Understanding Your Child by Observing Their Play, Part 1: Wishes and Desires
Children can be a mystery. Just like grown ups, they can be moody and have big feelings. But with kids, it’s hard for them to articulate and understand what’s on their mind (And this is sometimes a challenge for us adults too.). Instead of telling us, they show us. They act up, misbehave, have outbursts and shut down. Fortunately, another way they show us is through their play. Famous psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott have given us thoughtful ways to understand a child’s inner life.
There are two things going on when kids play:
- They are expressing and fulfilling wishes and
- They are attempting to master the challenges of life.
Some might add one more thing: Children play to avoid taking care of responsibilities. But I would argue that this is also a way of expressing a wish. — A wish to avoid responsibilities or difficult feelings.
Let’s take a look at wishes and young children. When young children play, they act out all the things they want. They wish they were the fastest. They wish to be brave and strong. They wish to be loved, have fun and enjoy ideas, thoughts and interests. Below are some examples of wishes you might see being played out in different age groups.
A 2 year old — As his mother pushes his wheels down the track, a 2-year-old might be saying (If they could articulate it!), “It feels good that I can make things go after not being able to crawl/walk/move for so long!” Or “I can make things go away and come back by pushing my car even though I can’t control when my mommy goes away or comes back.” Or, “I can push my toy car to an imaginary ice cream store and have all the ice cream I want unlike real life when my parents only let me have that yummy treat once in a while.”
A 4-year-old — He has a baby doll with him that he feeds and takes care of. The doll cries and needs his diaper changed and the 4-year-old competently changes the babydoll and feeds it. It is as if to say, “I wish to be like my parents” or “I wish to have a baby and take care of it.” Another 4-year-old might insist on wearing a superhero costume 24/7 — saving pretend kittens and fighting “bad guys.” It is as if the child is saying, “I wish to be big, strong and unstoppable, when in reality I am small and not as strong as the adults in my life.”
Many wishes are positive and feel good. By enacting their wishes through play children can fulfill the wish, when they may not be able to have it in real life. Or if they had the wish fulfilled in real life but it was fleeting, like a birthday party, they can make it last longer by playing with the same theme.
But what about wishes that are not acceptable to the child or/and to the grown up? What if your child wishes her brother wasn’t around anymore so she can have her parents all to herself? What if your child wishes to destroy something because it feels good? What if your child wishes to learn more about guns, but their parents say guns are dangerous? What if your child wishes mommy would go away so he can have daddy all to himself? Children use imaginary play to express these wishes and desires too. Forbidden wishes are expressed in play so they don’t have to be acted on in real life.