Takes Two to Tango

Recently I watched an old research video involving a visual cliff.  The set-up is a specially constructed table with what appears to be a glass top covering a patterned cloth.  Half way across, the patterned cloth drops to the bottom although the solid top is actually still there.  The illusion created visually is that of a cliff, or dangerous drop.

A crawling baby is placed on top of the table as the mother sitting opposite looks on.  The baby starts crawling toward the mother but stops when reaching the “cliff” and looks questioningly at the mother.  As instructed by the researcher the mother gets a horrified look on her face as though signifying danger at which point the baby starts crawling back.

In a variation of the research, when the baby reaches the cliff, mom smiles encouragingly in approval and the baby continues to crawl forward.  The point of both examples is to show not only the baby’s capacity for depth perception, but significantly the significance of the mother’s reaction in determining the baby’s behavior.

I wondered if they ever had a baby who despite the mother’s fearful reaction proceeded to crawl the rest of the way.  I was remembering my son when little plopping down on the sidewalk while we were walking, refusing to take another step.  Despite cajoling and starting to walk on myself, he was undaunted, refusing to budge no matter how far ahead I might walk.

Recounting this to my adult son now a parent himself, he asked if that behavior was willful or stubborn.  I said it might have felt that way to a mother needing to move along, but in light of his future personality development it seems more like self-assertion.

So much research and theorizing about development has focused on the impact of mothers’ attitudes and responses on children’s behavior.  This was especially true a generation ago when the influence of psychoanalytic theory on child-rearing was predominant.  These days advice for parents on social media is filled with caution about the damage to be inflicted by mothers not doing things the recommended “right” way.

What gets left out is the fact that a child is a partner in his or her development.  A famous psychiatrist used to talk about visiting newborns in the hospital nursery and being able to identify individual personalities.  He spoke about the “executive” baby who seemed to manage the nurses’ attention, getting what he wanted.

The point is that babies do arrive with a distinct temperament or personality that influences their behavior and to which parents respond.  Some babies are self-soothers, able to comfort themselves if they awake during the night.  Others may be fussy, crying more readily, seemingly needing less sleep and more attention.  It is easy to see that during infancy, the sleepy, more placid babies are easier to care for – especially for parents needing a good night’s sleep.

In the same way, a child’s innate temperament expresses itself at various points along the way in development.  It’s not just that some children are easier to care for, but also that some personalities may better match a parent’s.  To be successful, a parent may need to modify her expectations, or adjust her responses to the personality characteristics of her child.

It would be interesting to see if there might be a baby in the research experiment whose impulse to explore might be stronger than the need for mother’s approval at that point, leading her to crawl beyond the visual cliff.

Children are partners in their development.  They influence parents’ responses, which then in turn, influence them.