Over the years, I have counseled parents on the importance of
responding to a baby's cry. In a previous article on this subject
I listed ten reasons for a quick response to tears, and discussed
the importance of giving loving messages and emotional reassurance
to a baby, who after all can only communicate pain or unhappiness
with cries and body language. This article will explore another
benefit of compassionate responsiveness to tears: helping the baby
learn to talk.
A baby's first attempts to communicate cannot be in words, but
can only be nonverbal. Yet only part of the baby's nonverbal
vocabulary is taken seriously by many in our culture. If a baby
gurgles happily and then says "Dada", we are likely to
find a smiling father beaming at the baby, and encouraging more
such attempts at speech. Everyone recognizes that parent-baby
interactions of this kind can only serve to enhance the learning
process, and allow the baby to progress at her natural pace. We
all know that babies in orphanages who were left alone for long
periods of time can develop speech problems. It just makes sense
that encouragement and "conversations" with a baby are
healthy and good.
However, if that same baby starts to cry, our culture tells us
this is somehow different from other attempts to communicate. We
are warned not to respond too quickly for fear of spoiling her.
The baby is "coercing" us, "manipulating" us,
or deliberately making us miserable, and it is up to us to
"show her who's boss". Yet what is the difference
between babbling, early syllables and words, and crying? All of
these behaviors are attempts to learn to communicate. If we
respond only to some of these behaviors, and not to others, we are
telling the baby that only some communication is effective and
valuable. The baby then receives harmful messages about which
feelings can be safely expressed, and about learning in general:
sometimes learning is acceptable, and sometimes it is ignored or
punished. Sometimes attempts to express feelings with sounds are
successful, and sometimes they are not. These mixed messages can
only slow the learning process, and confuse the baby who is
always, after all, learning about learning.
It is easy for parents and other adults to support and
encourage a baby's attempts to communicate pleasure; in fact there
are few things in life more delightful. A smiling, gurgling baby
elicits our smiles, creating a joyfully shared moment in time.
When a smiling baby babbles, we encourage this learning with our
own smiles and words in response. The baby says "Dada?"
and we say "Yes, here comes Dada!" But when the same
baby tries to communicate displeasure or pain due to hunger,
fatigue, loneliness, or some other ill with tears or babbles of
hurt or fear, we are told to punish or ignore this communication,
for fear of "spoiling". Yet tears are simply another
attempt by the baby to learn to communicate feelings, and a step
along the way to full verbalization. Ignoring a baby's tears or
vocal protests is not only unkind, it sets up artificial
categories of "good" and "bad" communication,
which can only slow a child's linguistic development and affect
her self-esteem. The best way for us to help a child develop at
her optimum rate of growth is to be fully supportive of every step
Virtually everything a baby does is geared toward learning;
they are programmed to learn as much as they can in order to
survive and contribute to the world around them. Surely the best
message we can give a baby is that all attempts to communicate -
whether in gurgles, words, or cries - will be met with our
attempts to understand and respond with compassion to their needs.
When we can do this, we are also teaching that learning itself is
a positive and joyful experience, and that they can count on us to
support them as they grow and learn.
It is only when we can fully accept ourselves and others
"as is", that we can have truly loving relationships. If
we are not fully loved and trusted in infancy, we may never learn
how that feels or how to give that feeling to others. What more
important learning can there be?