The Competence of Babies

Research has turned from the infant's physical needs to his native abilities

Stern and his research group are attempting to apply some of the careful observational techniques of researchers such as Fantz to an exploration not just of what babies can do but of what they may perceive and feel. Along with other such groups around the country, they are attempting to look at more than isolated infant reactions to various stimuli-at the whole range of infant behaviors, in a variety of settings. Some of these researchers are studying infants in nurseries and at home. The members of Stern's group do most of their observing in a small, carpeted, unfurnished room at Cornell's Payne Whitney Clinic. There, mothers and their infants have been coming several times a year over two-year periods to play together, observed by staff members and videotaped.

Stern, who is the author of a book called The First Relationship: Mother and Infant and of numerous articles on what he calls "the biology of interpersonal behavior," traces his interest in pre-verbal behavior to an experience he had when he was two years old. "I was very sick and in the hospital. And I had a nursemaid who spoke no English. I suspect, from what I can piece together of it, that when I was in the hospital, I didn't really understand what people around me were saying when they spoke English. Yet it mattered a great deal. And so I became a watcher. I still tend to go after the non-verbal and to dismiss the verbal. I figure that the non-verbal really tells you what's happening, and the verbal is just fine tuning."

Stern is forty-seven, trim, with wiry pepper-and-salt hair and moustache. He dresses in the linen pants and soft-leather imported shoes of a man who pays attention to clothes, but at the hospital, perhaps in order to leave no doubt as to the scientific nature of his research, he wears the traditional, stiffly starched, long white doctor's coat. Stern began his career in pharmacology research, studying the effects of drugs on the brain. "It was fascinating," he recalls, "and I was fairly committed to doing that. And slowly I realized that I was more interested in behavior." Before he could switch, however, he had to convince himself that research on the behavioral level was as legitimate as biochemical research. "There is an assumption among medical people that if you can explain a piece of behavior on a biochemical basis, then you've understood it. And it took me a long time to realize that the behavioral level was not explicable in terms of the other, that it was a level unto itself and had just as much validity. Finally, I junked the whole thing and said I wanted to work at the behavioral level. Which, strangely enough, felt like a rebellion."

After a psychiatric residency at Columbia, Stern decided he wanted to study the development of small babies. "Somebody had taken some tapes of schizophrenic mothers and their babies. And I sat for a couple of months and just watched them. That started me on the whole thing." Stern's interest shifted quickly from disturbed mother-infant pairs to normal ones. "With regard to abnormal behavior," he says, "I think the most interesting discoveries are going to end up being biochemical. I think the close looking at the development of behaviors is going to be much more relevant to understanding normal behavior than pathological. It could be that, as far as abnormalities are concerned—I mean major-league abnormalities, like autism, or childhood depression—all this research we're doing is absolutely useless. But that doesn't bother me, because having a biology of interpersonal behavior either is legitimate or it isn't."

Stern and other baby-watchers use the word "biology" because it places them in the company of scientists who observe not only humans but also the rest of the animal world. Like Fantz, whose work with human infants grew out of work with baby chimpanzees, baby-watchers hope to see their subjects freshly, by adopting the detached view of observers of other species. The aspect of such biology that interests Stern is what he calls "the scientific study of the development of human relationships," particularly during the first two years of life. "I see it as a rather slow process of putting together the pieces that will permit us to understand how a relationship develops, a task that's going to take a long time and that we're really at the very beginning of."

Stern and his group do their work in three small rooms, on three different pieces of the puzzle. In one room, Patricia Nachman, a psychologist, has set up a plywood puppet theater she calls "the infant theater." There she stages peekaboo games for seven-month-olds using a Kermit the Frog and a rabbit puppet, in an attempt to test infant memory for pleasurable experiences. Next door, another psychologist, Roanne Barnett, is working on a different project: a chart that will provide the group with some objective measures of what they see in the hours of films they have made of babies and mothers. The scale they have devised is symmetrical—both the baby's and the mother's actions and reactions are entered. (It is possible to see the facial expressions of both because two cameras, one trained on the baby's face and one on the mother's, are running at all times during the videotaping.) "What we hope to do," Barnett explains, "is devise a scale, using normal babies, which will be universally applicable and which can be used with or without a camera. It may also be useful in detecting and working with troubled infants and their parents."

