In this week’s essay, we bring you lighthearted stories about children under lockdown. The extended uncertainty of physical (hopefully not social) distancing from other people can set-off different reactions. Alongside, we are constantly being bombarded with information and opinions from which taking time off can prove beneficial. There is no doubt that we need to be informed about all the developments, but it is also important to periodically distance oneself from the media. At this time, we can look towards children to bring freshness into our lives and homes, and probably learn from them how to survive this strange situation. Of course children learn from us, but they can also teach us valuable lessons as our anxieties become more intense, and restlessness takes over. So, here are some stories for your Friday reading. We hope you are able to enjoy them as much as we did in putting this post together.
Our Unique Capability
One important quality that separates us from our relatives in the animal kingdom is our unique capacity for laughter. In a recent article (link in Notes section) Chris Knight, a British Anthropologist writes: “Laughter is a paradox. We all know it’s good for us; we experience it as one of life’s pleasures and a form of emotional release. Yet to be able to laugh, we must somehow cut ourselves off from feelings of love, hate, fear or any other powerful emotion.” Mind Hacks is an interesting site for news from the field of Psychology, and in a recent post (Link in Notes section), Stafford argues that laughter can be used to look into a person’s mind, even an infant’s. “If you laugh, you must ‘get the joke’ to some degree – a good joke is balanced in between being completely unexpected and confusing and being predictable and boring. Studying when babies laugh might therefore be a great way of gaining insight into how they understand the world, he reasoned. But although he proposed this in the 1940s, this idea remains to be properly tested. Despite the fact that some very famous investigators have studied the topic, it has been neglected by modern psychology.” Although recently that is changing. “The results are – like the research topic – heart-warming. A baby’s first smile comes at about six weeks, their first laugh at about three and a half months (although some took three times as long to laugh, so don’t worry if your baby hasn’t cracked its first cackle just yet). Peekaboo is a sure-fire favourite for making babies laugh (for a variety of reasons I’ve written about here), but tickling is the single most reported reason that babies laugh. Importantly, from the very first chuckle, the survey responses show that babies are laughing with other people, and at what they do. The mere physical sensation of something being ticklish isn’t enough. Nor is it enough to see something disappear or appear suddenly. It’s only funny when an adult makes these things happen for the baby. This shows that way before babies walk, or talk, they – and their laughter – are social. If you tickle a baby they apparently laugh because you are tickling them, not just because they are being tickled.” Heart-warming, isn’t it?
In addition to being uniquely human, laughter can also be social in the sense that it is contagious. It is hard to resist joining in when we hear someone laughing, even when the subject of their reaction may be unknown. The floating sounds of early morning laughter groups in Indian neighbourhood parks trigger many smiles among people passing by. One of the funniest accounts of laughter groups is narrated by Tarquin Hall in is detective novel set in Delhi, ‘The Case of the Man who Died Laughing’. Hall writes:
“About a quarter of a mile further, under the shadow of a Jamun tree, four men dressed for exercise were standing in a circle. As Dr. Jha approached them, they raised their arms, and stretched toward the sky. An instructor’s voice called out a command and they lowered their hands to their hips. Then all but one of them tilted their heads back and began to laugh. Not a titter, chortle or snigger; they ejaculated hee-haws like drunken men. For ten seconds they shook with infectious mirth, going abruptly silent as as if the joke that had caused their collective amusement had suddenly lost its appeal. the instructor’s voice boomed out and, with varying degrees of success and groans of discomfort, the men bent forward to touch their toes. Then they flung their arms wide and burst into another bout of joyful hysterics.”
The Lighter Side of……
Apart from providing inside information about social practices, humour also facilitates social criticism and can help to ease tensions. As Hall demonstrates in his detective novels, well-written humourous stories can be entertaining and informative. A similar gentle ‘fun’ distinguishes the writing of our favourite author from the Himalayas, Ruskin Bond.
We borrow the title of this section from an older source, Mad Magazines’s comic series with the same title (1961-2002) which presented a satirical look at everyday topics such as doctors, markets, office life, parties and partners. Here is one example.
Humour is an effective tool for social cohesion and shared meaning, and balances very delicately on the edges of socially permissible behaviour because it can also be used as a strategy for ridicule. Laughter also plays an important role in easing fear and anxiety. It is no surprise, therefore, that in addition to all the science and politics of the pandemic, the lockdown has also generated a regular output of jokes. When we are able to laugh at something in times like these, there is an instant release of tension, and the unprecedented uncertainty that we confront becomes just a bit more bearable. It is this function of humour that we invoke in our lighthearted look at the lockdown, not by repeating forwarded jokes (except maybe a few), but by bringing stories from children around us, thanks to the generous contributions of the Masala Chai team, our advisors and friends.
Funny Side Up!
Adults often laugh at children’s antics, especially when the young ones themselves do not understand why they are funny. This often happened in our research projects related to playmate behaviour with a mirror image among toddlers as well as the study of scale errors by preschool age children. Adults are highly amused when they see children playing with their own reflections, trying to sit on tiny chairs or attempting to enter into dinky cars. Children don’t always join in the laughter, although reactions of self-consciousness and shyness are usually manifested. In some instances, children would actually go into hiding for a private session with the object and also to avoid others’ comments. We have all grown up hearing about embarrassing stories of our own childhoods that our parents love to share with others.
