Child’s play is child’s work, and Hide & Seek is not the innocent game it seems. Like so much of life, it is really a game of survival, of life and death.
Both of my children enjoy playing Hide & Seek, as probably all children do. I was particularly amused back when my daughter asked me to help her hide, and then told me to come find her. Her understanding of the game seems rather funny, unless you look at it as a biologist. Then you realize our understanding of the game is the funny thing, in the non-humorous meaning of the word.
Children’s play is not really play. Children are learning the skills they will need to survive in life; or rather, the skills they needed to survive in the past. So they do things that strengthen their bodies and minds. Their activities tend to focus on either conflict and war, or domesticity and peace: they run, wrestle and otherwise fight, throw rocks and other objects, play house, mimic adults and each other.
And they talk incessantly. When they aren’t talking with their parents, they want us to read or tell them the same stories. Over and over and over again. They are working at learning language, and repeatedly hearing the same phrases helps them to understand the patterns of their inherited language.
So for some time I have been aware of Hide and Seek teaches children how to escape predators. That’s why it didn’t matter that my daughter asked me to find her even though I was the one who hid her. The real objective isn’t a child’s game, but child’s work. It is identifying the best hiding places from predators, and as adults, we can be a great help with that; we not only had experience with the child’s game when we young, we also have a better understanding of the local environment.
It occurred to me one day, however, that almost all predators hunt by smell. So simply hiding from them wouldn’t be of much use. And of the few animals that hunt by sight – coursers such as greyhounds come to mind – they don’t actually identify by visual pattern so much as by movement. If you stand very still in your yard when your dog comes running by, unless he smells you, he may run right past. In addition, almost no predators can see color so again, simply keeping still is a good tactic for predator avoidance. This is why the faun, and many other animals, simply hold still instead of fleeing.
All of these considerations led to a rather disturbing conclusion about what our ancestors went through. My children are not trying to hide from wolves or tigers.
The predator my children are learning to hide from is people. Our number one predator is other people.
That would be disturbing enough, but look at the name. The game is Hide & Seek. My children are learning to play the hunter, as well as the hunted.
The horror is that some day they may have to hunt us. Often throughout history, the despot has turned the child against the parent. Under Pol Pot, children were often forced to execute their own parents.
As I noted, child’s play is not innocent games. It is child’s work, and the work they are training for can exceed our worst nightmares and slasher films. The history of civilization was not benign, it was not the lovely fairy tale that our romances, and even our histories, tell us. Most of human history was a continuation of our struggles in the wild, a situation of kill-or-be-killed, a game of survival where only a few survive to the next generation.
This essay was incorporated into my book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths, available at Amazon.
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Picture courtesy of Old-Print.com.