Elian's world

Elian's choice

Sharon R. Kahn, Ph.D

[This article was originally published in the May 2000 edition of

Brooklyn Family, a special pull-out section of the Bay News


One fine evening long, long ago, I unscrewed my mother's head from the rest of her body. It stood detached on the floor, demanding to be restored to its rightful place. I backed away, horrified, crying, "I don't know how." It happened only in my Bizarro World, accessed only through nightmares. I awoke screaming, convinced of the reality of my sovereignty over life and death.

Such omnipotence exists only in the world of nightmares for most children. Save one--Elian Gonzalez, the obscure Cuban princeling.

Many interesting questions are raised by this child, our new Moses, plucked not from the bulrushes but from the balsa, turned political symbol. Who should have custody: his great-uncle or his father? Should he stay in the United States, or return to Cuba? Whose wishes should be respected: his mother's or his father's? And who speaks for the child?

The last question is the subject for this column. Who can speak for a six year old boy? In order to understand this, it is imperative to understand how many a six year old understands the world and his place in it.

At age six, most children, like Elian Gonzalez, are attending some sort of school, with the charge of learning and mastering the activities society deems important. Literacy and numeracy are just two of the subjects taught. Mastery of certain other constructs can be taught only within a social context: cooperating with peers, following rules, compliance with adult expectations, and control of own's body, manifested in the ability to sit still for increasingly longer periods of time, toileting during permissible periods, and thinking before speaking or doing. Children who manage to master these tasks gain a feeling of competence, a part of a positive self-concept, a sense that they can be a productive member of their society.

Most children will manage to master these activities, and doubtless Elian is just as successful in school as any boy his age. However, Elian's mastery of the universe only extends so far--he is limited by the way he thinks and understands the world.

Elian is six years old. Children of that age understand cause and effect differently than adults. A six year old may not as yet understand that thoughts don't necessarily cause events to happen. A typical example is the little boy who has a fight with his father. "I hate you, I wish you were dead," he might say. Later on that day, the father goes for a drive and is killed by a drunk driver. The child will have no doubt that his wishing made it so. This is an example of transductive reasoning, a jump from particular to particular and a tendency to see cause where none exists. Furthermore, young children tend to focus on one aspect of a situation and neglect others, unable to take into account multiple perspectives on events. Emotionally, they cannot tolerate ambivalence, the understanding that one can love someone and yet be occasionally angry at them. The that one can tolerate competing emotions is built in through many years, if they are able to see that their parents and other adults can disagree with each other and yet respect or even love each other, despite their disputes. Lastly, young children are extremely egocentric and assume everyone else thinks as they do and sees the world as they do. This explains why young children believe that others can read the bad thoughts in their heads. Lastly, they believe that certain acts are reversible, like death.

At age 6, children typically fear separation from a parent. This is typically manifested in a child who is reluctant to attend school. This used to be called "school phobia," only it is a misnomer. Children do not fear school, they fear something awful will happen to their parents if they leave them and attend classes. Sometimes they have trouble keeping a comforting image of their parent within them. This is referenced as "internalizing." Of course, children have to leave home and attend school. Some children are helped through this difficulty by taking a picture of their parents with them to school, or being allowed to call home before lunchtime.

Elian, of course, is not temporarily separated from his mother. She is dead. However, he may not yet understand the permanency of this. Where is his mother? He may well think she is lost in the New World, looking for him. If he goes home, she will never find him, and she will be distraught. He needs to keep a positive image of his mother, because she is an ineluctably important part of him. He may need help in internalizing his mother, and understanding that his memories of her will always be with him. Internalization can be helped by giving him pictures of his mother, concrete mementos of her, and listening to the positive recollections of others who knew her.

