I was playing with a 4 year old boy some time ago. I’ve played with him many times before and have developed something like a ‘play relationship’ with him. Being a boy, he is very ‘outward’ and ‘rompous’, almost to the point of being aggressive (as sometimes happens with boys). During our play he showed interesting qualities and themes.
When I played with him this time I was struck how he would always as if try to hit our heads together and wrestle with me. Later on, when we pulled some toys out, he began to do this same behaviour with the toys, getting two ‘Woody’ dolls (from the ‘Toy Story’ cartoon) and hitting them together, often violently. Then it would continue onto some toy dinasaurs that he said were Woody’s ‘pets’. These hitting of the toys were often done in response to simple conversations that the dolls would have with each other. For example, I’d get my Woody and pet my dinasour, saying, “Look! When I pet my dinasaur he purrs”, then I’d make a purring sound. Then he’d say, “that’s my pet”, and hit my pet with his Woody doll. It got to the point that this theme dominated the play and was done repetetively.
Then, out of nowhere, he would start to say that the toys were ‘dead’ after he hit them. Everytime he’d hit them he’d say they were ‘dead’ and I would have to revive them by doing CPR (I’d just push down on their chest a couple of times with Woody’s hand). This went on for some time with many little variations.
After a while, he seemed to get bored with that and would jump on me as if to wrestle me. I ended up wrestling him and tickling him. During this time, he tried to bite me several times.
As I reflected on his play some things became apparent to me. In general, I could see that a lot of his play revolved around the development of the self and the conflict of the perception of self and other.
Initially, his play seemed violent, as he bumped our heads and hit toys together. In reality, this shows a growing sense of self and the development of the sense of an other. Hitting things together is a reference to this sense of two: ‘me’ and ‘you’. These questions of ‘you’ and ‘me’ that he was trying to resolve. This often brings up various dilemmas and issues that need to be resolved. This is because there are conflicts in developing the sense of self and the ‘other’. In developing this sense its almost as if a part of our self has to be ‘dissected’ or ‘pulled away’ from our self. What I mean by this is that when we are born we perceive the world as ‘us’, an extension of self, so to speak. There is no ‘me’ and ‘everything else’. It is all experienced as a part of oneself. Let us call this the ‘initial self’. As we grow, we naturally begin to feel this ‘initial self’ begin to errode as we begin to find that there is another world and people beyond us. As a result, our ‘initial self’ fragments. This is the ‘initial self fragmentation’. This can be very traumatic and painful and can cause great despair in kids that can last, sometimes, into the adult years. Because the perception of our ‘initial self’ is our ‘world’, so to speak, it makes it very personal. It’s fragmentation is like a shaking of our self and the world. It can cause great sense of conflict and pain and uncertainty. As a result, it creates a horrible sense that can be called the ‘initial self fragmentation death’. It’s a ‘death’ because the ‘initial self’ does, in fact, die and it can be experienced as such. By ‘death’ it means that there is a sense of ‘loss’ of ‘disappearance’ of something. In reality, this ‘death’ is nothing but a growing, a replacement of our older self with a new self. Growth, by its nature, requires a death of an old self to be replaced with something new. Because it is displayed in play it shows that there is a sense of ‘changing selfs’ in children. In other words, they can feel it (though they may not be fully aware of it). Sometimes, this sense of a ‘death’ of the self can be very hard on kids and can cause problems for them.
Because of this ‘death’ of self a person must ‘discover’ his ‘separated self’. This is the self that is removed and separate from the world and other people. It is the self he is growing into. This discovery is often seen a lot in play. In fact, it often motivates a lot of play in the younger years. Through play the child typically learns to find and discover this new ‘separated self’ and grows to accept the ‘death’ of the ‘initial self’. In effect, there is a naturally appearing ‘wheening’ off of the ‘initial self’ that is seen with the child as part of the growth process.
One aspect of this ‘separated self’ conflict is that they often will try to ‘reunite’ their self with the world and others in their play, as if to ‘bring back’ their younger ‘reality’. They will try to merge toys or put dolls together or even smack them together (as with the boy above). In effect, all they are doing is trying to recreate the ‘initial self’ because of the pain and conflict the ‘separated self’ creates. It’s like a regression, going back to an earlier self.
The childs hitting our heads together was an attempt, really, at ‘reuniting’ his self with the world and others (recreating the ‘initial self’). In a way, he was trying to ‘merge’ his ‘self’ with the ‘other’ so that they were one, as was originally with the ‘initial self’. This, being such a strong impulse, would be carried over into the play where he would hit our dolls and toys together. It also carried over into our wrestling as well.
His biting is an attempt at ‘reuniting’ as well. The mouth is an area where the child has some of its first experiences of itself. As a result, the mouth becomes a dominant element in the first perception of the self. Because of this it becomes instrumental in the sense of the ‘initial self’. Not only that, it is through the mouth that the child has its first perceptions of the world, which it perceives as an extension of itself. And so, through the mouth the child senses its self and the world (as an extended self). This makes it often natural that children will use the mouth when trying to ‘reunite’ with their ‘initial self’. One version of this is biting or sucking on things or being preoccupied with eating.
And so, as a result, much of his play revolved around a ‘wheening’ away from his ‘initial self’ and a conflict with his ‘fragmented initial self’. In a sense, he was ‘practicing’ to develop his ‘separated self’. This is a natural and normal thing to do. Much of play is just this, a continual practice of some quality they need, as if they are trying to develop it and make it grow. It’s for this reason children will repetetively do the same things over and over again. In the childs play above, there were many variations of the same theme played out in different ways: hitting our heads, hitting the toys, the toys dying, biting, and wrestling. All these are almost as if to say, “I know you and me are there but I can’t see you or me clearly yet, but I’m trying”.
For most of us, the conflict with the ‘separated self’ is a phase in life, one which we grow out of. In effect, it becomes a stage in growth, one of many we pass through in life. But for some people it can lead to problems.
I have often felt that many people who kill for psychological reasons, such as serial killers, display similar qualities as the child above did. But, it’s almost as if they did not complete this phase and are reliving it over and over again to try to resolve it but can’t. It’s like the same play taken to adulthood (perhaps it can be described as a form of ‘adult play’?). Just as the child continually repeats the play, so do these killers often do, and probably for similar reasons. Many psychological killers, such as serial killers, are having similar conflicts as that child does. They have difficulty distinguishing themselves from others. There are also conflicts of distinguishing their self from the world or others. As a result of this, their victim, in a sense, becomes nothing but a projection of themselves. This is why they often perceive that they are not killing people, which may make them appear they have no conscious. This is because they perceive the victim not as a person but as a part of themselves, making them appear something like a non-entity. And, like the child, the killing is a reflection of their conflict with their separated self. It’s like they are stuck in that phase and cannot get out. They cannot develop a ‘separated self’.
The conflict with the ‘separated self’ is associated with sexuality as well. There is a connection with this conflict and sexual dysfunctions. This is because sexuality is something that is associated with a ‘uniting’ of self and other, so to speak. As a result, it tends to draw up any conflicts associated with the self and other that a person might have. It’s really no wonder that many psychological killers, such as serial killers, have a strong connection with sexuality, since they revolve around similar conflicts. Many serial killers, in fact, do their killing on sexual inclinations and motives. We may see similar things with rapists, sexual perversions, and other sexual dysfunctions.
And so that simple play of that child, something normal and commonplace, displays many basic human issues and dilemmas. A basic growth pattern was shown and the natural attempt at resolving it and growing out of it. It also showed that these conflicts can go into adulthood which, if unresolved, can become very serious and deadly.