The question came out of the blue from the backseat of the car one afternoon driving home,
I looked around – nope, no one dressed in purple out shoveling their driveway or going for a jog that he might be looking at.
Just a moment or two ago, we were talking about the music on the radio. He always likes to ask “What’s this guy’s name?” which I’ve come to learn is his way of asking who the artist is. I tend to keep it to two channels in the car when he’s with me – SiriusXm Symphony Hall for classical and sometimes 40s on 4 for some music from the Big Band era. (I save the 80s and 60s music for when I’m on my own.)
We go over the names, and his retention has been fantastic, remembering names like Mozart and Beethoven, and even Vivaldi, of whom he says “That’s a silly name!”
So, as he kept asking me who the ‘purple guy’ is, I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.
Then he kept going, informing me that Beethoven is red, Mozart is blue, and Vivaldi is orange, and asking once, again “What’s the purple guy’s name?”
I didn’t have an answer for him, but while confused, felt like I finally had some kind of explanation. Whoever this ‘purple guy’ was, it must have been someone associated with the music.
This could have just been some one and done car game he was playing, but it also made me look a little further into something I was only peripherally aware of previously – something called synesthesia.
I’m not saying that what he did was any indication of synesthesia, just that it prompted me to look into it a little more out of curiosity.
Synesthesia is defined as a condition where one of our senses (such as hearing) is, at the same time, perceived as if by one or more additional senses, such as our sight. There is another form of synesthesia that associates objects like letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.”
The most common form of synesthesia is colored letters and numbers, when someone always sees a particular color in response to a certain letter or number. (“Nine is green, B is red,” that sort of thing.)
According to a Neuroscience for Kids site by a faculty member at the University of Washington, there isn’t an official way to diagnose synesthesia, but researchers have set up some guidelines (although it isn’t something all are in agreement upon; it serves merely as a starting point for diagnosis):
- a potential synesthete does not actively think about their perceptions; they just happen.
- instead of experiencing something in the “mind’s eye,” such as when you’re asked to think of or imagine a color, a synesthete often actually, physically sees a color projected outside of the body.
- it has to be perceived the same way every time. If you see red when you hear the letter B, it has to be red every time.
- the color is often remembered better than the object, name, letter, etc associated with it. (i.e. you’d remember orange better than you would Vivaldi).
- The perceptions also cause emotional reactions and feelings.
There doesn’t seem to be a definite estimate of how many people can have synesthesia, according to the research by the Washington University faculty member. The ranges seem to go from 1 in 200 to 1 in 100,000, and notes that there are probably many more folks who have it but don’t realize they have it. They often tend to be women (three times more likely in the U.S. than men), are more often left-handed, are of normal or possibly above-average intelligence and that it often times seems to be inherited.
I find this to be a fascinating area of study, and whether the little guy actually did see a color, or our little composer bit was just a one and done episode of silliness that prompted me to learn a little more about synesthesia, well, color me interested.
Today, Mr Fred Rogers would have been 87 years old.
While the gentle “Won’t you be my neighbor?” has, over the years, sometimes turned into a bit of a sarcastic punchline in pop culture, Mr Rogers himself, and the lessons and values that he presented, left a lasting impact on my life, as no doubt it did countless other lives over the course of multiple generations.
I was about 3 or 4 when I first joined ‘the neighborhood.’ My brother was just born/was a baby, and we lived in a two-family apartment building in an area of our city that, while maybe not that great, was home. I still remember running from one of the apartment to the other when Sesame Street would end, grabbing my sweater and sneakers because I knew what was up next.
And as Mr Rogers walked through that door and greeted us viewers, I sat in the living room of our apartment, putting on and zipping up my little sweater along with him, and tossing my sneaker from one hand to the next. I wanted to be just like that guy, I would think.
As I got older and grew out of the daily routine of my Sesame Street/Mr Rogers TV block, the values that came from them remained, even if I didn’t realize it.
No, I would have to wait until I was a great deal older, and much more introspective about myself and my life before I would see that. But now I do. I realize that while I was watching with a childhood curiosity and thirst for entertainment back then, what I was getting was a reinforcement of values and morals that taught all of us what it meant to be a good person.
It was really special. I knew it then, even if I didn’t know why. And while it took a few decades later and becoming a father myself, I know it again.
Thankfully, those lessons are being taught to new generations today through Fred Rogers’ Company in shows like the animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
So thank you, Fred Rogers, for all you did for me and for so many other kids over the years. For teaching us, not our ABCs or 1, 2, 3s, but how to be kind, why to be kind, and how to help.
Our son has been, I’m not sure what the word would be…categorizing, perhaps? Compartmentalizing?
There’s been a lot of “You a good guy” or “he a a bad guy.” There’s even been some “Me have to fight you, dada,” to which I ask simply, ‘why?’
“Cuz you a bad guy,” he tells me.
Some things I’ve read refer to this as “Power Play,” when children start to play in power roles such as superheroes.
According to Preschooleducation.com, this kind of play crosses all backgrounds, economic statuses and is something many, many children go through.
The article states that while characters change, the common characteristics are:
- There is always a good guy and bad guy. It’s always good vs evil. You’re one or the other. No gray areas.
- There’s always a conflict. It’s the responsibility of the good guys to fight the bad guys.
- Control or power is the issue, always – who will win.
