Does anyone remember Garbage Pail Kids? They were these nasty trading cards you could get in the late 80’s and 90’s of cartoon toddlers covered in vomit or otherwise being gross or violent.
They were wildly popular. I think they were a backlash against the Cabbage Patch Kid fad at the time, which was all about baby dolls that supposedly grew out of cabbages with levels of cuteness so nuclear that moms actually got into fistfights over them at the time.
Note that I said moms, because their kids were busy collecting trading cards about cabbage spawn exploding their zits or dropping whatever they were doing to go witness the playground fight that just broke out because they suspected this thing we call “life” involves something darker than the perky cartoon facades the adults kept constructing around them while arguing they were 100 percent true…
Somewhere around age 5, if my daughter Brontë is anything to go by, kids start grasping the idea that some things are considered wrong and you’re socially obligated to be offended by them. Girls, at least, like to throw their arms in the air and dramatically shriek upon confronting them.
But I suspect it’s somewhat of an act.
See.. the other day, I was walking up the steps to our house with Brontë and her little sister Bridget when we passed a dead June bug…
Bridget (pointing and shrieking): A bee! A BEE!
Bidgie and I squat and stare at the dead bug for a minute.
Me: That’s a June bug, Bidgie. Where do these dead bugs keep coming from?
Brontë (running away): EWW, GROSS! I don’t want to see that.
Me (watching Bridget poke it with a stick): Whoa, looks like those ants are eating it.
So, I caught my daughter smacking her own butt this morning while yelling, “BAD! You’re WRONG! You need to STOP IT!”
It was a perplexing situation, one I hoped to better understand. So instead of telling her to cut it out, I tried to uncover what strange manner of 4-year-old psychology had driven her to this desperate point…
Me: Umm… what are you doing? Why are you spanking yourself?
Brontë: I’m NOT. I’m spanking MY PANTS.
Me: I see. Okay… why?
Brontë: Because they won’t do cartwheels and somersaults the way I want them to.
Me: That’s an interesting dilemma.
Brontë: They’re being WRONG pants!
Me: Well… you do realize that *you’re* actually the one that does cartwheels and somersaults, right? And that right now, you’re really just spanking yourself?
Brontë’s eyes got big for a moment before she swiveled around and stomped off, muttering, “DAMN IT, stupid pants!”
As I thought: Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh…
Because I really shouldn’t encourage swearing, even when executed perfectly and to hilarious effect.
But I can definitely see why she’d be mad at those pants. First, they mess up her cartwheels and somersaults. Then, they trick her into smacking herself and looking silly in front of her mom.
They were definitely being WRONG pants that deserved everything they got.
Being a parent teaches you a lot about human psychology. Toddlers, for example, think the world revolves around them.
I’m not trying to be critical here, because this is a normal stage of kid development. It’s not malicious, they just live in a self-focused universe where everything is one giant movie starring them as the main character with everyone else in a supporting role only existing to advance the plot.
Sometimes this causes a breakdown in communication, like when I ask my husband about his day at work and he can’t answer because our four-year-old daughter Brontë keeps interrupting with, “I DIDN’T GO TO WORK, I’VE BEEN PLAYING ALL DAY!”
And sometimes, it can be downright hilarious.
Take, for example, the surreal confusion that recently ensued when our two-year-old daughter Bridget was wandering around the house, looking for me.
It went like this:
Bridget (wandering around): Mommy? Mama?
Brontë (from the next room): I’m not mommy, Bridget. I’m “Brontë.”
Brontë (walking in): I’m NOT mommy. I’M JUST ANOTHER KID.
Bridget (looking around): Mommy?
Brontë (speaking slowly as she puts her hands on Bridget’s shoulders): LISTEN TO ME, Bridget… I’m NOT your mom. I’m your SISTER. My name is “BRONTË.”
Bidgie blinks and Brontë throws her arms in the air before stomping off and grumbling, “HOW does she not know this by now??”
Brontë was so frustrated by her sister’s cluelessness, she even looked a little scared. Like she was pondering whether or not her baby sister actually had a screw loose.
And when I explained that Bridget was talking to me, Brontë only looked more scared. Like maybe everyone in the house, except her, had lost their mind. Because we were clearly both there for the whole conversation where Bridget couldn’t recognize her own family members, so how is mom not understanding how serious this is?
I couldn’t help laughing, which only made things worse.
My two-year-old daughter has personified the warring factions of her psyche and is literally working out her issues using imaginary friends.
Kids are concrete thinkers. They are literalists who imagine all manner of abstractions as physical beings. Everything unknown is magic and The Dark, or disquieting unknown, is the perfect breeding ground for magic of any sort. Fears and anxieties become monsters… nocturnal monsters that can hide under your bed.
