Monday, March 6, 2017

Bettelheim in the Basement

By C.J. Hirschfield

The other day I ventured down to the basement to look for something, and discovered a box I hadn’t opened in many years. On the top was a letter that my mother had written to me 44 years ago, when I was in my first year of college. She passed away 11 years after writing it.

There was the distinctive handwriting and smiley-face drawing (long before the image become ubiquitous). She’d addressed it simply to “number-one daughter,” along with the correct P.O. box, should give you an idea of what my mom was like.

I re-read the letter, and the article she had enclosed. It reinforced my theory that my mother was psychic.

An article sent in a letter 44 years ago seems to have predicted the future.

Me? Not a psychic bone in my body. Whenever the talent to see into the future would have come in handy, I have had to plod ahead, constantly surprised by what the world had in store for me.

My mother was different. Once, she had a strong premonition that her beloved grandfather would not be coming home one night after work. She couldn’t have known that he had died that day. On another occasion, she avoided a car accident because she’d felt that something “wasn’t right.” She also stymied doctors by “willing” herself well after a bad bout with a chronic condition; that may not have been psychic, but it certainly was amazing.

In this particular letter, Lore Hirschfield wrote about the rainy weather, about how her father was recovering from the flu, and that she was looking forward to talking to me on the phone on Friday at 9. (In those days you made appointments to call long-distance. It was what you did to save money.)

Lore Hirschfield.

But it was the enclosed magazine clipping – something she thought I’d be interested in – that shocked me. It was an article written by the acclaimed child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (then still alive) that discussed the importance of taking a child’s play seriously.

Bettleheim introduced the subject by describing a question by a mother in a mothers’ discussion group, about “whether television deprives children of play experience.”

Bettelheim quoted Freud: “Play is the language of the child. Though play he makes his first cultural and psychological achievements.”     

Now, in my first year of college I was studying journalism. Child psychology wasn’t even on my radar screen. I didn’t know whether I’d ever want to have kids, let alone study them.

But 44 years later, I run a renowned storybook theme park that is all about unstructured, imaginative play. And with very few substitutions (replace “television” with “screen”), Bettelheim’s theories could not be more relevant today. Just like a theme park that’s 67 years old.

Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990).

“Through play, more than anything else, the child achieves mastery of the external world,” Bettelheim writes. “He learns how to manipulate its objects as he builds with blocks, makes sand castles, etc. He masters body control as he skips and jumps and runs. He learns to deal with his psychological problems as he re-enacts in play the difficulties he has encountered in reality. He also begins to master social relations as he learns that he must adjust himself to others if group play is to continue.”

All of this resonates with the Fairyland team. We see the positive effects of unstructured play every single day.

The conclusion of Bettelheim’s article is titled “Take play seriously.” Here’s what he says:

“The modern parent must learn to take her child’s play as seriously as her child does. If the parent can do that, her own life will be enriched with respect to exactly that which is so often missing from the world of adults: the enjoyment of free-floating fantasy.” (You can read more of Bettelheim’s ideas about play in a 1987 article he wrote for The Atlantic.)

The decidedly retro ads in the magazine’s pages were for Lady Clairol (“I caught my husband looking at me … I like it … I like it … I like it”), Vick’s Vapo-Steam (“Makes steam moisten dry tissues better”) and a “giant five foot Santa Claus” (only $1.00).

Reading the letter and article made me feel wonderful, but also sad that my mother never got to meet her granddaughter: yes, I did eventually dive into the parenthood pool. How did my mother know that the article she sent decades ago would be more relevant to the work I do now? I will never know.

“Hey gal love you,” she ends her note.

Love you too, Mom.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park.

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