As I wrote in my previous article, "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. 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!" 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 left alone for long periods of time have developed speech problems. It just makes sense that encouragement and "conversations" with a baby are healthy and good.
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 what is the difference between smiling, babbling, early syllables and words, and crying? All of these behaviors are the baby's attempts to learn to communicate. Tears are one of the ways that babies 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 ("My communications are not understood") and affect her self-esteem ("I'm not worth the trouble of being understood"). The best way for us to help a child develop at her optimum rate of growth is to be fully supportive of every step she takes, and of all of the feelings and needs she expresses.
If we respond only to some of these expressions, 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, and about her place in the world.
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 them 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.
As adults, it is only when we can fully accept ourselves and others "as is", that we can have truly loving relationships, with clear and compassionate communication. If we were not fully loved in infancy, we may never learn how that feels or how to give that feeling to others. What more important learning can there be?
Jan Hunt is the author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart (New Society, 2001) and Director of the Natural Child Project at www.naturalchild.org.