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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Expressing Feelings

Last week, Hallie came down with her first cold of the season--you know, the kind you pick up from hanging out with a million other kids at preschool who are leaking snot (and a few who apparently have contracted pertussis).  Sharon and I were crossing our fingers (and leaving little white marks and dents in our hands) that this seemingly run of the mill cold (which affected all of us, but Hallie worse than the rest) would not morph into pneumonia, as all of Hallie's colds have for the past year.  We were religious about keeping up with Hallie's breathing treatments (Hallie actually started to request her 'puffers' whenever she was having problems breathing), monitored Hallie's temperature very carefully, counted her respiratory rate on a regular basis, and made sure to take heed of any sign that Hallie was in pain. (We are still kicking ourselves for not having paid attention to Hallie's complaints last December/January that her back was hurting since we might have been able to avoid hospitalization for that first very bad pneumonia had we only realized her lungs were inflamed a little earlier than we did).

Anyway, we were a bit on edge, but everyone pulled through and her cold is apparently getting better right on schedule (that is, 7 to 10 days after she first exhibited symptoms of it).  So, between our vigilance and a booster shot against pneumonia, we're out the other end of this thing.

Of course, no cold around here is complete unless it is accompanied by some vomiting.  Vomiting has turned into a quite rare event for Hallie (I think we can still count the number of times she's upchucked this year on 3 hands, but honestly one indication that she's not vomiting anymore is that I'm not counting the times she does anymore, either).  Since we don't really expect Hallie to hurl, we're a bit out of practice when she does.  This became a bit of a problem last Saturday when I went to lie down next to Hallie because I did not like the way she was coughing (horrible deep coughs in her sleep with an alarming rate of frequency).  Not long after I decided that I needed to be closer to her, she had an uncontrollable coughing fit and one thing led to another.   I quickly found myself trying to locate the bucket that still resides under the bed in the hopes of catching the inevitable return of dinner but was just a moment too late.

So we found ourselves lifting a soiled and upset half asleep little girl out of bed; stripping off her shirt; changing out the sheets, pillowcases, and comforter cover; and removing her beloved green fleece froggy blanket.  I quickly threw everything in the wash and we got new linens on the bed and Hallie back in it within a few minutes. 

Hallie slept in on Sunday and was not quite herself.  She seemed a bit sullen and subdued, but who wouldn't be given that she was nursing a cold and had had her sleep interrupted?  Sharon decided to download a few movies for Hallie from Netflix and we sat around watching them with her.

One of the movies Hallie chose was The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, which is one of our friend Taylor's favorite flicks.  Hallie hasn't really watched Sesame Street in over a year now, but she and Lea (who doesn't really watch Sesame Street at all, but who somehow knew how to identify Elmo from the moment she was born) like Elmo a lot.  Hallie has long known the songs featured in this film since we have a DVD of them (and used to use that DVD as an incentive to get her to eat), so we figured this would be a good choice of films that would appeal to both of our kids. 

The plot line of the film involves Elmo losing his blanket in Oscar's trash can (after refusing to share it with his best monster buddy, Zoe), and then having an evil villain (nicely played by Mandy Patinkin) snatch the blanket and refuse to give it back.  Elmo valiantly tries to retrieve his blankie and faces down creatures like a giant chicken (clearly Big Bird's evil alter ego) who attempt to eat him and (spoiler alert) finally prevails and all is set right when Elmo learns to share.  In other words, the plot had an easy story line with a good moral lesson to it, and a whole bunch of song-and-dance routines and some scary bits mixed in to keep the whole thing suspenseful.

Now, it's never clear to us what or how much narrative plot line Hallie comprehends.  Hallie is very, very bright and knows thousands of words and concepts; loves to analogize; and is extremely curious about the things that surround her in the universe.  She always wants to know what things are called and she likes to categorize stuff (shapes, animals, machines, colors, etc).  She wants to know the names of people and not just of stuff (watching baseball with her is a bit of a challenge because I cannot always identify the players for those annoying teams that don't have last names emblazoned on the back of their jerseys...yes, New York Yankees, I am talking to you!).  And once you tell her the name of an object, animate or inanimate, she will know it forever and ask you to quiz her on it (every time Jayson Werth comes up to the plate, Hallie turns to me and asks "what's his name?" and then I'll respond with "what's his name, Hallie?" and she'll retort:  "That's Jayson!")

