Back to the (Back to) the Basics!
If need be, you may check out the previous installments of this series here.
Today, I wanted to move along to discussing another major aspect of nurturing the bonds we have with our little ones, which also serves them in multiple developmental processes — that is, communicating with them, offering them information and receiving information back from them. It sounds trivial, I know, and like one of the last things any parenting mentor would need to mention in relation to caring for newborns and infants (“save that sermon for the teen years!” right?), but I happen to think it’s a vital part of bonding that many parents wait far too long to begin.
Once again, in the interest of helping you make the most of your time for reading stuff like this, I’m just going to give you the bottom line first, and fill in some details and offer ideas afterward. The quintessential nugget I want you to get at the moment is this: In the interest of connecting with our children, maintaining those connections, helping them to feel their greatest possible sense of security, as well as assisting their best and fullest possible neural development — it is absolutely necessary that we communicate, in a “give and receive” manner, with our children in as many modalities as we are able. That is, we should speak to (and later with) them, sing and play music to them, use sign language with them, give them infant massage, hold them close, share knowledge with them, listen to them, respond to them, and empathize with them; from as soon as we know they’ve been conceived and throughout our lives together; in whatever ways are most appropriate to their needs and developmental stages; and about everything. If there is a free flow of vital information between us and our children, then we can not have anything short of strong and beneficial bonds with them, not to mention how much wiser and more knowledge we all get to be.
If that’s all you have time to get, then that’s enough. I wish you well in sharing this beautiful life with your children.
For those of you interested in finding out a little more, scroll on down.
Before going further, I think it’s worth reiterating — the proverbial bee I hope to put in your bonnet today is simply to allow yourself to focus on making communicating with your kid(s) part of your basic approach to attachment parenting. And again, I know that as soon as I put it down in words, it seems too obvious to have mentioned, so let me tell you a thing or two about why I think it’s worth mentioning.
To begin with, our babies can hear Mom’s voice from around 16 weeks (depending on who you ask) and certainly can perceive and respond to external sounds by 24 weeks in utero. So at least for half of pregnancy (and probably far longer), we can use sound to communicate with and comfort both our unborn, and later our born, babies. When the prenatal infant hears the mother’s voice, his heart rate slows; and once he is born, soothing sounds that he heard in the womb engender an ideal sense of safety and security, and, again, affect his heart rate and his release of specific neuro-transmitters for learning and/or calm. So by giving focus to this aspect of using sound and touch to communicate safety and welcome to our babies (both inside and outside the womb), we can offer them a better beginning in life. A gentler beginning. One that makes the transition from inside to out a bit smoother, and a bit more productive in terms of neural development (since the birth experience itself is a wonderful neural developmental opportunity for the newly born infant if the infant gets to calm down afterward in order to assimilate the stimulus).
Secondly, as we continue to grow with our little ones, if we are in the habit of communicating, we will offer them an exponentially richer opportunity to reach the heights of human capability. One of the ways we consistently simultaneously under- and overestimate our children’s development is in the arena of communication. We all do it about various other things, but none so consistently as in the offering and receiving of information. Far too often we offer too little information for what they can handle, and/or the wrong kind of information for where they are cognitively, and/or expect them to be able to give us information of kinds or in ways that defy their development. Then we wonder why they don’t flourish more. If we are, instead, dedicated to giving them the kind of information they need when they need it and as they ask for it, then our children develop in ways which far exceed general expectation. More on this in a minute.
