A BABY’S brain has been called “the most powerful learning machine in the universe,” and for good reason. An infant enters the world primed to absorb all the sights, sounds, and sensations that surround him. Above all, the infant is intrigued by other humans—their faces, their voices, their touch. The book Babyhood, by Penelope Leach, states: “Many studies have been made of the sights which interest an infant most, the sounds which attract and hold his/her attention, the sensations he/she most clearly seeks to repeat. All of these are most frequently and readily available in the form of an adult care-taking human being.” No wonder parents play such a vital role in the child’s development!
Parents and pediatricians alike are astounded by a newborn’s ability to learn a language by merely listening to it. Researchers have found that within days, an infant is accustomed to his/her mother’s voice and prefers it over that of a stranger; within weeks, he/she can tell the difference between the speech sounds of his/her parents’ native tongue and those of other languages; and within months, he/she can sense the junctures between words and thus tell the difference between normal speech and unintelligible sounds. How does an infant speak? Usually with an outpouring of incoherent babbling. Just noise? Hardly! In her book What’s Going On in There?—How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Dr. Lise Eliot reminds us that the act of speaking is “an intricate motor task, requiring the rapid coordination of dozens of muscles controlling the lips, tongue, palate, and larynx.” She adds: “While babbling may seem to be just an enchanting way for babies to get attention, it also serves as a very important rehearsal for the complex gymnastics of speaking.” Parents respond to their infant’s babbling with animated speech of their own, and this too serves a purpose. Exaggerated speech stimulates the infant to respond. This back-and-forth exchange teaches the infant the rudiments of conversation—a skill he/she will use for the rest of his/her life.
Parents of infants are kept quite busy responding to their newborn’s everyday needs. Baby cries, and someone is there to feed him/her. Baby cries, and someone is there to change him/her. Baby cries, and someone is there to hold him/her. Such pampering is appropriate and necessary. It is a primary way that parents fulfill their role as caretakers. In view of the above, it is only natural if a baby believes that he/she is at the center of the universe and that adults—in particular, parents—exist solely to do his/her bidding. That view is flawed but completely understandable. Remember, for more than a year, that has been the baby’s reality. In his view, he/she is the monarch of an empire populated by big people who were put here to serve him/her. Family counselor John Rosemond writes: “It takes just short of two years to create this fantastic impression; it takes at least sixteen more years to correct it! And that, paradoxically, is a parent’s job: cause his/her child to believe in this fantasy, then burst—albeit gently—the child’s bubble.”
At about age two, the bubble does indeed burst as a parent shifts roles from caretaker to instructor. Now the baby becomes aware that his/her parents are not following his/her lead; instead, he/she is being expected to follow theirs. The baby’s monarchy has been overthrown, and he/she may not take well to the new regime. Frustrated, he/she attempts to hold his/her ground. How?At about two years of age, many babies exhibit a radical change of behavior, often including fits of bad temper known as tantrums. This period is so frustrating for parents that it has been termed “the terrible twos”! Suddenly, the toddler’s favorite expression is “No!” or “I don’t want to!” He/she may become frustrated with both himself/herself and his/her parents as he/she struggles with his/her own conflicting feelings. He/she wants to be away from you, yet he/she wants to be near you. To bewildered parents, little seems to make sense, and even less seems to work. What is going on?
Well, consider the radical shift that has taken place in the toddler’s life. Until recently, all he/she had to do was whimper, and adults would come running. Now he/she begins to realize that his/her “rule” was only temporary and that he/she will have to do at least some things for himself/herself. More and more, he/she comes to understand that he/she is in a submissive role. During this difficult period, parents should hold on to the reins of authority. If they do so in a firm but loving way, the child will adjust to his/her new role. And the stage will be set for further marvels of growth.
Animals, even machines, can recognize words and imitate speech. But only a human can step back and examine himself/herself. Thus, at about two or three years of age, a toddler is able to feel such emotions as pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment. These are the first stages toward his/her becoming an adult with moral qualities—one who can firmly stand up for what is right, even when others are doing wrong. At about this time, parents are thrilled to experience yet another wonder. Their child is becoming aware of the feelings of others. Whereas at two years of age, he/she only played alongside others, now he/she may play with them. He/she also recognizes when his/her parents feel good and may want to please them. Thus, he/she is likely to become more teachable. More than ever before, a three-year-old is beginning to learn the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Clearly, this is a time for parents to train their children with the goal of helping them to become responsible adults.
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