But despite this quirky knowledge base and her curiosity about the universe, Hallie still has trouble following along with the narrative development of a story.  Even though we're constantly acting out the three little pigs, Hallie hasn't mastered the lesson that pigs should take care to build houses well (and not out of straw and sticks because they want to play) if they are to stave off the advances of wolves with good lung capacity.  The big bad wolf is neither big nor bad in our world:  he plays with the pigs and he romps with Little Red and appears to have forgotten entirely about his mission to make a tasty dinner of bacon with a side of granny. 

On the one hand, it's comforting to think that Hallie's universe is not complicated by questions as to why so many children's tales are so ominous and foreboding (if you want an answer, read the fabulous essay on Mother Goose tales by French cultural historian Robert Darnton in this book).  Nevertheless, it is simultaneously also somewhat disturbing to us that, on some fundamental level, the complexities of human emotions and social relationships in all of their complexity (even when rendered by monsters and animals) seem to elude Hallie.  We don't know what she thinks or feels about these things because she doesn't really tell us.  She has learned to look for clues about sadness (overt crying) or happiness (smiling and laughing) and can respond accordingly -- sometimes this is spontaneous (she'll notice Lea is crying and offer her a band-aid or even a hug) and sometimes prompted (she won't notice the crying and has to be cued to look at Lea, see what she's doing, and try to figure out why she is doing it).  But she never asks why Lea is crying (even when something Hallie has done has made Lea cry) or whether Lea wants a hug or a band-aid.  She just accepts it for what it is, responds in a fairly narrowly scripted way, and moves on.  Likewise, even when Hallie is clearly upset about something or feeling ill, if we ask her, "Hallie, how do you feel?" she will respond on the vast majority of occasions with "I feel happy!"  She clearly is not happy, but she expects that this is the right response and gives it to us as a result.  It's hard (read:  impossible) to manage to figure out how to teach a child about causality and consequences (which are higher order thought processes) under this set of circumstances.  The whys and the becauses elude Hallie (which is why we have only heard Hallie ask why exactly once in her life).

All of this brings me back to Elmo and the tale of his stolen blankie.   When Hallie watched the film, she got visibly upset and began to cry.   At first we weren't sure why.  But then Hallie told us why:  in somewhat labored (it involved some stammering) but completely spontaneous language, she told us that Elmo felt sad because her blankie was gone.  At first we were confused.  Hallie has pretty atypically typical pronoun confusion (the genders elude her entirely and most of the time her choice of pronouns seems to be guided by uneducated guesses), so we thought she was somehow confusing 'he' and 'she' and assigning the wrong pronoun to Elmo.  But she wasn't.  A few minutes later she clarified the situation for us:  she was upset because Elmo lost his blankie, and she empathized with Elmo because she had also lost her blankie (I played the villain who snatched it in real life) and she wanted them both to get their blankets back. 

Alas, Hallie's needed a second cycle in the dryer, so the little red monster got his back first, but I made sure that I did everything I could to return Hallie's to her as quickly as possible.

We're never sure around here whether this is indicative of an imminent breakthrough in terms of Hallie's comprehension, capacity for empathy, and social skills or whether this is one of those one-off events (like the sole why we heard eight months ago).  But it is heartening to know that she is beginning to make connections around feelings, and not just categorizing stuff. 


Sarah said...

I think it's awesome. At the very least, at least you know it's in there!

Anne said...

That's a great development! Good to hear about it.

By the way, having watched way too many Disney and Pixar movies when we were locked in during the hurricane on Saba, I was appalled at how many characters meet their maker in pretty drastic fashion! Who writes these things? I for one will never watch Pinocchio again :)

Unknown said...

I think that's great progress. And happy to hear she got through her cold without it turning into worse. Sam just weathered his first cold of the season and avoided a cough and ear infection - so we're cautiously optimistic! Hope the progress keeps up - that is always so exciting.

Jo said...

Wow - that must have been an amazing moment to experience with Hallie. I hope you have many, many more moments like these!