Donald Winnicott made important contributions to the field of psychoanalysis which included the idea of play–especially the play between mother and child, which could be replicated by the interchange between psychoanalyst and patient.
The problem is that mother-child play outside of well-off, Western cultures is fairly rare. In most cultures, babies play alone or with other children. Their mothers are there to comfort them when they are distressed, feed them, keep them clean and attend to their toileting needs, but there is usually not much play.
I am not an anthropologist, but I do watch families as they interact with one another whether I am on the subway or in the grocery store. I like to see how people treat one another, what norms are, what’s expected. It’s just my thing.
And I have yet to see the adults in a family living in a slum area play with their children, although I’ve witnessed plenty of mothers and children interact in slums.
That observation matches what we read in the literature.
“…[R}esearch shows that the en face position where the mother holds the infant facing her—de rigueur for peeka-boo—is common in Westernized societies but rare elsewhere, as is the tendency of the mother to talk with the infant.” (Field et al. 1981; Ratner and Pye 1984).
Play is universal, but mother-infant play is not
Instead, play between mothers and children seems to be most common in cultures where language acquisition is of primary importance. It does not seem to have a universally important psychological function, and cultures seem to do just fine without it. But you do not develop strong language skills without it.
When I observe families from high-poverty communities–and poverty is closely related to literacy levels–I never see mothers play with their children, even when there is nothing else for the mother to do. I rarely see those mothers hold conversations with their older children. The children play with one another. The baby entertains herself. And the mother, well, perhaps she’s just resting after a long day. But she’s usually looking out the window, talking to a friend, or doing something on her phone.
Interaction between mothers and children from these communities looks like this, “Get down from there! Sit still! Put that down! Don’t touch that! Don’t hit your brother!” Interspersed with long periods of silence.
That is in sharp contrast with the conversations I see between parents and children who are clearly better off, “What was your favorite thing at the museum today? What should we have for lunch? Look at that!”
Can you guess which children start school more prepared to read? Can you predict which children will have a greater command of complex grammar or more expansive vocabularies?
Not hard, is it?
The purpose of mother-child play is language acquisition. It does not meet a universal psychological need. Psychotherapy focused on play will perhaps expand our vocabularies and advance our grammars. It’s unclear how else it might help.
So how did we end up with a major writer in psychoanalysis convinced that play between analyst and patient can prompt psychological growth? Because people who live at the top tier of the economy assume that their world is everyone’s world, or at least that it should be. Those mothers who don’t play with their children either don’t exist or are inadequate mothers. Because privilege means you don’t have to understand anyone else.
Lancy, D. (2007, June). Accounting for Variability in Mother-Child Play. American Anthropologist. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/48555/mother-child-play.pdf