1 Observing infants and issues about interpreting these observations
1.1 Observations and opinions of a psychologist and father
Charles Fernyhough (2008), in his book The Baby in the Mirror: a Child’s World from Birth to Three, claims that infants from a young age are equipped to deal with the complexities of social life. He offers the following observation and commentary on his daughter, Athena’s behaviour just a few weeks after she was born:
[…] some have argued that babies are born knowing the world is inhabited by two fundamentally different kinds of object: those that can get around under their own steam (like people) and those that can’t. There can be no doubt that babies are wired up to treat people differently. If they can show that special sensitivity, then they have a chance to learn about the other qualities that set people apart. As these social interactions become more sophisticated, the information they can convey will become richer and richer.
[…] If Athena makes a random gurgling sound which I think sounds like a classic baby coo, then I respond to it with all the emotional dials turned up full. I fill it with meaning, and turn that meaning back to her. The emotional stakes are raised: suddenly this matters to both of us. As soon as she can begin to connect my response with the action of hers that triggered it in the first place, she can start to close the circle of her own emotions: how feelings lead to responses, and back to feelings, world without end. Infants’ social behaviour comes to have meaning because we take it as having meaning. We create our babies’ smiles before they do.
[…] She gives as well as receives. She has expectations of how I will behave, and she reacts if I don’t fulfil them. She can recognise a few different emotional expressions, and reproduce the most basic ones for herself. If I were suddenly to change my expression from happy to angry for example, she would show surprise. If I suddenly made my face freeze up altogether, she would stop smiling, look away and then try to re-engage my attention. She will fight to keep the channels open.
In these brief extracts, Fernyhough, a developmental psychologist by training, reflects some key assumptions about babies’ sociability. Firstly, it seems that babies are born with the ability to differentiate between animate and inanimate objects. This is shown by the claim that they behave as if they have different expectations of people and objects. They do not expect objects to reciprocate in the same way that people do. Secondly, parents treat babies as if they are social beings from the start by reciprocating their babies’ expressions and vocalisations (but it is worth pointing out that cultures differ in this respect). As Fernyhough points out, parents construct social meanings for their babies’ actions that convey important information to the baby. Thirdly, although parents imbue their babies’ behaviours with social and emotional meaning that, from a strictly objective point of view might seem fanciful, it is quite clear that it is not a one way street. Babies work hard to maintain joint attention and solicit positive emotional and social reactions from their parents. These suggestions are part of an important line of research that is built on the assumption that very young infants do not treat everything in their world in the same way and that they are attuned to social experiences.
Watch the video clips in ‘Mother-infant social interaction’, which show a 3 month-old and a 9 month-old infant interacting with their mother. As you watch, note down any behaviours that suggest that parents treat babies as if they are social beings and that suggest that the babies are attempting to communicate with their mothers. Note that this might be communication in its widest sense (e.g. vocalising, waving an arm).
Transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 1
Transcript: Mother-infant social interaction 2
Now go back to the video clips and think about whether the babies are working hard to maintain joint attention and solicit positive emotional and social reactions from their mothers.
What do your findings show? Is there a difference between the older and the younger baby?
Finally, consider the following questions:
- What were the difficulties in carrying out this task?
- Has this altered your opinions about how young babies communicate?