Parenting, Uncategorized

The amazing mental life of babies

By: Curtis Peterson ©

If I were to do my education all over, I believe that I would have dedicated my life to child psychology and study in infants, but at least as a social psychologist, I get to study and understand the social-developmental aspects of infancy. In fact right now is an exciting time in understanding the psychological and social life of a baby and parents can start capitalize on these findings. This article is aimed at providing parents with knowledge about the life of their infant, this is not an extensive article but will instead focus on findings in social-developmental psychology over the past 15 years. We are going to start with one premise, this premise I think parents – especially moms – have known for a long time, but only recently have been proven by science. That premise is:

babies have a much more complex and dynamic psychological world than they have traditionally been granted to them by society.

What makes this premise significant? Up until the last 15 years, it was believed that infants had a rather simple existence – sleep, eat, and poop – this belief was made on two assumptions. Assumption one is that our cognitive existence relied on our ability to symbolize the world via language. The second assumption was, since babies “act” more like lower forms of animals they must not have the full mental capacity to be entirely human. The problem with both of these assumption – at least from a scientific perspective – is that these assumptions were based on a reliance that required language to understand one’s mental world. Meaning that we had no way, until the past about 20 years, to understand and evaluate the mental world of infants and babies, which unfortunately was translated into those two false assumptions. However, thanks to technological advances and research methods that allows us to peer into the mental world of babies, we now recognize the complexity of an infant and babies mental life. Here are just some of the things that we have learned about infants in the last 15 years:

  • Babies have moral discrimination ability that we can detect as early as four months of age.
  • Babies – like adults – try to identify features of their environment that they have control over including:
    • Rationality (making logical sense of a situation),
    • Consistency (want to have a predictable experience),
    • Efficiency (ability to find the most efficient method of solving a problem),
    • Normality (preferring situations that are comfortable and avoiding situations that are out of the norm).
  • Babies can identify the emotional states of others more accurately than adults.
  • Babies can differentiate between adults that are good (i.e. a picture of Martin Luther King) versus bad (i.e. a picture of Hitler). Interesting this discrimination ability is present as early as four months but disappears as the child starts to master language around 18-24 months.
  • Mirror neuron activation – the ability to experience the actions of others neurologically (think about last time you cried at a movie during an emotional scene that was your mirror neurons activating) – appears as early as three months of age. Neurons that are expected to analyze the emotional and psychological state of other (commonly referred to as the mentalizing system) begin to activate as early as six months. What does this mean? Infants and babies – at least from a brain activation perspective – are analyzing and predicting the mental and psychological state and well-being of others as early as six months of age.
  • Babies have a fundamental understanding of mathematic principles and geometry. Again, something we start to lose as we develop language and start socializing in our education and learning environments. – For those individuals who think they are bad at math, you were better than you think at one point in your life.

Many more fascinating findings can be reviewed, but from the social-developmental approach, the ideas listed above are the concepts I would like to focus on from a parenting perspective.

img_4243 How many have heard the following conversation?

Well-intending person: “you really shouldn’t talk like that around your baby.”
Parent: “it is okay she can’t understand what I am saying”

What is the fallacy that the parent is committing? First, let us review some basics of communication 101. The first thing we know about communication is that it is about 90% how something is said and only 10% the actual words used. The 90% includes the tone, body posture, emotional state, and behaviors of the communicators. As mentioned in the above bullet points infants and babies can understand this 90% as early as four months of age and will interpret the behavior and emotional state as such. This means with no comprehension of language a baby understands what is being said by the way it is being presented.

I bring this point to light because as a psychologist I am often asked why a baby is “acting out,” or “throwing a fit,” and upon analysis of the situation it is almost always the infant reacting to the emotional and social world of the adults are them. Remember as pointed out above infants need – just like adults – rationality, consistency, efficiency, and normality. Just like adults when these cognitive needs are violated we act out, become stressed, and have anxiety – it doesn’t matter if you are an adult, a child, an infant, or a baby. Often I find that when the parent adjusts their behaviors and environment to meet these basic psychological needs, the “tantrum” and “misbehaviors” go away.

The second lesson we can learn from current studies of infants and babies is that they have a better moral compass than most adults. Sadly, when the child develops language we quickly socialize this natural moral ability out of children. But – Parents can use this knowledge to help develop an infant’s moral development. For example, most babies will develop some form a stranger aversion, meaning they can be slow to warm up to individuals who they have never seen or rarely see. This is normal, however, when a baby reacts to someone new – or someone they knew – in an extremely aversive way, it would be good advice to the parent to take a closer look at that situation. Per the studies that have been conducted on moral develop your child is seeing something dangerously aversive about that individual that you are not. It would be against my better judgment not to warn parents to not leaving their baby alone with that person.

While there is much much more to say about the mental world of infants and babies, I think for at least this blog this is a good place to stop. If you would like more information on the social world of infants, please fill out the form below with your question(s).




Hug and love a child!

By: Curtis Peterson ©

I amchild-parents_2101408a.jpg going to start this blog with a simple statement: children need loves, hugs, and affection! I have been stewing over a conversation I had the other day with a few individuals who feel that problem with today’s youth is they been hugged, kissed, and loved TOO much. That all this stuff about giving infants too much attention and holding a child too much does long lasting damage leads to a child who cannot handle their emotions and behaviors. Too all the people out there, who believe this, I have one begging plead – please stop having children.

Let us look at facts instead of myths. First from a scientific perspective there is a direct association between how much affection individuals show children and the child’s mental and physical well-being. Adults who were held a lot and had affectionate parents have lower divorce rates, make more money, are more satisfied with their relationships, are more physically healthy, live longer, and have less emotional and psychological problems. To emphasize this point in my career I have worked with criminals, abused children, abused spouses, rapist and rape victims, addicts, and homeless. In the great majority of these cases I will tell you it was a very very rare case that the person came from an affectionate home. And in the cases where the child did have affectionate and caring parents, the parents often provided the wrong kind of affection. A good number of them had the stand-off “I teach you how to be a real man or real woman” by not showing any affection method of parenting. Another good portion of these individuals had parents who just simply were not capable of showing affection.

In my own scholarly work, there is a solid foundation of literature that indicates that an infant’s attachment style – based on parent’s affection and attention – determines the socialization of child and early childhood friendships. If the child does not have a secure attachment – created by a responsive, attentive, and affectionate parent – the child is more likely to develop chronic loneliness in early and late childhood. This loneliness inhibits the ability to develop strong social skills that are necessary for survival in adolescents. In adolescents this results in higher rates of depression, suicide attempts, and ending up in bad social crowds. These bad social crowds feed off of adolescents who have weak social skills, treat them with love and respect (often not shown at home) and then encourages them to engage in dangerous and often illegal behaviors.

The bottom line is that we as a society cannot show children enough affection and love. It helps children feel safe and allows them to explore the world – and make the mistakes – that are necessary to become a healthy human being. Please hug your child, hold them close, and make sure they know not only through words but through your actions they are loved completely.