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Look at my face

Greg Moffatt's picture

The older I get and the more I understand about human behavior, the more certain I am that we are social creatures. The most serious psychological conditions in human children involve neglect and abuse – situations where the child either has minimal or no social interaction or where that interaction is painful.

Infants interact with their caregivers from the moment of birth, but it is reflexive rather than deliberate. But as early as three months of age, children develop deliberate social interactions and they begin to recognize their caregivers. As a result, they smile for the first time. Most of us can remember the moment our child first looked us in the face and smiled back. 

What most parents don’t realize is that the baby’s brain is literally being formed in front of them as they respond to their children. With each smile, coo, or nuzzle, the baby’s brain is growing and forming new connections that set the foundation to how he/she will see and understand the world in the future. 

A basic social skill in adulthood is being able to read the faces of others. Especially when we know someone well, the person cannot lie to us effectively because the face betrays the thoughts. 

“How are you?” 


 “No really – what’s wrong?”

 This type of interchange is well-known to us because in normally functioning adults, we pick up very subtle changes in the eyes, mouth, and muscles of the face. We can do something called “social hypothesizing.”  We can guess what people are thinking by watching them.

This is a valuable skill that helps us to know to be careful with our words at certain times and in certain contexts. It allows us to detect deception and recognize when someone likes or dislikes us.  This skill begins developing in infancy. Babies tune in to the emotions of those around them.  If mom frowns at her baby, the baby frowns. If she smiles, the baby smiles. They tune in to each other and in so doing the baby begins learning what those expressions mean. 

For this reason, even preschool children can detect when something is wrong with a parent.  “What’s wrong, Mommie?” a child might ask a distressed parent who is trying to figure out how the child knew something was wrong. The child knew because he began learning about social interactions during his first few months of life.

In an interesting study called the “still face” study, parents of three and four month old children were asked to stare at their babies with a blank expression. Within seconds, the babies began to show distress, to cry, to look away and to suck on their hands and fingers. In fact, even the mothers of these children found it painful to “not respond” to the emotional needs of their children by reflecting their feelings of love and nurturance through facial expressions.

Children cannot develop these skills while staring at the television, computer screen, or lying alone in a crib. Through thousands of face-to-face interactions with caring parents, babies learn the world is a safe place and they learn that their needs will be met. They also learn something equally important. They learn to empathize. Empathy is one of the things that makes us distinctly human.  The most serious side-effect of neglect and abuse in childhood is a weakened ability to empathize.  Children can hurt animals, siblings, or even their parents without conscience because they don’t understand what the other person is feeling and they don’t care.

It might seem like newborn babies couldn’t really understand much, but the fact is, their future default modes for empathy, social skill, and social understanding are set in the first year or two of life. Healthy development in this area doesn’t happen with casual social contact with primary care-givers. It requires hours each day – hours of face-to-face contact, verbal interaction, and physical contact.

Think about that next time you feel too busy or too tired to spend time with your infant or toddler. Think about that if you are trying to decide whether or not to go to work and leave your child in the hands of a hired caregiver. There is no such thing as quality time in the absence of quantity time.

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