On a video monitor in his office, Stern is working on a third piece of the puzzle, culling scenes from the hours of videotape of infant-mother interactions. He showed me a scene from one of the many hours of film which he calls "The Shoot-out at the OK Corral." The battle, in this case, is between nine-month-old "Michael" and his mother. The mother is seated on the floor, next to a wooden jigsaw puzzle with four large pieces: a sun, a bird, an apple, and a leaf. Calling Michael's name, she takes the leaf out of the puzzle and puts it back in again. Michael crawls over to the puzzle. His mother holds the leaf out for him. Michael takes the piece with one hand, sits back on his feet, and proceeds to raise it slowly to his mouth. "No...It's not for eating," his mother says. She takes the puzzle piece away. Michael lets out a yell—very quick but loud. "Don't you yell at your mothah," she says, in a feisty New York accent. Then, curiously, she hands him back the piece and watches while he raises it to his mouth. Catching his hand, she utters an emphatic "No." When Michael then makes a vehement sound of protest ("Uh-h-h!"), she lets go, and Michael chews on the piece, murmuring contentedly. "Taste good?" his mother asks. "It's only cardboard."

Stern is studying a particular kind of mother-baby event he calls a "prohibitive," trying to discover how a baby responds when the mother says "no." He is curious, he explains, about the degrees of prohibition and whether the baby responds differently to different versions of "no." And he is curious about how the particular reactions of each baby influence the mother. Stern sees babies and mothers as "couples"—partners in a developing relationship. In the "shoot-out" sequence, for instance, Stern notes that Michael's loud protest caused his mother to give in to him. "In this case," Stern notes, "Michael's gumption, his tenacity, is a very important determinant of how the relationship will evolve. And the message from the mother is that if he asserts himself strongly, he gets what he wants. I'm becoming more and more interested in these scripts," Stern explains, "in seeing 'a world in a grain of sand.'"

It turns out that the "shoot-out" is not an isolated incident. Michael and his mother frequently clash over the same issue: he wants to put things in his mouth and she doesn't want him to. Since it is such a pervasive theme, Stern has decided to use the films of Michael and his mother to study "prohibitives" in depth. He has looked through the films taken over the entire two-year period to find instances of Michael getting caught in the "prohibitable act"—putting something in his mouth—and has found sixty-three episodes. He has carefully documented each one of the episodes on a large chart: what the mother said, how she said it (as measured by laryngeal tension and pitch), what Michael's expression was, and what he did. A linguist, John Dore, of the City University of New York, has also been studying the exchanges, analyzing their specific word content.

The task of piecing together the sixty-three episodes into one film and charting the interactions is nearly complete. The day I visited, Stern was checking a few small details. In the observation at six months, Michael is playing with a felt-covered doll that has zippers to zip, laces to lace, and purple-felt shoes. Michael likes to chew on the shoes. At one point, Michael is chewing purposefully on the shoes when his mother says, "Don't eat the shoes." His hands move the doll downward, momentarily, from his mouth, then bring it back. Stern, attempting to see if Michael's face "sobers," rewinds and plays the incident over several times. He decides there is a brief, split-second break in the baby's momentum. (I'm not so sure I see it.)

What is powerfully clear and persuasive in this collage, however, is that Michael and his mother, from four months on, do have a set piece that they enact over and over again—what Stern calls a "standard sequence." At four months, Michael is putting a rattle in his mouth and his mother is telling him not to. Later it's a triangular wood block he tries to chew on, during a period when he's probably teething; then it's the purple shoes; another time it's the plastic donut-shaped rings from a conical stacking toy. And each time, his mother is there, telling him not to put the thing in his mouth. Sometimes she uses what Stern has called "disgustives"—phrases such as "yuck, yuck, yuck." Sometimes she uses what he calls "depressives": "You're going to eat the pieces," said with a sigh. One of these "depressives" is greeted by Michael with apparent anger. He throws the piece across the room, shouts, and knocks over the stacking cone he has been playing with. To judge from the brief filmed intervals of Michael when his mother is out of the room, it seems that he is reacting to her restrictions then, too. Left alone with the toys, he indulges in a sort of orgy—chewing on a block, on a book, on the doll's purple shoes.

Stern tells me that many other films of infant-mother couples have almost no oral "prohibitives" in them. They may well have equally discernible and persistent themes, but not this particular one. He believes that these highly individual mother-infant scripts will reappear again and again, with progressive variations, throughout life.

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