Finally (for the moment), communicating with our prenates, and our infants, and our babies, and our toddlers, and our 2 year-olds, and so on, sets up a culture of communication with our children, that, if nurtured, will give us unparalleled access to our children for life. It means we will be able to continue to pass on important information to them; it means they will continue to seek us out for the information they need; and (if we’ve proven that we can listen at least as well as we can talk) it means that they will continue to seek us out for the information they need to share (!) throughout. That is an absolutely invaluable conduit for teaching them and inspiring cooperation when they’re young, and for assisting them in finding their own happiness and fulfillment as they grow and set out “on their own”. Furthermore, as we continue to develop together, the eventual state of our relationship will simply be one of adults communicating — we won’t always be modeling how to tie shoes or say thanks; and we won’t always be guiding schedules and toothbrushing practices; we won’t always be changing diapers and reading books — someday we will just talk to our “babies” (and hopefully hug them some, too!), so we want to develop these muscles and nurture the habits that make for stellar info-sharing now.
Now, while I want the emphasis of the present discourse to stay squarely on giving information to our little ones — that being the “basics” part of communication — I also want to take a moment to say something more specific about receiving information from our children. Once we have created the culture of communication I mentioned above, and even before our children are consciously aware of such a “culture”, we can begin to listen to what our children are offering us. They have so much to communicate with us if we are open to hearing them. From their teeniest infantile peeps, their smiles, and cries, their facial expressions, and their hand-reaches, to their preferences, their interests, their favorites, their ways of moving and being and acting, and all the amazing things they say — they are virtually open to our readings from birth and as long as we honour and make tender use of such information. Again, if we nurture their natural tendency to share with us, then we’ll have access to them in ways and on a level which we could not otherwise ever hope to achieve. In case you’re wondering — that’s best done by a) listening and b) empathizing!
- First off, and I realize I say this almost every time I do a basics post, communicate with that prenatal baby you’re growing in there! Talk to her and have your partner talk to her, play soothing music to her (which you’ll play again after she’s born), expose your belly to sunlight, spend time musing on your baby’s perfection, send her good thoughts, imagine her happy and healthy.
- After he gets here, make sure to keep him on Mom’s bare chest as much of the first days as you can all manage (he’s getting vital non-vocal communication that way, as well as hearing those familiar heartbeat and voice sounds from the womb), talk to him, tell him he’s welcome here, keep him cozied up (appropriately swaddled if not on Mom), and play that same soothing music.
- Begin as she is ready and continue as she progresses to play games with her, mimic what she does with her face and voice, solicit mimicry from her, touch her, hold her hands and feet, and begin to use some form of sign language as you continue talking to her about everything. I always think of our friend Gabe on this one, who I overheard saying to her weeks old newborn in perfect adult English, “OK, I’m going to go ahead and change that diaper for you now, alright? I’m just going to lie you back, here, and…” as though she were a CNA talking to a senior patient or something. Not patronizing, and not baby-talking, just simple, straightforward information. Remember, too, to practice listening to her as well. Even at the very earliest stages our babies have plenty to tell us!
- Continue the habit of giving information in as many forms and modalities as you can muster. The young brain is open real estate for homesteading development. Lay claim to as much of it as you can as early as you can by simply exposing your child to as much and as many different kinds of input as you safely can, and those areas of the brain will remain more open to further enhancement — whereas, if you never offer a portion of the brain any stimulus (almost impossible to do, by the way), then the brain itself will develop that portion out of use and eventually close off access to it altogether, or re-appropriate it for some other use. Give him information about and/or exposure to languages, arts, music, various life perspectives, human society, simple math, you name it — make the sky no limit!
- Again, listen, listen, listen. When your child disagrees, or is upset, or has a problem, or wants to share, or has a question, or wants you to hear something, or is jubilantly celebrating her existence — listen to her. Hear her out, no matter what it is, and give her at least a moment’s worth of empathy for what she is communicating. If you do that, you’ll not only know her better, know more of what’s going on for her, and better know how to help her; you also know more about what she’s getting of the information you’ve been giving all along, and what areas you need to focus on giving her more information; and even more importantly, you will have nurtured the bond you share which, in parenting currency, is pure gold.
