Playing with Dolls and Heterochrony

Listen to your children playing and you’ll learn a lot about yourself. When The Bear plays with her animals and dolls, she imitates our days and interactions. This can be charming. The Bear to doll: “Did you know that I’m proud of you when you get dressed by yourself?” And it can also be embarrassing. The Bear to doll: “I said no! If you ask me again, I’m not going to answer.” Ouch.

The other day I overheard The Bear playing. She was warning her dolls about the importance of getting to a party on time. She was using phrases like: “we’re going to be late”; “hurry up, hurry up”; and “come on, we have to go!” I shuddered as I heard MJ’s and my voice echoed in her make-believe world. It also made me think about the value we put on time and how The Bear is internalizing it.

The Bear doesn’t yet understand the difference between 10 minutes and an hour. Like most children, she is living in the moment. It is the adults who usher in the construct of time. And I confess that my children are prisoners of this. With the exception of breastfeeding Banana, our family is on a schedule. We rarely eat when we are hungry or sleep when we are tired. Instead, we dutifully watch the clock to make sure that The Bear goes to sleep at 8:00 p.m. We eat dinner between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. every night. I know that we must leave the house by exactly 9:10 a.m. in order for The Bear to get to playschool on time.

I’ve been mulling this over for a while now. In an effort to slow down and not impose strict time limits on my children, do I shutdown all the clocks in the house? Do I start to take my time and resign myself to being late? Do I stop saying ‘hurry up’ to The Bear?

I recently listened to an interview with Eva Hoffman (award-winning Canadian author and academic). She spoke about the term heterochrony – a term with roots in the discipline of evolutionary biology. Hoffman, however, described the term in an anthropological sense – humans have different (hetero) meanings and needs of time (chrony).

Hoffman described how our use of time has historically changed. The day is still only 24 hours long. But compared to our ancestors, every minute is now accounted for. We have Blackberries and other electronic gadgets to help us schedule ourselves. We have also succumbed to a culture where ‘every minute counts.’ In an effort to fit it all in, we need to be uber-organized.

Humans, however, need time for things that cannot be precisely measured. For example, we can estimate that it takes 30 minutes to eat dinner – this can be easily logged into a calendar. But how long would one need to finish a painting, write a blog post, reflect on their day, describe a dream, feel connected to someone? This is time that is not linear. It cannot be accounted for nor scheduled into one’s day because the beginning and end are indiscernible.

In other words, we need different types of time in order to be creative, reflective, imaginative human beings. We are programmed to be heterochronious.

The idea of heterochrony got me thinking both about my day and that of my children. I’m not going to stop getting The Bear to playschool on time or refrain from telling her that we need to leave the house in order to get there on time. However, I think I am going to be more conscious of how structured our days have become. Is there room in our day for The Bear to have time to reflect? Do I rush her to finish a drawing? Do we spend enough time with her before bed so she feels connected and loved by us rather than keeping an eye on the clock?

I also need to be cognizant that MJ and I need to set an example. How are we setting our days according to the clock? Are we packing so much into the days that we can’t be flexible when one of us wants to talk or dream with the other one? These are moments that can’t or shouldn’t be stunted. I think this type of time is vital to the maintenance of any relationship yet it is something that cannot be programmed into an Outlook calendar.

The term heterochrony is too big of a word for The Bear. But I do hope I can soon hear her playing with her dolls using phrases like, “we always have time to talk about how you feel.”

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