Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dibs in Search of Self

Dibs in Search of Self: Personality Development in Play Therapy

A year or two back, one of my daughters was obsessed with playing 'grandma'. Both of her grandmothers had died before she was born, and she was acutely aware of the deficit in her life. So day after day, for months on end, she'd announce me that I was grandma and ask me to tie a scarf on my head; then she'd provide the script: 'Now you say, 'hello darling, would you like some cake?'', and I'd dutifully parrot the words, holding a plate, while she worked out her next move. That play was incredibly important as she processed a grief she couldn't otherwise articulate, and I thought of it recently as I re-acquainted myself with Dibs.

I first read the story of Dibs while I was in high school, and he touched my heart. While he never quite left me, it's only this year that I found my own copy of the book. It was wonderful to re-read it now I'm an adult with her own young children.

Dibs was an almost wholly uncommunicative little boy. He did not play with other children in his pre-school; he would not communicate with his teachers or his parents except by way of tantrums. He refused to do anything for himself; he sat passively under tables or on the outskirts of the group, ignoring everything that went on; he did not speak. Some, including his parents, feared he was intellectually impaired; others suspected he was intellectual capable, but stuck in an emotional quagmire.

So Dibs was sent to play therapy. The book is the non-fiction account of his time there, drawn directly from transcripts and the observations of his play therapist, Virginia Axline. Dibs visited the play room weekly, and at each visit teased out a little more of emotions which suffocated him. As he became relaxed in the room, his imaginary world unfolded: he buried a father doll, locked up the mother and sister doll, and developed a great imaginary city in which he acted out his experiences, worked out how he felt about them, and developed his sense of self.

While Dibs worked, the therapist sat with him quietly reflecting back to Dibs his comments in a non-committal way. This makes the book a little stilted at times: 'I did it!' said Dibs. 'You did it,' remarked the therapist. It looks rather idiotic when transcribed; and yet it is clearly liberating and affirming for the young boy to have his comments and actions noticed but not judged.

The book suffers a little from over-explanation. When Dibs buries the father doll, it is pretty clear what is going on; we really don't need the symbolism explained. But this stylistic quibble aside, it's a tremendously moving experience to travel with Dibs as he slowly names his grief and rage; decides who he is and what he can do; and finds ways to transcend and even transform the family structures that have led to his emotional asphyxiation.

As a teenager, I found Dibs captivating. In the safety of the playroom, he revealed himself to be a very capable, articulate and resourceful boy; I only wished I could understand myself so well! Now I'm a parent, I'm still captivated; but I also found the book enlightening as I think about how I parent. While I'm not my children's therapist, the book makes it clear that there are modes of interaction that are more or less helpful in a child's self-development.

For one thing, it was good to realise that the simple reflection of a child's comment is often enough. I have noticed that many of my daughters' statements seek no further questioning or clarification from me; a comment such as 'I did it!' only needs me to reflect back, 'you did it yourself, huh?' for my child to nod with a satisfied smile, and move on to something else. Nothing more is required; in fact, further commentary is often brushed off as intrusive or unnecessary. But sometimes I feel a little silly merely reflecting back what my child says; it is helpful to see how empowering it was for Dibs, and to realise that my instinct to reflect here is good.

For another, the story affirms the time young children spend in free play – a rarity in this over-structured era. What may look like mucking about or daydreaming to us is actually their work. Watching Dibs use play to understand and forgive his family and work out his role within it helps me notice how much my own children inhabit a rich imaginative world in which they go about much serious work every day. It also makes clear just how imperative this play is for a child to develop a means to understand the world around them and develop a strong sense of self within that world. Kids need simple toys (sand, boxes, blocks, dolls, cars, trees, tea sets: things that reflect, or can be made to reflect, the world they inhabit), as well as opportunities to use paint, play with water and make a mess, in order to do their work. The simpler these toys are, the more their imaginations can use them. As parents, we have a responsibility to enable that work by providing the tools and, just as important, the time and space for it to happen.

Given the opportunity simply to be: that is, given the chance to work out what they want to do and how they want to go about it, then, like Dibs, our children will develop a profound sense of self, and find surprising solutions to the difficulties they are presented with.

Such a child is an absolute delight to be around. Even more, such a child becomes a powerful agent in the world: as we see in Dibs, and as I have observed in my own household, they can challenge adult behaviours and revolutionise family, even community, dynamics. And while living with an empowered child may be somewhat uncomfortable at times, overall I have found that providing the space for a child to become deeply grounded, and sharing my life with such a child, is one of the great privileges of parenthood.


  1. I remember Dibs! I read it in high school but was obviously not nearly ready enough to digest all the themes you discuss here. Your post definitely makes me want to read it again.

  2. Thank you madam for this post on Dibs from Dibs in Search of Self.I read the book in college. Found it very useful, bringing new perspectives. Indeed very important to refrain from judging children or rebuking them harshly, especially from bruising fragile self-esteem.

  3. Does anyone have softcopy. I try to search in my country. I cant seem to find the book.

  4. Does anyone have softcopy. I try to search in my country. I cant seem to find the book.