Do We Discourage Our Baby’s Awareness?

In the New York Times Magazine article “The Moral Life Of Babies,” Yale University psychology professor Paul Bloom reports a striking conclusion after ten years of study: infants may be born with the beginnings of a moral code, an awareness of right and wrong behavior. 

The babies in Bloom’s studies, conducted at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center, witnessed a mini-drama acted out by objects or puppets. After several repetitions, two of the objects or puppets were held out in front of the babies. Infants as young as 5 months-old consistently reached for the one they had seen behave helpfully, the ‘nice’ one. This article is a fascinating read and, as is often the case, the online reader comments are as illuminating as the story.

Several discount the study as bad science for one reason or another and are cynical about the conclusions. Most are at least open to the idea that babies are born with a rudimentary sense of morals. I was particularly struck by this comment:

When I was an infant — 9 months or younger — two things happened in my family, which I knew were wrong at the time. My memories include the events themselves, and an awareness that because I couldn’t walk and talk, I was at a disadvantage — my point of view would never be heard — and I was potentially in danger. It was an awareness that felt clear, and that understood that, despite my age-related social muteness, my point of view was justified and important. –Heath, NYC

Whether we agree with Bloom’s conclusions or believe they are too far-reaching, his study demonstrates beyond all doubt that even the youngest infants are aware, impressionable people, capable of thought and of making choices. (And you could hear me hip-hip-hooraying all over town about that!)

This contradicts the advice of influential experts like Dr. Sears, who theorize that infants are not really ready to be born into the world after nine months, and should be treated as if they are in the womb for another 9 months. (Who knew Nature could get it so wrong?) Dr. Sears tells us that babies are “humanized” by being “worn”, attached to us in carriers all day long for their first 9 months in the world. The not-so-subtle implication is that our babies are not born people, aware and capable of developing their senses without our filter and our constant interruption.

A continually carried baby does not have the opportunity to express his unique point-of-view through acitivities that he himself initiates.  Instead, he is lulled by our movements all day, a blur of images passing through his vision. He is unable to stop and absorb sights, sounds, smells that interest him; his ability to move his body, examine, explore and experiment is severely limited.

Babies are defenseless, inarticulate and pliable, so it’s easy for us to believe that they are less aware than they are.

We distract babies during diaper changes when we are touching the most intimate areas of their bodies. We arrange them in front of TV sets and force them to diffuse an onslaught of sensory stimulation. We shush, hush and jiggle them when they cry, tease, tickle and toss them in the air to make them laugh, put nipples in their mouths to keep them quiet. We do all of these things because we love and adore our babies, but don’t consider them to be truly alert and aware. We hope our children will stay tuned in to life, but we train them time and again to tune out their world.

The day before I read Bloom’s article, I was in the market checkout line. Facing me was a baby boy sitting in a shopping cart. The intensity in his eyes made the red pacifier that covered half of his tiny face almost unnoticeable, and I was reminded of what infant expert Magda Gerber used to say: “Three kinds of people will gaze so intently: the insane, lovers, and babies.”

The baby’s eyes seemed to be telling me a thousand stories. His penetrating stare made me feel I should explain what I was doing as I placed my groceries on the conveyer belt, “I’m just putting these down here.” His mother, paying at the register, shot me an awkward glance.

Babies may well be born with a rudimentary understanding of right and wrong. At the very least, we know that if we slow down they are capable of absorbing every detail of their surroundings and making choices.  They internalize every interaction they have with us and with others. Whenever they are not sleeping, they are learning and assimilating. Whether we can ever prove those things scientifically or not, surely our infants deserve the benefit of our doubt…don’t they?

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