- Finally, make your life a practice of showing your children how life works and how to discover how their own lives work. Give them information about everything. Tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing. Tell them why you want them to do something. Tell them what you think about why other people are doing what they’re doing. And ask them to tell you what they think. Show them how stuff works, and let them figure out how stuff works. Read to them and let them read to you. Think of every drop of information they receive as being another opportunity to have more opportunity.
Together, there’s a whole lifetime of sharing we’ll get to do with our children as we continue to nurture the relationship through conscientious communication. The above gives some sense of what it looks like to take on being an intentional information source for our children. Before I sign off for today, I want to offer you a little more about what happens when we do.
In a study published just this year, Northwestern researchers observed that 14 month-old babies would more likely replicate a novel action they witnessed an adult perform, when the adult also told them what was being done. For this experiment, the adults were flicking a light switch on and off with their foreheads. When the adults said, “I’m going to blick [sic] the light,” and then performed the action, the infants were more likely to mimic the action than when the adults gave no direct explanation of the action before performing it. The researchers concluded this to mean that even at 14 months (and I would say much much earlier), “infants gain insight into the intentions of others by considering not only what we do but also what we say”.
The first thing I’d have to say about that is that I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It just so happens that our brains are magnificently efficient mimics and imitators. There’s an area of the brain used for motor activity, including both your body movements and your mouth movements for when you speak. There is a subsection of that area, individual neurons called mirror neurons, which fire whenever we perceive those same motor actions occurring around us. So when we see someone turn on the lights, our brains re-enact the necessary motor actions involved, in a simulation orchestrated by mirror neurons. The same is true when we hear an identifiable set of sounds (like someone walking up the steps), or when we hear identifiable speech (like someone describing a process, or a scene). Researchers Warren, Sautter, Eisner et al, in a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2006, “found that listening to vocalizations of amusement and triumph — laughter and excited shouts, say — activates the same motor areas required for smiling,” (sorry, my only source for that research is Marco Iacoboni’s Mirroring People, pg 105, which you can actually see in the preview of the book on Amazon.com, if you like) So in the example above, when we perform a particular action and say it at the same time, we are doubly activating the same motor areas of the brain by showing and saying it; thereby not only eliciting a greater mimicry response, but also making it easier for the responder (i.e. the kid at hand) to mimic the action!
The second thing I’d say about this is imagine the implications! One is, of course, that it matters if we give some verbal information to our kids about what we’re doing and expecting them to follow us on. Another is that our verbal information literally helps our kids understand what we’re showing them, and why we’re showing them, as well as teaching their brains (even before they know how to do the action) what will be necessary to successfully perform the action. It also means if we want them to follow what we model, we have to match what we do with what we say. You may want to read that one again…
One other amazing thing this all means is that sign language really does enhance linguistic development at the neural level via these same mirror neuron processes. Not only does our showing our babies sign language actually facilitate the motor skills they will need in order to speak, but when we sign, we are also more likely to speak, and every time we say the words (especially with the visual information from our signs), we teach our children’s brains how to make those same motor actions for those sounds. In some other studies done on mirror neurons in the early 2000’s, Luciano Fadiga et al, and Stephen Wilson et al “clearly show[ed] that when we listen to others, our motor speech brain areas are activated as if we were talking,” (pg 104, Mirroring People).
Overwhelmed with too much information, yet?! I can wax neuro-geek for quite some time these days, because I am so excited about what new brain science is showing us about how our kids develop. The thing that excites me most is that much of this cutting edge science simply underscores the importance of natural, connective parenting. When we connect with our kids, and we offer them multiple avenues of input, and when we respond to them, and keep them feeling safe enough often enough to afford them the greatest possible absorption of information, we can offer them opportunities to develop more fully and easily and with greater potential than most of us can currently imagine. And it’s so effortless that, once you get in the habit of sharing information, you won’t be able to stop! And that’ll be for the best…
Have fun turning your little one(s) on to the world. And may you sincerely enjoy all your opportunities to learn together.
Be well, my dear info-sharers!