Last week I sat in the AMAZE office stuffing persona dolls. AMAZE does not order our dolls from someone else. Instead, we make them at home. First, artist Stephen Michael creates the faces using photographs of real children. He infuses each face with personality and identity. Then Susan Morris creates the doll bodies, using a pattern modified from one sent to us by colleagues in South Africa. The clothes we find in the way that adults have always found children’s clothes: we go to garage sales, secondhand shops, and scour the racks for something cute. And then we bundle these ingredients together and bring them home.
Jennifer Goggleye takes the raw ingredients and puts them together to create something that is much more than a finished product. She creates a being, a spirit, a personality, a story that leaves our home to end up in your classroom, your childcare center, or your home-based childcare.
I have worked with AMAZE on and off for close to 15 years. I have sat in rooms where 10, 20, and sometimes 30 persona dolls have been stacked on the couch steadily watching us work. I have talked about AMAZE’s work with these dolls in grant applications, newsletter articles, and meeting minutes. If you had asked me, I would have said that I know these dolls. So why did that one Wednesday afternoon change that?
Like many of you, most of the time that I am working I am in a particular kind of adult mind. I am thinking about what needs to get done, how much time I have to do it, and the things I need to get it done on time. When I am like this, the dolls are just an object to write about, to move from one place to another, or to ignore.
On that Wednesday, I was stuffing white cotton into a doll called Allana. I leaned her over my knee and pushed form into her cotton skin. As I picked her up to see if she needed more cotton, my hands naturally took the curved palm shape of an adult holding a child body. It’s the shape I took with my daughter and the other children I have cared for: body tucked up against my shoulder, palm lifting up baby or toddler butt to help keep them snug against me, other arm soft against their back. It’s what we do with a sleeping small being, one whose muscles have let go into rest. But this time, of course, I was holding Allana this way because she has no muscle tone. She’s a doll.
At that moment, I felt my heart open up and make a connection to Allana. Strange, isn’t it? I now cared about this doll. And my adult mind with all of the work I had to get done? Well, it sat back and watched as I finished up with Alanna and set her down in the pile to be sewn and then clothed.
I knew that Alanna was a doll. I wasn’t worrying about the sewing needle hurting her skin or anything else overly strange. But even while I knew she was a doll, I could feel a connection. There was a tug at my heart as I saw her across the room, waiting to be finished.
Jennifer talks about the spirits in these dolls. She has said that when everyone at the office is stressed or tired, she talks to the dolls like children, telling them not to worry, that everything is okay. She does this fully knowing that they are dolls and not human children and still, at the same time, knowing that it matters.
None of this is confusing to the children who claim these dolls as friends. In the same way that we can look at a photograph of someone we care about and feel our love for them even though they aren’t actually there, children can look at someone like Alanna and, upon hearing her story, form a relationship that matters. And, like all relationships, what they experience with Allana builds over time. The children learn from their relationship with Allana, and Allana becomes an integral part of the community of their classroom.
Sitting there holding Allana on my lap, I knew that she was a doll, and as I felt my affection for her rise up and surprise me, I also felt stories come alive in my mind. They were just there waiting for me, these stories about the little girl on my lap. And, of course, every single story that I made up about Allana was really a story all about me. It was my imagination. And that’s what makes persona dolls work. Because as children gather around dolls like Allana to talk about themselves and their friends, their imagination gives them the chance to practice the work of relationships and connection, of conflict and negotiation. And because Allana, as a doll, is so amenable, the children get to practice these things in a supported and gentle way.
