Heffner column: Socializing babies
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
An educational phenomenon in recent years has been the development of groups for babies - almost from birth. Perhaps it is also a phenomenon of parenting. As more and more mothers returned to work outside the home, a feeling took hold that perhaps the youngest children would be deprived in some way by mothers’ absence. Various groups for babies and preschoolers filled the marketplace to compensate.
The research world has also contributed to this phenomenon with reports on the importance of brain and skill development in the early years of life. The famous psychologist, Jean Piaget, who wrote about child development, thought the idea that earlier is better was an American disease. Nevertheless, that idea has taken hold with children expected to master academic material at earlier and earlier ages.
Expectations for social skills has also kept pace along with those for academic development. What has gotten lost in this process is the recognition that there are individual differences in children’s development in all areas. When children are put in groups, these differences become apparent. Yet groups signify school, which leads to expectations of behavior that are not appropriate for everyone.
In the area of social skills, the differences in social behavior can lead to concerns on the part of parents and even teachers of babies’ groups. Differences in development can create worry in parents who may see the behavior of other children as more advanced or question whether one’s own child is behind in development in some way.
Now that the pandemic has disrupted groups at all levels, some parents are feeling concerned about whether their children will be behind in their development because of the missing interaction with other babies. This may be more a measure of the isolation parents may feel closed off from usual social interactions, expressed as concern about the impact on babies.
While there may be value in the experiences to which babies are exposed in these organized groups led by trained teachers, social interaction is the least relevant. Having observed many baby groups, it is striking to note that the presence of other babies is of the least interest to most babies. Instead, one sees a variety of behaviors related to the developmental level of individual children.
Babies who are at the stage of increasing physical mobility are more interested in crawling around the room and exploring. There is always a baby or two most interested in opening their mother’s bag to find the bottle of milk tucked away for later use. Some babies are clearly entranced by the teacher demonstrating an activity, one using an object the children are being invited to try out.
Rarely, is there a baby seemingly interested in another baby in the group. In one instance, a baby crawled across the intervening space to offer a toy to another baby, and once in a while, a baby may get interested in the toy next to someone else.
Adult values are at work in the interpretations made of these behaviors. In the instance of the baby reaching out to another, she was considered the star of the group and became a measuring rod for the expectations of other parents. In the same way, participation in the activities demonstrated by the teacher was also a standard used by parents for their own children’s development.
The reality is that even by the age of two, children may be playing side by side with others, but actual interactive play comes only later. The absence of baby groups right now may be a deprivation for parents, but will not impede babies’ social development.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.