Lessons from Mr. Ravioli

Source: David Griff, used with permission

Adam Gopnik published one of my all-time favorite essays, “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli”, in the September 30, 2002, issue of The New Yorker. In it, he describes his three-year-old daughter’s friendship with her imaginary playmate, Charlie Ravioli, and the eventual emergence of her relationship to Charlie Ravioli’s imaginary assistant, Laurie. Gopnik’s concerns about these important invented relationships in Olivia’s young life and his consultation with his sister (developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik) about the phenomenon, form the central theme of the narrative. 

I love this piece for many reasons, beyond the fact that it is brilliantly written. It was published at this very time of year, the end of summer vacations, returns to classrooms, a shift in the weather, when activities and commitments in North America escalate in number and pace. Olivia’s emergent pretend relationships mirror the seasonal increase in busyness and intensity.

I also appreciate the brother-sister discussion of the age-appropriate expansion of a toddler’s imagination.  Alison Gopnik, the aunt-professor-expert on preschool children’s development, takes on the reactions to this essential aspect of learning that parents, teachers, and the rest of us may have in her 2016 book, The Gardener and the Carpenter. She argues persuasively in favor of supporting the development and exercise of a small child’s imagination and curiosity across the many forms they may take. Data have long supported the beneficial role of pretending in cognitive, emotional and social development of the preschool child, as I described in “Imagery, Its Role in Development”, although I did later argue against the extremes of too much imagination as well as too little (see research reference below).

Moving from the individual to the global and then to the local, Adam Gopnik explores two additional themes in his essay: the impact across history of changes in communication, transportation and entertainment on our consciousness and behavior and the evolution to an increasingly over-extended interpersonal culture for educated parents living in New York. Gopnik writes: “The crowding of our space has been reinforced by the crowding of our time”. Email, answering machines, even cell phones had already made their way into his daughter’s fantasy life, reflecting their impact on lifestyle and relationships at the time. He wrote the essay in 2002; it rings even more true in 2018.

Today, the extent to which screens affect our young children, born digital natives, amplifies the mediation of relationships by electronics. Between July 24 and November 7, 2011, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA in New York) offered a blockbuster exhibit, “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects”. Display after display documented increasing distance from flesh-and-blood, real energetic contact between people. One curator commented that artificial intelligence is destined to increase confusion between perceptions of and attributions towards people and robots. Gone are the days when Fred Rogers reliably led us all between “The Land of Make-Believe” and that of the world in which he interviewed YoYo Ma or a wheelchair-bound child, rather than a puppet.

Source: DavidGriff, used with permission

I could be writing this post primarily to praise the richly nuanced imaginary playmates and their role in a child’s development, to acknowledge a seasonal shift in tempo and its impact on our calendars and commitments, to observe cultural variations in lifestyle, to explore the encroachment of technology into all facets of our lives (or its impact on the developing child), but more than any of these points, I wanted to address the unconscious scripts formed by young children as they integrate their experience, using their imagination to digest what they do not yet fully understand.  Piaget called this “assimilation” an essential aspect of the dialectic that helps a child form “schemata”; Silvan Tompkins labeled it “script” encoding; and the cell biologist Bruce Lipton calls it “programming the unconscious mind”, forming beliefs when the brain is still too young to critically examine or question what it observes. 

When seen through this lens, our imaginary playmates offer us clues to future expectations. Will Gopnik’s daughter always assume that her dearest friends will be unavailable for more than a casual and superficial encounter? If so, social media or long-distance relationships could become far more familiar than interactions with the intensity of real energy, in spite of their challenges. How will she understand emotional contagion and respond to it? Will the energy of another person’s anger or fear or sadness or even love frighten her? Will she be unable to value the time spent in relationships, especially face-to-face time, if it comes at the expense of the pursuit of achievements? Will goals come to be defined by numbers rather than personal attachments or shared pleasures? Or will she learn to acknowledge loneliness and frustration and consciously correct those beliefs that were formed when she could only observe and mimic? Will she allow herself to realign her expectations to better appreciate the potential positive role of intimacy in human happiness?

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