Just how important is it that Mummy comes back?

From a child’s point of view it’s essential! This MOTHERS’ DAY let’s remember the role mothers play in providing emotional security to their children and a safe nest in which to grow. Martin Waddell’s and Patrick Benson’s Owl Babies (1992) focuses squarely on the importance of mothers doing these things from a child’s perspective.

Owl Babies tells the story of three owl siblings: Sarah, Percy and Bill. One night they wake up – cosy in their feathery nest – to find their Owl Mother GONE.

Owls in Western society are coded with significance. They symbolise wisdom and thought yet a young child is unlikely to know this. The authors of Owl Babies introduce them to this idea, reminding us all of the cultural wisdom of owls: “The baby owls thought (all owls think a lot)…” The emphasis on thinking is deliberate here.  As the story unfolds, we are invited to reflect upon the concept that thoughts in the mind may not be true. The ability to make the distinction between thinking and knowing is a crucial cognitive development that occurs in children around age four or five.

Owl Babies foreshadows the development of this cognitive skill in child readers. At around the same age, the cognitive capacity to consider the thoughts, imagination, and feelings of others and respect them when acting – called a “theory of mind” – also develops. This allows children to realise that people talk and act on the basis of the way they think the world is, even when their thoughts do not reflect reality. Owl Babies offer examples of the use of both cognitive skill sets. Sarah and Percy – the two older siblings – speculate on where their Owl Mother has gone and what she might be doing (“I think she’s gone hunting,” said Sarah/ “To get us our food!” said Percy).

But as the Owl Mother fails to return, their speculations become more and more urgent and terrifying (“Suppose she got lost,” said Sarah/ “Or a fox got her!” said Percy).  They cannot actually know this – their thoughts may not reflect reality – but they still act on these thoughts by huddling together, closing their eyes and wishing their Owl Mother would come.

All awhile the youngest sibling Bill – yet to develop a “theory of mind” – cannot think beyond his distressed self, simply repeating: “I want my mummy!”

Bill is just like your average three year old. Research suggests that three year olds are not simply egocentric, thinking everyone knows and feels what they know and feel – as Bill seems to do; rather, young children come to understand their own minds and those of others at about the same time, that is when they develop a “theory of mind” – as Sarah and Percy have.

Of course their Owl Mummy comes back – Mums always do  – confirming what the two older Owl babies knew all along. And the youngest? He knows one thing for sure: “I love my mummy!” said Bill.

By Joanne Purcell, an ACT Playgroup Mum and Masters
Candidate in Arts specialising in Children’s
Literature at Macquarie University, Sydney.
References: Wardell, Martin and Benson, Patrick Owl Babies London: Walker Books Ltd 1992; Astington, Janet W. “Theory of Mind Goes to School” How the Brain Learns 56.3 (1998): 46-48.