Developmental Confusions

It is both fun and enlightening to watch babies. Observing a group of four mother/baby pairs recently it was striking to see the similarities and individual differences in babies under one year of age. Most noticeable were the differences in personality that emerged despite relatively minor difference in skill levels.

Mothers, babies and teacher were all on the floor and the babies were free to move around if they wished. One baby in particular seemed very alert to everything around her and was especially drawn to the baby opposite her. With a delighted look on her face she crawled over to the other baby and reached out to her. As an experienced observer it was clear to me that she would next go for the other baby’s face. The mothers, however, took this as a social expression and were delighted. Inevitably, the end result was the need to untangle the baby’s hand from the other one’s face.

Babies appear to be genetically programmed to respond to faces. In numerous research experiments babies have been shown pictures of a face-like circle with two eyes. These pictures elicit specific responses showing interest that other pictures don’t. The theory is that this is a species response intended to enhance human connections, especially to mother or caregiver. In the observation described, it was clearly the baby’s face that attracted the other baby. It was an object of interest, not necessarily another person to play with.

I thought of this when talking to the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl who was concerned about her child’s social behavior. Although the little girl was well related in another group, she behaved differently in Gymboree. The mother reported an incident of the child isolating herself with a ball and when another younger child tried to take it she covered it protectively, turning away to prevent that from happening.

The mother saw this event as her child being unable to share and wanted to know what she should do about it. She, herself, had grown up in another culture having had a strict upbringing with her parents emphasizing the importance of behaving properly. In the Gymboree group she was aware of the parents scolding their children if they didn’t share and she wondered if that was what she should be doing with her child.

Parents are often particularly concerned about children’s social behavior. If they seem aggressive, or withdrawn, or generally not socially adept, parents tend to see this as a problem area. Perhaps because such behavior is visible to others, the fear is it may seem a sign of poor upbringing, reflecting on the parents themselves. Also, social behavior is viewed as an indicator of success, an ability to function easily in a variety of settings.

Social behavior in children develops as part of the development of other skills. For parents and educators, the challenge is to set expectations in accordance with a child’s developmental level. In the examples cited, adult expectations were unrealistic in terms of the capabilities of the children involved. For the baby described, the baby she approached was an interesting object to explore, which expressed the interest at that developmental level of the need and wish to explore the environment.

For the sixteen-month-old, just beginning to approach aspects of separation such as recognizing others with feelings and needs perhaps different from ones own, the concept of sharing was not yet one she was capable of understanding.

Parents play a big role in introducing children to the requirements of social living. But that introduction requires education that recognizes developmental abilities and limitations at different stages.