Repetition has a bad reputation these days. For many people repetition is drudgery and tedium. It is the daily grind, the seemingly endless toil of days spent doing the same thing over and over again. It is humdrum and boring. The antidote is an eternal quest for novelty, which has become one of the hallmarks of our age. With young children around, repetition takes on a different, more interesting character. As every parent knows, routine is good. It gives children signals about what is going to happen next. Repeating sequences of events at certain times every day lets children know how things are going to proceed.
Every night since Astrid was a few weeks old, we have given her a bath before she goes to bed. Usually it is a pleasant and relaxing time, a way for her to wind down and start the transition from awake to asleep. Now and again, I find myself succumbing to the modern ennui: another bath time, I think, another day nearly over; it is the same thing day after day. Then I see Astrid splashing about and I am reminded of the newness that children inevitably create within ostensibly similar days.
Astrid has some wooden rings of different sizes and colours that fit on to a pole and stack on top of each other. Every morning she sits down and plays with them. She turns the entire apparatus upside down so the rings fall off the pole. Then she sets about putting them back on. When we bought her this toy, she did not know what to do with it. Now she can thread the rings over the pole. She has done the same thing every morning, but she does it slightly differently each time, becoming gradually more skilled as she repeats the activity.
Even though she is doing the same thing over and over again, it makes you realise that nothing is ever exactly the same. Even though the action may be the same, the person doing the action is different. The 19th-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book on this subject. It is called Repetition. The narrator, Constantin Constantius, attempts to repeat a trip to Berlin by doing exactly the same things as he did before. He finds himself frustrated at various points. He is unable to sit in the same seat at the theatre, for example. And, although he goes with the same people to the theatre, he does not enjoy their company as much as he did the first time.
"The only repetition," he concludes, "was the impossibility of repetition." Children are particularly good at ramming this point home. Their use of repetition is akin to a jazz soloist's: repetition provides a stable foundation upon which to improvise, it provides a framework within which new things happen, it provides a base from which new territories can be mapped. Next time I leap to condemn something as stale or boring simply because I have done it before I shall remind myself to think again.
Astrid has started to cackle like a jackdaw. One evening during dinner she opened her mouth and rattled off a volley of metallic sounds in quick succession. She stopped only briefly before starting up again with this peculiar machine-gun splutter. It was a little disturbing, as if she had been possessed by some kind of fledgling spirit. In fact, she picked it up from a friend's daughter while we were swimming earlier in the day. It happened very quickly. Astrid saw and pretty soon Astrid did.
She seems capable of remarkable feats of observation and imitation at the moment. She picks up mannerisms and actions very easily. Then she uses a particular action over and over, trying it out in many different situations to see if it fits and to see when it is appropriate. Mirror neurons, the part of the brain humans use to impute the actions of another person as if they were their own, have been shown to exist in babies as young as two or three weeks, but they don't develop fully until much later in childhood.
Astrid's mimicking of this distinctive chuckle is a fascinating glimpse into the progress of this ability. * Robert Carroll