Intellectually, young children tend to live in the moment. Children are highly influenced by circumstances--a child watching a doll commercial will say, "I want that." A few seconds later, they will watch a cereal commercial and say, "I want that." Children want everything and anything. Given an opportunity, they will demand more and more. Few parents, no matter how indulgent their hearts, no matter how expansive their accounts, can gratify such whims, and ultimately, naturally, set limits upon what a child is allowed to have. Most parents foster logical thinking and autonomy by giving their children limited choices: "Do you want to wear your red sweater or the green one this morning? Do you want to have ice cream for dessert or some candy? They plan the future and build in a sense of limits in their ordinary, daily talks with their children: "Do you think grandma would rather have ice-cream for her birthday or a bakery cake?" Parents who give their children global choices to make about quotidian matters find their child insists upon wearing their bathing suit to go play in the snow.

So how can reasonable adults who wouldn't allow a child to cook breakfast unsupervised straightfacedly ask a child with whom he wants to live with and where he wants to live. Given a reasonably pleasant environment, most children would opt to stay put. Elian's mother didn't ask him if he wanted to make a boat trip to Miami, she made the decision for him. As it turned out, she showed poor judgment. During this boat trip, the boat failed and she died. She tied him to the boat, saw to it that he had access to the fresh water, and perished. He fell asleep and when he woke, he was in Miami. At this point, it is reported that he believes the way he came here is the way he must return. And once through the maelstrom is enough for anyone, let alone a six year old.

One would think that a traumatic boat trip which resulted in the death of his mother would have been a mournful event. However, he appears reasonably happy. He's been turned into a media celebrity, a Christ-like figure, a princeling whose every move is recorded by cameras and shown on television. He is not being treated as an ordinary six year old. He needs privacy and a normal, quiet environment. None of this attention will help him develop perspective on who he is and what power he realistically has in this world. This is doubtless one of the reasons why so many world leaders, our own President Clinton being among those, who have asked the media to respect his daughter's privacy and not to photograph or tail her. For the most part, save when she is with her parents, they have obliged.

Elian requires a similar privacy from the prying eyes of the cameras, and the human chains which have formed around his great-uncle's house. He is not being helped in his developmental tasks when adults are engaged in power conflicts and forget about what his needs are, versus theirs. What does Elian make of the crowds in front of his house, the fact that every bit of his day revolves around him, the media revolves around him, the crowds revolve around him, his father, his uncle, his cousins all revolve around him. He is not his father's son, he is the sun and they his planets. The fact of the crowds can only serve as further evidence for his fears that returning to Cuba could result in more harm to him.

The way out of this dilemma is not, as so often happens when the media turns a private event into a circus, through turning the custody of Elian Gonzalez into a zero-sum game battle, where one person loses and the other wins. The resolution must come through a win-win strategm. The more adults whom love Elian, the better for his ultimate emotional outcome, if they truly love him for what he is, and not as a political pawn. Lazaro Gonzalez is a proud man who has voluntarily taken on the enormous responsibility of caring for this unknown child. There is no doubt that he has taken good care of the boy. He must be recognized and praised as a hero, not scolded and demeaned. Nor can one demonize Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elain's father, as he too did a terrific job of raising a child and cooperating and coordinating care with his ex-wife.

The reality of this custody conflict need to be factored into this account. Egos need to be assuaged. Furthermore, there can be no doubt that privacy is the better policy. The show is over, the actors need to take a bow and receive their applause. The cameras need to focus elsewhere.

Perhaps Elian, like Moses, is destined to be a great leader of his people. But for now, he is a motherless little boy, who is dependent upon adults to model mature behavior, cooperate with authority figures, and resolve their ambivalent relationships with each other, so that he can grow and do likewise. The more publicity his custody garners, the more prolonged his living nightmare of a life.

At the end of a nightmare, a good-enough parent comes and comforts a distraught child, reassuring them of reality versus the terrors found only in their minds. At the end of the Bible story, the true custodian of the baby gives up the child, rather than see it torn apart. Nightmares and Bible stories are part of the learning experiences of an ordinary childhood. What is sadly apparent in our tawdry tale of Elian is that no adult possess the wisdom of Solomon. And when children dictate, the capricious codes of the Caucus race in Wonderland conquer all.