowns every single day for over a year around age four), and we regularly tell them that they are lovely, we deliberately tell them just as often that they are strong, smart, kind, capable and brave.

The thing is, though, that all of us have times when it is easy to focus on our lack of capabilities, and sometimes we struggle to find the words.  When you are three years old, no matter how beloved you are, you get slapped in the face daily with all the things that you cannot do: you are too small to reach what you want, your videogame skills are not as developed as your siblings', you can't read things for yourself, you have to rely on others all the time.    

If I hadn't sat down to play, I would totally have missed how powerless and lonely she felt.

I also discovered that when I can focus on a purpose in play, I have fun with it.  At one point, she played mami and I played the baby.  With every moment of listening and allowing her the fantasy of omnipotence, she found the power and connection she needed.  Looking back over the last couple of days, I recalled the increase in irritability she had been showing, and I am sure that those unmet needs would have spilled out one way or another.  I am so glad that this time they took the form of a lonely pony with a bad haircut, and that I took the time to play and listen.   


Claire in Tasmania said...

My DS invites me to play, then doesn't let me do anything, too... I'll have to llisten more closely and see if I can hear the message he's sending next time...

Mere Dreamer said...

Oh, thank you! I dislike play, too ... but now I do see something I can participate in with my littlest. I only wish I'd seen this possibility earlier since they are now all teens, or nearly. We still play with puppets at bedtime and create art projects, etc. I'm looking forward to finding chances to listen more closely to their inner voices. Thank you!!!