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Scheftel, S. (2014). The Child's Child: Theory of Mind in the Work of Beatrix Potter. Am. Imago, 71(2):161-172.

(2014). American Imago, 71(2):161-172

The Child's Child: Theory of Mind in the Work of Beatrix Potter

Susan Scheftel

A signature of childhood which lives on in many healthy and creative adults is the potential to identify with liveliness and playfulness. Such qualities comprise the psychological bedrock of childhood, and are linked with a theory of mind. Even when a child's own environment does not reflect lively and playful qualities—in institutional settings or in situations of abuse, neglect, or deprivation—most children seem naturally able to differentiate adults who “get” them and the ways their minds work from those who do not. As a result, a crucial tool of the child therapist is the way he or she actually interacts with the small patient: a style that must express not only the therapist's understanding of development and psychodynamics, but also signify a primal identification with childhood itself. Without that relational and affective component (which naturally emanates from the commonly lived experience of having been a child oneself, but is sadly all too often repressed or disavowed by adults), it is difficult to help children understand themselves or to help parents understand their children. Language and demeanor communicate the therapist's comprehension of what will be referred to as “the child's child,” that is, childhood as experienced by children themselves.

In the literature on infant development, the term markedness describes the empathic quality that distinguishes successful interactions with young children (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2006). This “as if”/“just playing” quality need not be taught or explained either to children or to those adults who remember how to play. It exemplifies itself, for example, in “motherese,” the special language that mothers, and parents in general, intuitively reserve for their little children and that implicitly conveys: ‘I do understand how it goes for you.

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