25 September 2007

Babies Socialize Their Parents

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:19 am

Tomasello tells us that infants can detect patterns in meaningless verbalization. Seven-month-olds exposed to three-syllable nonsense words of the pattern ABB (such as wididi, delili) show attentional preference to new ABB words over other kinds of syllabic combinations. This ability to detect abstract patterns in auditory stimuli is essential for learning patterns in real language. However, it is not sufficient: other primates can do it too. Humans and other primates can also detect abstract patterns in non-verbal stimuli as well. Humans are unique, however, in being able to link abstract verbal patterns with abstract properties of the world to which the verbal pattern refers in adult speech. So, for example, a human can distinguish the pattern “cold” in the verbal stream and link it to the property of coldness of things in the world.

When children first learn to speak they don’t have it down perfectly. Involved adults, usually parents, meet them halfway. For example, our daughter’s second word (after Da!) was green. It’s not clear, though, that an indifferent observer would have been able to tell what she was saying. She pronounced it gr, leaving off the -een bit altogether. But we could tell: she’d point at the grass, or a tree, or part of the rug, and declare gr. “That’s right, the grass is green,” we would say. So language acquisition develops through a mutual accommodation between child and caregiver. Still, it’s the adults’ language and categorization scheme that serves as the gold standard by which the child judges her own competency.

Lacan contends that adults go more than halfway — that in fact the adult’s imposition of language on the young child shapes practically everything about the way the child experiences the world, other people, and even herself. Maybe if we hadn’t shaped our daughter’s language development according to our adult cultural categories, she might have experienced green differently. Fink describes Lacan’s radical view of the invasiveness of adult language:

…one cannot even say that a child knows what it wants prior to the assimilation of a language: when a baby cries, the meaning of that act is provided by the parents or caretakers who attempt to name the pain the child seems to be expressing (e.g., “she must be hungry”). There is perhaps a sort of general discomfort, coldness, or pain, but its meaning is imposed, as it were, by the way in which it is interpreted by the child’s parents. If a parent responds to its baby’s crying with food, the discomfort, coldness, or pain will retroactively be determined as having “meant” hunger, as hunger pangs. One cannot say that the true meaning behind the baby’s crying was that it was cold, because meaning is an ulterior product: constantly responding to a baby’s cries with food may transform all its discomforts, cold, and pain into hunger. Meaning in this situation is thus determined not by the baby but by other people, and on the basis of the language that they speak.

As someone with purely decorative breasts, I can testify to the frustration of being unable to open up the buffet to a crying baby. I acknowledge that I lack the maternal ability to comfort, but I will say this: the baby bottle gave me a lot more options as a satisfier of infant desire. And there’s an undeniable sense of satifaction to be gained by successfully soothing the baby — you could say it’s rewarding, reinforcing. A baby’s crying creates a desire to soothe the baby. I had more of a sense of adapting myself to the baby’s desires than vice versa. If the baby is crying, try various options until you come up with something that will shut it up. A lot of parents put their crying babies in the car and drive them around: something about the movement and the vibration seems to put them right to sleep. Parents seem to arrive at this solution more by trial and error; only later do they come to find out that lots of other parents have independently arrived at the same solution.

Among ethologists, “ritualization” refers to gestures an individual generates solely with the intention of getting something done. A young child walks toward an adult with her arms outstretched above her head: what does it mean? “Pick me up,” of course. Or is this just how adults interpret the gesture, imposing adult symbolic meaning on the infant’s prelinguistic communication and thereby shaping her desire? Tomasello cites evidence to suggest that the “pick me up” gesture develops out of more direct attempts by the infant to get picked up: climbing up the adult’s body, grasping onto the adult’s arm or waist, and so on. These are the infant’s direct, non-symbolic, physical actions to get what she wants. The adult interprets these actions, picks up the baby, and the baby seems satisfied. Later the baby need only extend its arms and the adult understands what’s being asked. It’s more like the baby is training the parents rather than vice versa. If baby A were to approach baby B with this same arms-raised gesture, baby B probably wouldn’t get the message, even though baby B uses the very same ritualized gesture when it wants to be picked up. The ritualistic behavior works as symbolic communication only because the adult learns to interpret it that way.



  1. Today I saw like 4/5 kids in a cofee shop age ranged from like 2 to about 6 or 7 (with an older dude). Lately every time I see anything remotely connected to children my big inner giggle comes out. This post just made me smile. The various images of little toddlers doing various little funny things just made me smile. And the learning…whoever it is who is learning whatever it is…is part of it too. Not just the “cuteness factor”…although that’s definitely part of it!


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 26 September 2007 @ 11:45 pm

  2. Jason, you’d probably make a good parent — you seem to be in touch with your “inner child.” My mother’s comments to me back when I was a young feller like yourself: “I don’t care if you get married, just have a kid.”

    Regarding the language negotiation game… Our daughter’s name is Kenzie (no, not McKenzie). When she was first learning to talk our conversations would go something like this: Da. Kenz. Dada. Kenzie. Eventually she settled on calling me Da and me calling her Kenz. That’s kind of curious, since I’m the only person who calls her Kenz — everyone else calls her Kenzie, and that’s what she prefers. If she had called me Dada I’d have called her Kenzie. Some kind of negotiation was going on over the preferred signifier system.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 September 2007 @ 9:57 am

  3. I return fashionably late :)

    Sorry…I had an interview today…so trying to work, and make up for lost time at work…put together a portfolio, get a haircut, generally get ready for the interview…blah blah blah…responding to and reading your other posts…I’ve been kinda’ busy…

    But…thanks for saying I’d be a good parent! Man seriously I love kids. They are adorable. And the story about your and your daughter brought out my inner giggle. That sounds really cute. Funny…all in one paragraph I’m picturing a little toddler Kenz saying Da…as well as a young teen gal who loves her dad and prefers that he and he only call her “Kenz”! Pretty neat perspective that parents get, eh…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 29 September 2007 @ 12:20 am

  4. Jason, i’m constantly amazed by what my two chubby chuckling, drooling and helpless bundles of fun have transformed into. The process continues! Every day can be filled with wonder as long as we don’t start taking it all for granted.


    Comment by samlcarr — 29 September 2007 @ 7:17 am

  5. Sam your image of a drooling adult (sort of) also made me smile :)


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 30 September 2007 @ 3:30 am

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