Parenting How to Teach Your Child About a Disappearing World
My daughter understands object permanence—the idea that what vanishes continues to exist. As the planet warms, I worry I may have oversold the concept.
“Draw a baby.”
I am at the kitchen table with my two-year-old daughter and drawing with a water pen as quickly as I can. Just as quickly, the figures keep evaporating.
I begin with the round circle of a baby’s head. I draw two curved lines for closed eyes. I draw a tiny curl of hair. And by the time I’ve sketched the simple creases of a swaddle blanket—foregoing the time-consuming details of a body in favor of producing a quick, round little bundle—the baby’s head has disappeared.
“All gone,” I say.
Babies are born without object permanence. The understanding that things continue to exist even when hidden from sight develops gradually, including through games like peekaboo.
So my husband and I would hide stuffed animals beneath throw pillows, cover our faces with our hands, delight our daughter with concealment and revelation.
Since my daughter has come to understand object permanence, she feels assured that what disappears continues to exist. This early developmental milestone is foundational to her ability to imagine and remember, to reason and create. Even so, I sometimes worry I have oversold the concept. Object permanence offers young children the sense of security that comes from knowing their parents and caregivers continue to exist, even when they leave the room. Paradoxically, object permanence is also what makes it possible for toddlers to experience separation anxiety.
What I want to know is whether object permanence is an understanding or a belief.
I feel pangs of guilt when my daughter quotes Daniel Tiger at preschool drop-off, cheerfully reassuring herself and the other children that “grown ups come back.” In these words, I can hear the unspoken promise: always . And the heartbeat of my own fears: what if, what if ? What I want to know is whether object permanence is an understanding or a belief. If it’s a belief, sometimes I don’t have much faith in it. Now I face the far more difficult task of helping her grasp impermanence. I don’t know how to make a game of change and loss.
My daughter is almost three years old now, and already so much has disappeared.
The Sumatran rhino.
The Chinese paddlefish.
The giant Yangtze softshell turtle.
The Spix macaw.
The Indochinese tiger.
The Indian cheetah.
The Catarina pupfish.
Nearly a dozen species went extinct during her first year of life, many of them named for places that will be forever altered by their disappearance. Thousands more extinctions are suspected worldwide, though not yet confirmed. All gone.
Meanwhile, we were playing peekaboo. Meanwhile, we were teaching our daughter that what we can no longer see or hear or sense persists, goes on existing.
Many of the college students I work with don’t plan to have children. They seem to take as fact what I can’t quite bring myself to concede about the future, but they congratulate me with genuine excitement when I tell them I’m pregnant with our second child.
In terms of cognitive development, understanding object permanence seems to be necessary for survival, so when our younger child is several months old, we will recruit our daughter to play these disappearing games with us.
“Peekaboo,” she will say to baby. “I see you!”
She will hide a stuffed dinosaur under a blanket. “All gone!”
Believing the dinosaur’s situation to be easily remedied, they will both giggle at this extinction game.
Shortly after her second birthday, my daughter began insisting that I show her what she could not see.
Long after the fire truck flashed past our parked car: “See fire truck?”
“It drove away,” I’d say. And she’d ask to see it, again and again. “It’s already gone, love.”
While reading a book about the coming spring, we delighted over wheels and worms and wind. “See wind?”
But on the page, I had only blown over daffodils in a brown field to show for it. A character in a picture book called out, “Goodbye!” And my daughter would ask, “See goodbye?” In a conversation, she overheard me say the word nothing. “See nothing?”
Out of sight, out of mind. This is the game adults learn to play with their fears.
She was so intent on seeing what was already gone. And always, I could show her only nothing.
My daughter and I are at the kitchen table drawing with a water pen, and she asks me to draw a fish, to draw the moon, to draw our family. The first time I watch our family fade even as I’m making it, it feels like a curse. I have made ghosts of us.
Out of sight, out of mind. This is the game adults learn to play with their fears. Maybe it’s true that, decades ago, the loss of biological diversity was something reasonable people could train themselves not to think about. The trouble is that these days the rate of extinction is rapidly accelerating and our fears are increasingly visible.
Sometimes my daughter smashes the water pen’s small, white brush against the drawing pad until its bristles fray. Once she swirled a leaky puddle so wet and dark I thought it might never disappear. But it, too, is gone.
So much of parenting is drawing in water and watching it all fade.