Years ago babies were considered blank slates that parents wrote on. That meant that the way the baby developed was due to the parents, which also meant that parents got a lot of blame if things went wrong. These days we know more about the capabilities of babies from the time they are born – basically arriving with skills that make them active partners in learning about the world as well as themselves.
Researchers have been trying to find out what babies know and when they know it, by asking them questions. That may sound impossible, since babies can’t speak. However, researchers have found ways to ask their questions by using things babies can do, like looking. Experiments have shown that babies show preferences by looking longer at some things than at others.
Research like that at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, is attempting to answer complex questions such as whether and when babies can tell right from wrong. In one experiment babies are shown a video in which a puppet struggles to open a box to get a toy and another puppet helps open the box. In a repeat version, a third puppet slams the box cover shut on the one trying to get the toy. The baby is then shown real replicas of the puppets and picks the helpful puppet either by looking at it, or reaching for it.
In still another version of the video the puppet opening the box takes the toy and runs away with it. The next time, the previously helpful puppet slams the cover down to prevent a repeat of the “bad” behavior. The interpretation given to the first response is that babies prefer the “nice” puppet to the “mean” one. The second experiment is said to show that babies already relate positively to punishing bad behavior. The conclusion reached is that babies at a young age understand right from wrong.
While interesting, one wonders if the interpretations made are not those of the adults. We really don’t know what these babies make of what they are seeing and what they really understand. The value judgments adults make of these videos are just that – adult judgments, while the babies may be responding on a different level altogether. For example, babies reaching for the “nice” or “good” puppet may signify an emotional response to the video rather than the moral judgment of an adult. Perhaps it is kindness, or helpfulness that elicits the response and it is only later that adults label such behavior good or bad.
Interpreting and misinterpreting the meaning of children’s behavior plays a significant part in the responses of parents and teachers. Observing in nursery schools, one often sees interactions such as a child seemingly unprovoked pushing or hitting another child. However, the observer is aware that earlier the “aggressor” had been hit or pushed by that other child.
Page 2 of 2 - In the same way, at times the behavior of young children is labeled “lying” or “cheating.” However, the behavior may have quite a different meaning in the context of a young child’s developmental level. That doesn’t mean such behavior is acceptable and does not require a response. Rather it may tell us that the necessary response may be one of teaching rather than punishing or criticizing.
Perhaps what we can take from the research is that starting from infancy we are inclined to be social creatures who respond well to kind and helpful behavior. Transposing this into appropriate social behavior is the task of development and education.
Babies arrive with the tools. The rest is up to us.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.