The three-year-old was alone in the house with his granny. His granny was slicing vegetables, the child was playing on the bench behind the kitchen table. Immersed in what she was doing, it took the granny a while to notice an unusual silence. She looked around and the child had gone! The doors to all the rooms were open as well as the one to the large entrance hall in which all kinds of things had been stored and which also had the door to the courtyard. She called the child – no answer! She ran from room to room, calling all the time – no answer! Could the child have opened the door to the courtyard? The big gate leading out on to the dangerous road was sometimes open. The door was closed but the woman went out nevertheless and called again – no success! She returned into the house.
As she came back in, she noticed the umbrella, which had been left open in a corner of the entrance hall to dry, move slightly. And that is where she indeed found the child – kneeling. “But child, why didn’t you answer when I called you?” – “A royal priest must not let himself be interrupted in his work,” he answered. Now she noticed that the child had put two pieces of cloth, a blue and a red one around his shoulders and had built an altar made from vegetable pieces on a stool. He was so deeply immersed in his activity, a kind of prayer, that was oblivious to everything going on around him.
From an outward perspective we might say that the child was playing a role, but in reality his role at that moment was his I; his I had come to expression in this role. The words “royal priest” were his own creation – he subsequently studied theology. Small children are wholly I in the shape they have just assumed in their imagination, in their playful situation, in the environment in which they find themselves just then in their pictorial imagination. The child’s I is spread out, more “outside” than “inside”; they draw a role, an environment, a situation into their horizon. We can refer to this as the spherical I of the small child. If we want to get through to them we have to sense the surroundings in which they are just engaged.
This sentence can become the key for supporting the I in the small child. We should not approach them directly with our finger pointing at their chest but, on the contrary, gently from outside stroke their head, approach and envelop them with great care . We must learn to perceive the I of the small child as something that surrounds them, not as a point.
Four developmental steps
The development of the I to the age of about three is marked by four steps (looking backwards).
Awakening self-awareness – I can refer to myself as “I” – is an event which happens in a moment: an “illumination” which strikes me one day mostly between the age of two and three. Before that children speak about themselves as about another person.
That is preceded by the awakening of thinking, the ability to connect things in the thinking. How has the child learnt that? Because it keeps seeing and experiencing meaningful connections in its surroundings! Shoes stay on when we walk if we tie the laces after putting them on. The music box plays music when you pull the string. The delicious things are on the highest shelf; I can reach them if I put the stool on the chair. Mummy comes when I throw the rattle down and scream.
Children test consequences and effects; they try combinations; they are happy when something works; they want to learn to make the connections themselves. Children’s thinking is practical and far removed from anything intellectual. Their I is concretely involved in what arises as a result in any situation, they are not yet guided in their actions by memory and conscious goals.
Previously they have already practiced speaking. How do children learn to speak? They start as a rule by echoing the tones they hear or sounds of the environment. They imitate and identify with what they imitate, “bow-wow” for a dog for example. Then there are the words copied from a loved person they hear speaking. After a short time they repeat the foreign words of the new Hungarian au pair they like but sense precisely how the surrounding people react to it. Speaking is saturated with feeling in which the child’s I resonates; it is strongly connected with relationships entered into or with expressions of the quality of a relationship. The meaning of words is also greatly sampled with the feelings. Children not only hang on our lips when they listen, they also sway with our soul. Their I is not yet fully delimited.
An important element in the speech, perception, thinking and learning to combine of children is their particular sensitivity to the subtleties as well as their fear of coarseness. Children have a sense for the subtlest nuances. They can distinguish between the key of the father turning in the door when he comes home and every other family member. They can perceive every insecurity in our tone of voice or gestures. They can sense particularly the minutest morality or amorality in the actions of a figure in a story. The I of the child is united with everything in a much more finely woven way, they cannot close themselves off in the way that an adult can. A colour faintly applied to a wall can have a stronger effect than one thickly applied. The quality of the I in children is different from later life.
Consider learning to stand upright and walk. Wanting to stand up does not come from the feet but from the head. As soon as children want to turn towards the world they try first of all to raise their head. Later the hands are also forward. The hands of small children are mostly turned upwards; they follow the intentions of the I which is already with the things towards which children want to move their body.
With all the power of wanting something the child is already at the biscuit tin on the shelf which they want to grasp with their hands, so they crawl to the cupboard and use it as a prop to stand up – and if it not quite enough even with arms outstretched and Mummy arrives at that point, then it can happen that they turn round and take their first steps towards her, arms outstretched in front of them. Their body follows the centre of the I which intangibly goes a little ahead of the child’s hands and forehead and is already united with the goal at which it is directed.
The I goes ahead of the soul and body in the will and draws the child towards itself like a magnet out of the surroundings.
About the author: Fabrizio Venturini is a freelance lecturer and is working on his dissertation on the significance of the I in education.