Wissot: Role-playing in childhood to prepare for adulthood is a good idea (column)
Adults standing around an infant in a crib making peek-a-boo faces and eliciting shrieks of laughter and joy may look silly to the casual observer. But to the infant, it is the learned expectation of the fun inherent in being surprised that is making him or her happy.
That learned expectation is called anticipation. It is a part of childhood that we often forget about when we become adults.
When I think back on my own childhood so many decades ago, certain moments of anticipation come clearly into focus. I can still recall the exhilaration I would feel come springtime when I would rush home from elementary school, quickly change clothes, hop on my black bicycle and dart back to the school playground before the softball game I was playing in began.
The adrenaline pulsing through my body just anticipating the excitement I knew was about to take place is something I remember today, even if it is impossible to recall it with the intensity I felt back then.
I believe now that the adrenaline rush I experienced during those magic moments was tied to my first brush with freedom. Riding to the playground that day signified a declaration of independence from my parents. I was with my friends. We were playing a game that we organized. This wasn’t like Little League is today, carefully supervised by adults. My father never saw me play. He was too busy working all the time.
The only expectations placed on me came from my teammates. We were only 10 and 11 years old, but we played for money. Everybody chipped a dollar into the pot. If you screwed up in the field or at bat, then you only had your teammates to answer to. For a few hours, we could pretend to be full-fledged adults engaged in our own fantasies regarding freedom. Once the game ended, I rode slowly home on my bike and returned to the reality of being a child.
I believe I don’t experience anticipation now with the same enthusiasm I did as a child because many of the things I hoped for, dreamed about, wished would happen, have come true. I’ve experienced the freedom felt by adults for more than 50 years. Just as infants stop enjoying peek-a-boo surprises when they get older, so adults aren’t as enamored with freedom as they age because it is no longer new or novel. I take adult emancipation for granted now because I have been emancipated for so long.
But that doesn’t mean I have totally forgotten how important those early opportunities to play adult roles were before I was fully prepared to be an adult. Take my first work experience, for example. I was 12 years old, in junior high, too old to go to day camp in the summers anymore but too young to get a Social Security card and land my first real paying job.
My father owned a toy store in the Bronx near the old Yankee Stadium. He offered to take me to work with him each day and give me odd jobs to do such as stocking shelves with merchandise and counting inventory in the back room of the store. One day, due to a shortage of sales people on the floor, he asked if I would like to try to help customers make toy and game selections.
At first I was hesitant. I was only 12 years old, after all, and hadn’t anticipated being given an opportunity to act like an adult in a real adult setting. I soon got over my misgivings and began going up to customers, asking if they needed help.
To be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing at first. I focused mostly on standing up straight, looking the customer in the face and pretending to know what I was talking about, even when I didn’t.
What I learned that summer was that practicing to be an adult is a great way to learn how to be an adult. By summer’s end, I could actually offer reasonable advice to customers three and four times my age. I actually remember at age 12 suggesting to a customer what her 12-year-old son might like for his birthday.
After all, who knows better what a 12-year-old boy might want than another 12-year-old boy?
But what I most remember about that summer was getting up each morning eagerly excited to go to work with my father. I could tell he was proud of me. The look of pride on his face each day motivated me to work hard, to do my best.
That experience still serves as a powerful reminder of how important practice for adulthood can be to a child. I was anticipating with great relish that summer what it might be like to be an adult.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.