After that Wednesday, I asked Jennifer to tell me the next time she has a big shipment to put together. I want to make more dolls. Sitting on the chair with Allana or DeShawn or Choua cradled in one hand and a pile of cotton batting in the other, I can feel each of these dolls come together like a prayer, a story, a song. I want to do like Jennifer does: to take the time with each creation to hold the love in my heart that each child who meets this doll well and fully deserves.Read more
My daughter figured out sharing pretty early. Maybe as an only child, she thought sharing would endear her to other children. Maybe she got the sharing gene in her DNA strand. Whatever the reason, she likes to share. She was the kid at parties who walked around with a bowl of cherries, moving with a smile from person to person. “Would you like some fruit?” she would ask, and then continue on to the next person. She got lots of adult attention for this: “Oh Luca, I love how you share.” And, “That’s so generous, so kind…” That might not be why she started sharing, but I’m sure it’s part of why she continues.
According to a study published in Science, Luca should start outgrowing that sharing thing pretty soon. Sharing is something we do well as young children, but then, this study argues, we’re less interested in as we age. “How Children Outgrow Socialism” argues that children’s views on fairness shift from egalitarian to merit-based as they grow older.
Norwegian young people, ages 10 to 18, went through an “economics experiment” to determine how they would divvy up a pool of money. You can see more details here, but the moral of the research is this: Sharing is a childish thing. We leave it behind as we grow older. According to Alexander Cappelen, one of the authors of the study, it's not clear what triggers the change in philosophy, from fairness to meritocracy, but he believes it may be the result of increasing exposure to achievement-based activities like sports and standardized tests. “Young children are rarely rewarded for individual achievement. There is an extremely egalitarian culture in their school life. But as they get older they are exposed to more meritocratic institutions, and that might change their views on equality,” he says. In other words, this is true because we make it true. It’s what we teach them.
This depresses me. What an unloving thing we do to our children. We move them away from the first beliefs we pass on to them: that every one of us, no matter who we are, matters just because we are born, we breathe, and we live. And then we contradict all of that by shifting to this idea that your worth is based on what you do and how well you do it. And that the winner matters. And that the winner really did win.
So, what is the next step for Luca and other kids? At what point is she supposed to realize, hmmm, if I just sit here with this bowl of cherries in front of me, then maybe I’ll get more for myself? Or maybe I’ll keep passing the bowl around but instead of just giving them out, I’m going to see this as upping my social capital. And this social capital is going to help me find a better job, a free cabin for the weekend, or just a well-dressed group of friends to be seen with on the weekend. So five cherries for you with the family cabin, three cherries for you with the large professional network, and one for you because you are kind and will make me smile when I am sad.
Sounds funny, doesn’t it? The thing is, if we are truly honest, the chatter in our heads isn’t far off this kind of evaluation. We–and I include myself in that “we”−spend a lot of time assessing ourselves in relation to others–am I getting my fair share or should I speak up and demand a little more? It’s how we organize our democracy. Political life in the electoral and policy world is a constantly changing score card of who did what for whom and how much did it cost. Paying back favors can rate higher than “doing the right thing.” It’s all about whether or not I get mine, not whether or not we have enough to go around for all of us.
We have created this way of being. We pass it on to our children. This is not the way it has to be.
Each of us is born to experience life. How we experience life is up to a whole range of things: genetics, experience, culture, and so on. We experience life so that we can survive it and then pass life on to the next generation.
But of course that isn’t the end of the story. Nowhere in Luca’s genes does it say, “At age 13 you will grab your own bowl of cherries and run away, handing out the occasional fruit to those who you deem worthy but otherwise keeping those sweet red orbs for yourself.” There is nothing that says that how we share can’t be a continually evolving and ever-wiser system for relationship and community. There is no reason why “sharing” can’t be a measure of our strength, or our compassion and clarity.
I’m thinking that this study needs to go a step further. The question isn’t whether or not children outgrow socialism. The question is whether or not we can learn to stay connected to each other enough to keep sharing, even when it gets harder. My family, my community, is going to keep encouraging Luca to pass around her bowl of cherries because there are enough to go around. Because the fruit just tastes sweeter when we are all eating it. And because, in the end, the wisest most knowing thing we can do is to practice the hard work of really caring about and for each other. For no other reason than because we all breathe.
A version of this blog post originally appeared at Bilerico.com.
photo credit: MaxStraeten / Morguefile.comRead more