But they also say that children go through it between the ages of four and six. Our son is 2 1/2. And I’m worried that I bear a lot of the blame.
For so long, I’ve been sticking to PBS and Disney shows for him. Sesame Street has been a longtime favorite, and he’s recently jumped into a train phase making Thomas the Tank Engine all the rage at the moment. The toys he plays with the most are stuffed animals, Legos, cars and trucks, a wooden train set, and his Fisher Price Little People. Some of the Little People are generic – a cook, an astronaut, an alien, a farmer, a cow, etc, but some are little smiling versions of characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, etc that he received on his birthday. That teamed with my own stuff around the house, he’s seen and recognizes these characters.
So when he saw the box of Adam West 1966 Batman DVDs I got for Christmas, he recognized Batman immediately and went INSANE begging to watch it.
There was plenty of hemming and hawing, until finally I gave in, telling myself ‘well, it’s innocuous enough, right? if I watch it with him, it’ll be okay.’
With its giant props, ridiculous and cartoonish scenarios, I felt like it’s as over the top at times as a Donald Duck cartoon. And I say this all in an endearing way. After all, I’m a huge fan of Batman ’66 myself.
I’ll admit, however, that I have started wondering if this ‘bad guy/good guy’ and ‘me have to fight you’ stuff kicked into high gear because of my allowing him to watch it (always with us there, talking about what’s the bad thing to do, the good thing to do, etc).
Car rides now have him asking me to list off ‘the bad guys from Batman’ or him doing it himself, mumbling “The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, Bookworm…” in the backseat and me sitting in the front wondering if I’ve made such a huge slip-up that I’m severely altering my son’s development.
However, it’s also very possible that he might have started doing this anyway, and the names for ‘bad guys’ being rattled off in the back seat could just would have been something else, or something generic otherwise.
I’ve talked to other parents who say their children started these phases early too, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still question my own decisions. So, for better or for worse, I decided to look into this type of play a little more.
In this PBS Parents Expert Q & A, Dr. Michael Thompson, Consultant, Author and Psychologist Specializing in Children and Families, responds to a mother asking about her child often playing the role of the villain when he pretends. She is concerned about him and what it might mean. Thompson’s response is interesting.
“I’m not worried about your son’s gun play as long as it really is play. Children’s play is just play. Play and real violence are two different things. If your son hits people, gets real angry at them, pokes them in the eye, or does scary things to them, that’s a bad sign. If other boys don’t want to play with him; if they leave your house crying, that’s not good. If , however, he is playing with toy guns, running around the house using his imagination, pretending to be someone big and powerful — even a villain — but only only pretending, then I am NOT WORRIED AT ALL. He’s just playing.
You haven’t told me your son’s age, but I think these questions might work for most boys under ten. Is he a loving boy most of the time? Do the teachers at school or preschool tell you that he behaves in class? Does he curl up next to you when you’re watching television? Is he respectful of you and his grandparents? Does he like being read to at bedtime? Does he have good freinds? If the answer to all of those question is “yes” then I am pretty sure that he’s not going to grow up to be a dangerous boy.
Psychologists know that children need to play out many things in their imagination. Boys seem to love to play at being bad, or having super powers. It makes them feel strong and masculine. It is exciting. If you are a good boy in real life, pretending that you are a bad guy can be exciting, because we all have a few villainous fantasies in our minds, don’t we? (Come on, haven’t you ever had a fantasy of breaking the law, or getting even with someone you hated? ) Little boys work these tensions out in their play. And I repeat: It is just play.”
Just as interesting was this research out of the University of Maine that I came across, where children in a preschool environment were observed as the scripts and scenarios for their play was changed over time. Even play that started out as just kids playing with dolls in the corner, over time would have moments of ‘It’s an emergency! My baby has a boo boo!’ and even evolve to children assigning who would be ‘the bad guy’ and ‘take the babies.’ A slightly uneasy teacher went along with it for the sake of the research and found that whether she was assigned as ‘the bad guy’ or if it was to another child, the children always seemed to know and reassure the teacher that it was ‘only pretend.’ It also caused the children to rally and work together to rescue their babies back. I’m paraphrasing, of course, what is a very interesting read, so check it out at the link for something a little more in-depth.
When I first wrote this blog post, it was nothing but self-doubt and self-criticism about my decision and how I felt like a terrible father. With a little perspective from my wife, and more research, I’m finding that the scenario I’m experiencing is not all that uncommon.
Does it still make me uneasy at times? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that the worst-case scenarios playing out in my head are coming to fruition and that I’ve started our son down a path of being a criminal.
It means he is learning how to pretend, he’s categorizing.
He’s not getting violent or even real aggressive. He does seem to be truly playing make-believe. And while I would like it to always be the sort of make-believe like being animals on the farm, or something a little more tame, I’m beginning to understand that in growing up comes the need to feel useful, to feel courageous, to feel you’re being brave and helping others.
And that’s not a totally bad thing. If this kind of play can be turned into examples of ‘doing the right thing,’ then maybe I need to stop looking at it as a potential disaster. Instead, maybe I can look at it as an opportunity to take his creativity and new ways of playing and deepen it, understand it, and talk to him about what he’s getting out of it, observe what he’s learning from it, and be a little less restrictive, until reason shows me I need to truly step in.
I’m going to try, at least. After all, I’m learning about all this just as much as he is as we go along.