Such inadvertent jokes bring much joy to family life, but there are other instances when children playfully manipulate situations for some attempt at humour. Take the example of five-and-a-half year-old Master S, the son of one of our advisors. As the first several days of the lockdown passed, the absence of daily visitors to the small household of three began to hit home. Usually, knocks on the door or the sound of the doorbell were a regular feature, sometimes even a disturbance. Steadily, an eerie silence began to fill the home. A few days into this uneasy quietness, a tentative knock on the door ripped through the household. Caught quite unawares, the adults rushed to see who was at the door. Standing there was little Master S. looking a bit sheepish, “Someone’s there”, he said, but there was no one outside. This happened a couple of times again before the parents realised what was going on. Perhaps in an attempt to bring back some sort of normalcy to the household, they discovered that Master S. was going up to the door, knocking from the inside to simulate the arrival of (and information about) a visitor. Quite convincingly, he had acted out this little routine a few times before he was discovered.
Registers and Certificates
Young Miss N. (4) seems to be quite enjoying her days at home. One significant assertion that N makes during this period relates to her long black hair. During school days, she has to keep it tied, but on holidays, she is permitted to decide. The long string of non-school days has given her the idea that she need not tie up her hair at all, much to the annoyance of her mother who has to then spend time disentangling it. Her mother repeatedly explains to her that the open hair is harder to manage. This is a point of conflict between them. In a desperate move, one day, the mother blurted out that she would take the children living next door as her own since her own children (meaning N) don’t listen to her. “I will adopt them” the mother adds. At this point, the two girls get together. The older one, S (10) declares that “For adoption you need adoption papers and you do not have it, so you can not become their mom”. Not to be outdone, N promptly gets to work on a piece of paper, returning with this sheet……”Don’t worry, I have got the adoption papers. Go ahead, now you can adopt them!” The dynamics between the two sisters is also relevant for our forthcoming discussion about siblings.
An attendance register is an important item in a teacher’s kit and those of us who have been in teaching, have spent our careers clutching onto these precious records. Perhaps because of this, children find entries in registers fascinating. Five-and-a-half-year-old Master S. always wanted to get his hands on his mother’s register. One day, during the lockdown, his mother conceded and handed him a loose sheet from an old one. Having tasted the thrill of the activity, Master S. didn’t stop there, each and every page of all available registers were neatly filled whenever he could find a quiet moment to himself. Here is an image from his records.
As we saw in the dynamics between ten-year-old S and her younger sister, N, sibling relationships seem to have become more highlighted during this period, because they are the only playmates that children have access to, unless they are living in a joint family. In these days of physical distancing and social isolation, the advantages of a large household can be appreciated. We will address this issue in a forthcoming post.
The two sisters, A (7) and S (5) featured in our main image, spend all their time together. Being forced to stay at home has been rather interesting. A lot of extra work for the parents of course, but that didn’t stop them from noticing how the two handled the situation quite differently from each other. Whereas the older, A followed instructions, completed her work and organised her space as required, the younger one felt that she could manage her time in her own way. Instructions to tidy her space are promptly rejected with excuses like: my head hurts, (even) my heart hurts, everything is aching or more specifically: “Moving around makes my legs hurt, Mummy, please can I leave my bed like this? It is easier to slip in and out.” She spends her time dreaming up imaginary spaces and creatures in her bunk bed, tossing her stuffed toys into the washing machine to give them a bath. The older one on the other hand, engages in intense conversations about the situation. For example, recently she asked:
A: “Mummy do you know who is dying more from CoVid 19 – girls or boys?” M: “I am not sure, A. Why do you want to know that?”
A: “Because if it is girls, soon there will be fewer people left as girls only bring people to life, right?”
Me: “Yeah you have a point here A.”
A: “So, do your research and let me know, okay?”
It seems that the older sibling provides some sort of protection for younger one/s to be more relaxed about rules and tasks. This dynamics seems more evident during this extended stay at home and separation from other children. As the older one chats with and explains things to the younger one, it is a delight to watch the difference between the ways in which they are dealing with the lockdown. Perhaps the conversations could be linked to the fact that they are both girls, the mother thinks. The absence of a sibling and the limited possibility of visiting cousins is noted by S2’s mother. S2 is a single child and her mother now regrets that she doesn’t have a sibling to play with “Since there is just the three of us and she has no company outside of her parents. It would have been nice to have a younger brother or sister to spend time with. I don’t think she thinks too much about the situation of lockdown. She stays happy and is eager to visit her cousins, but also adds that when the virus goes away, she will visit them, first thing. I try to play with her, I haven’t thought much about teaching. We do art, craft, singing, dancing, play badminton in our front yard, some indoor games, sometimes even made-up games. We watch some TV together as well, like animated movies. She also comes to the kitchen when I’m cooking and tries to make rotis with me. She has also learned to make sandwiches. Sometimes she chats with her friends. One incredible thing about children is that they stay happy, no matter what. She is still excited to do things all the time.” Both parents chip in, but S2 is most excited when her father cooks a meal for them, the mother adds.
As we conclude this essay, we wanted to share this sweet post we came across on twitter. Until next week, good bye from Team Masala Chai. Stay safe and stay home.
Chris Knight on Laughter: https://aeon.co/essays/does-laughter-hold-the-key-to-human-consciousness
Tom Stafford on Mind Hacks: