What life lessons can grown-ups learn from babies?
From the moment they emerge into the world, babies look to the adults in their lives to teach them everything they’ll need to know. In 2016, a pair of scientists at the University of Rochester even theorized—after correlating various species’ intelligence to the amount of time that it takes to wean their babies—that the amazing brain power required to raise our relatively helpless infants has, over the course of human evolution, led to higher mental capacity.
So while ensuring your child’s survival may result in lost sleep and a foggy brain, take heart that you’re actually getting smarter in the process. In fact, while we’re raising them, there are many lessons grown-ups can learn from babies, too.
Babies teach us that we can lessen our bias
Researchers have long suspected that, in early childhood, we develop a positive bias for people like us and a negative bias for everyone else. But in July, after observing how 456 infants aged eight to 16 months reacted to speakers of their native tongue versus speakers of another language, scientists at the Social Cognitive Development Lab at the University of British Columbia debunked the second half of that assumption.
Researcher Anthea Pun and her team measured English-speaking infants’ level of surprise while watching puppets behave badly. While the babies appeared to be startled by a cruel English speaker—confirmed by the fact that they gazed for much longer at the villain—they acted indifferent to a French foil, displaying no expectation, good or bad. Negative judgments, Pun speculated, are not innate, but instead learned.
If infants’ lack of prejudice inspires you to examine your own, researchers have pinpointed tools to help individuals recognize and overcome their unintentional bias.
One of those, explains Dr. William Cox of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is to take time to actively replace assumptions. “When you have a stereotypical thought or when you are exposed to a stereotypical portrayal, it reinforces that stereotype in your mind,” says Cox. He suggests stopping in those moments, recognizing the bias and actively calling to mind a different, but true, idea that counteracts it.
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We can learn from babies that it’s crucial to cry
Babies come into the world crying, and it can seem as though adults spend much of a youngster’s initial years trying to make the wailing stop. All the while, we usually ignore the fact that sobbing infants remind us of something important: it’s okay, and even vital, to express your emotions.
According to Ann Douglas, the author of 2015’s Parenting Through the Storm and 13 other parenting books, a crying infant can serve as a reminder that we can never assume to know what’s in someone else’s head. “Babies give parents practice at making sense of another person’s intentions,” she says. “The parent wants to figure out the cause of the crying and, through a process of trial and error, is then somehow able to meet the underlying need.”
This knowledge can come in handy for adults who think they have to solve all their problems on their own. “Do what you learned to do back when you were a baby: turn to another trusted person for comfort and support, ideally someone who is at ease with displays of emotion,” says Douglas, adding that you should aim to pick someone who will validate your feelings and reassure you that they make sense. “Who knows? They might even be able to offer great advice or practical assistance.”
While that interaction sounds a great deal more civilized than a child’s howling, crying shouldn’t be considered a failure, especially when it comes to overwhelming feelings. “Human interdependence is a superpower, not a sign of weakness,” says Douglas. “Sometimes an emotion is so powerful that we just don’t have a way of putting it into words. So if you’re struck with grief—or just having a painful experience—tears are a universal language and can be your emotional SOS signal.”
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Babies teach us that the most important moment is now
A 2012 literature review by Sylvie Droit-Volet, a psychology professor at University of Clermont Auvergne, found studies showing that even at one month old, babies can sense when the interval of a light flashing in their eyes increases. However, while we’re born with this understanding of “implicit time,” we must be taught the concept of duration, which doesn’t really click in until the age of seven or eight. This explains why toddlers get upset when told they have to wait for anything.
While a baby’s belief that everything should happen “right now” can be frustrating, it’s also an inspiration to live in the moment. Dr. Catherine Phillips, who runs the Mindfulness Institute in Edmonton, sympathizes with today’s parents, who she believes are overloaded with external information and stimulation—always on their phones or scrolling through social media feeds. “People often talk about learning from the past and wanting to change in the future, but if you’re not present when things are arising, chances are you’ll fall back on old patterns.” Babies, she maintains, are great role models because they naturally experience life from what mindfulness practitioners call “beginner’s mind.”
“Through the day, one can practise seeing things as if for the first time,” says Phillips, describing an exercise used in her workshops. “To get people to step out of their conditioned responses, we explore a raisin as if we’re from outer space and have never seen one.” By slowing down and meditating on the way the raisin feels, smells and then tastes, Phillips suggests you can encounter anew even something very mundane. “Sometimes people who hate raisins discover that the experience wasn’t what they expected or find pleasant things when they anticipated something else.”
Of course, if you can’t master living in the moment today, babies show us that change can always come tomorrow. As those researchers at the University of Rochester aptly point out in their review, while there may be “an inherent difficulty of raising human children,” a baby’s helplessness and constant brushes with catastrophe are daily reminders of how much we’ve learned.