Brontë lives in a world bursting with monsters, but also has a strong coterie of imaginary stuffed animal and doll friends. She makes them talk, giving them unique temperaments and catch phrases.
Within her inner circle are a number of distinct personalities, roughly corresponding to Freud’s model of the psychic apparatus.
Don’t be fooled by how adorable Pink Bear looks in his little pink hoodie. He is pure chaos. He jumps on the bed, knocking everything over. He scrambles up into the kitchen cabinets to sneak honey. He pulls all of Brontë’s clothes out of her dresser and dumps them around her room.
Walk into Brontë’s room to see all the books knocked out of her bookshelf into piles on the floor? “Pink Bear did it!” she will say.
Pink Bear will take off whenever he feels like it, living by the pleasure principle alone. Pink Bear will unwind toilet paper all over the place. He will make a mess, just to do it. He’s a rebel without a cause.
Sometimes he even locks Brontë’s baby sister in the bathroom. Pink Bear is clearly a bad influence.
Brontë’s Superego is embodied by “Punzel,” the princess doll. She has long blonde hair and always wears beautiful dresses. She is pretty: her hair is pretty, her face is pretty, her clothes are pretty, and all of her things are pretty. She likes to ride horses and eat cupcakes. She is friends with all other the other princess dolls and likes to invite them to princess parties.
Punzel is everything we expect her to be, as well as everything we want little girls to be. She wears frilly dresses, hosts tea parties, and talks in a pretty, soft voice. She never gets angry, never says anything ugly, and never, absolutely ever, sneaks honey out of the kitchen cabinets. She often finds herself in distress and needs rescuing, but that comes with the territory of being a glamorous princess.
Punzel does, however, sometimes come into conflict with Pink Bear. She disapproves of his mess-making and general barbarian tendencies, whereas Pink Bear thinks Punzel is a prissy little goodie two-shoes with no backbone.
At story time, which is Brontë’s favorite nightly ritual, Punzel and Pink Bear will often jockey for position next to Brontë as a book is being read. They both want to see the pictures, but don’t want to look at each other’s stupid face.
Chief among Brontë’s inner circle is Minnie. She is a Minnie Mouse puppet blanket and Brontë’s constant companion.
Minnie knows how to balance her public persona with a good dose of merrymaking, but also has a wild side. She will throw tantrums, draw pictures of poo, blow indignant raspberries, grab books in her mouth and throw them, and even try to bite the other animals when angry enough.
Most of her antics, however, are motivated by her desire to keep the other imaginary friends in line. When Pink Bear and Punzel are disrupting story time with constant bickering, Minnie Mouse tells them to “SHUT UP” and points out where each of them needs to sit. She can be a little bossy, but without her level-headed mediation, all hell would break loose. Someone has to step up.
In Brontë’s imaginary pantheon of psychic dilemmas, there even exists a shadow figure. Meet Orange Bear, the traitor.
See that gentle grin? Those reassuring eyebrows lifted in the middle in a way that suggests harmless benevolence? Don’t believe them. Those eyebrows are a lie.
Brontë thought Orange Bear was her friend, but he was entrusted with the sacred duty of protecting her from monsters at night. He looks big and tough, so one night when she was telling me all about the scary night monsters that sneak into her room, I reassured her that Orange Bear was there to keep her safe.
The next morning, she stomped out of her room, disgusted, while dragging Orange Bear behind her. With utter disdain, she summarily dumped Orange Bear in the hallway.
Confused, I started dragging him back into her room and she had a fit. “NO!” she screamed, “NO ORANGE BEAR!”
“You don’t want Orange Bear in your room? He keeps the monsters out,” I said.
“HE DO NOT,” she shouted, “He let monsters IN my room!” And with that, she banished Orange Bear forever.
Brontë considers loyalty a great virtue. Betrayal will not be tolerated. Orange Bear’s transgression was unforgivable, and to this day, Orange Bear is not allowed to step foot into Brontëland.
Technically, the Shadow figure is an element of Jungian psychology, not Freudian. I find this gratifying, since I’m fonder of Jung than Freud. Perhaps this entire schema should be revised in terms of Jungian archetypes. Let’s see… Punzel would be the princess. Pink Bear is the outlaw, and Minnie is the mentor?
Whoever thought that child’s play is frivolous? Seems fraught with emotional drama to me. Next time your kids (or any kids) are acting stuff out with their dolls (or “action figures” if they are boys, because obviously boys play with “action figures”), pay attention. You might be surprised by how often inner turmoil is personified into concrete characters.