To a child, signs and symbols emerge in the consciousness prior to an understanding of governing rules. Children see the world in deeply symbolic terms. We teach children through signs and symbols, red means hot, blue means cold, an arrow means to go this way or that, etc. The physical world is discovered through tactile sensation; the feel of a mother’s breast, the touch of a bare foot on wet grass, the way food feels on the lips. All the senses combine to create the initial response vocabulary through which the child interacts with his or her surroundings for the rest of their lives. Hot, Cold, Up and Down, Over there and Over here begin with the physical senses. But tactile sensation is insufficient for creating the intellectual vocabulary that the child will employ to define his or her place in the world. This requires an initiation into semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). By developing an understanding of the meaning behind signs and symbols the child learns to see beyond the surface to what lies beneath and to develop a critical eye for nuances; to discern between the representation of the thing and the thing itself and thus to see the genuine from the artificial. This ability is of great importance as the child grows to adulthood. It is the means by which they differentiate the friendly other from the threatening stranger; the honest teacher from the propagandist; the statesman from the politician and most importantly to disambiguate their own true selves from the many false but alluring identities modern culture will inevitably thrust upon them. We must teach our children the value of sign and symbol, the meanings they possess and how to interpret them. To do less is to leave them blind in a world that can be hostile and dangerous.
How do we teach this? By engaging our children from an early age in thoughtful, introspective contemplation of what things mean beyond what things appear to be. Literature plays an important role in this, especially children’s literature and fairytales that employee symbolism in very insightful ways. But also by living symbolic lives ourselves, acting with the knowledge that we are being watched by our children and that they interpret what they see in very symbolic terms that border on the language of the mythic. For example, a son looks at his mother not simply as a provider and nurturer but in much more complex and iconic terms. She becomes THE mother so when she acts in a fashion that goes against this mythic interpretation of her role she diminishes more than the way she is viewed by the child, she diminishes the very concept of what motherhood means. It is no different for the father. For sons, and especially daughter’s a father is more than his mothers mate. He is the all father, Odin, Zeus, YWHE at their most mythic level. The father is possessed of what is understood to be a supernatural virility and potency. What son does not become fascinated at the moment he stands beside his father to pee out of doors? This is a rite of passage most sons will go through at some point and while it may seem vulgar it is an important moment with tremendous psychic weight. Or the times a father and son spend wrestling on the living room rug. These are spiritual moments as much as physical. They harken back to Jacob wrestling with God or The trials of Hercules. It is at moments such as these the child first understands the father to be something great, then as he grows into adolescence something familiar and finally with the progression into young adulthood something akin.
Daughters likewise have their own rites of passage which they must (or at least should) go through. When a daughter proclaims that she wants to marry her daddy the statement is not an idle off hand remark, or a cute childish fancy to be laughed at, because indeed that child wants to grow up to embrace the essence of the true father figure. This is not an example of a masculine sexism. Quite the contrary. All beings define themselves by reflecting on what they accept as being the other or opposite. In the case of women that means men and in the case of the wife the other is the husband and for daughters the other is the father. In the absence of parents living symbolic lives the child is left without a vocabulary by which they can define themselves. This is not to say fathers and mothers must follow some assigned role from a religious play, or Greek theater. Symbolism is only important when the symbols themselves reflect something attainable and understandable. If we as parents fall into the habit of making every action an exercise in symbolism then we fail to progress and we fail to instill in our children a desire to move forward, to examine the world and to be critical of what he or she encounters. While teaching children the importance of symbols we should take care not to become a parody of the symbol. We should remember that we are the thing and not simply a representation of the thing. In my case, I am to be a father. My task is be a father and live symbolically for the benefit of my son not to become an abstract symbol of fatherhood.