The science of getting along

Research shows that our first years of life shape our ability to play well with others. Here's how

Published January 15, 2012 2:00PM (EST)

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This article is excerpted from the new book "Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation," from Yale University Press.

I'm sure every parent could tell a distinctive story about how their children grew. You might well observe, whatever your own views about children, that learning to cooperate is not easy. That very difficulty is, in a way, positive; cooperation becomes an earned experience rather than just thoughtless sharing. As in any other realm of life, we prize what we have struggled to achieve.

The child psychologist Alison Gopnik observes that the human infant lives in a very fluid state of becoming; astonishingly rapid changes in perception and sensation occur in the early years of human development, and these shape our capacity to cooperate. Buried in all of us is the infantile experience of relating and connecting to the adults who took care of us; as babies we had to learn how to work with them in order to survive. These infant experiments with cooperation are akin to a rehearsal, as infants try out various possibilities about getting along with parents and peers. Genetic patterning provides a guide, but human infants (like all young primates) also investigate, experiment with and improve their own behaviour.

Cooperation becomes a conscious activity in the fourth and fifth months of life, as babies begin to work with their mothers in breast feeding; the infant starts to respond to verbal cues about how it should behave, even if it does not understand the words, for instance responding to certain tones of voice by snuggling into position to help. Thanks to verbal cueing, anticipation enters the repertoire of the infant’s behaviour. By the second year of life infants become responsive to each other in a kindred way, anticipating each other’s movements. We now know that such cued behaviour – the stimulations of anticipating and responding – helps the brain activate previously dormant neural pathways, so that collaboration enables the human infant’s mental development.

The cues non-primate social animals give are static in the sense of being instantly readable; when bees ‘dance’ to each other they send precise signals, for instance, that pollen can be found 400 metres to the north-west; other bees know instantly how to read these cues. In infant human experience, cueing becomes increasingly un-beelike. The human infant tries out hand gestures, facial expressions, grips or touches which prove puzzling to adults rather than being instantly read and understood.

The psychologist Jerome Bruner has emphasized the importance of such enigmatic messages as signs of cognitive development. The infant increasingly intends a meaning on his or her own terms, as in crying. An infant crying at two months is simply reporting pain; in time, crying takes more varied forms because the infant is trying to say something more complicated, something the parent has more trouble interpreting. This gap is established by the second year of life, and changes the meaning of ‘mutual’; infant and adult continue to bond through give and take, but are not quite sure what they are exchanging, since the cueing process has become more complex. The gap between transmission and reception, Bruner says, constitutes a ‘new chapter’ in the bond between infant and parent. But the new chapter is not a disaster. Both infants and parents learn to adjust to it, indeed are stimulated by it to pay more attention to one another; communication has become more complex rather than broken down.

Still, for parents it’s easy to imagine babies have left the Garden of Eden when entering what Benjamin Spock famously called ‘the terrible twos’. The common explanation for a surfeit of anger at this stage is that the infant becomes surly as it separates physically from its mother. The child psychologists D. W. Winnicott and John Bowlby were the first to draw a more refined picture. In his studies, Winnicott built on the common parental observation that an infant, in working with the mother during breastfeeding, comes to recognize that the mother’s nipple is not part of his or her own body; Winnicott showed that the more freedom an infant is given to touch, lick and suck the nipple, the more aware he or she is of it as an outside, separated thing, belonging only to the mother. Bowlby made the same observation about tactile freedom in the child’s play after the second year of life; the more freely children interact with toys, the more they become aware of physical things as having an existence all their own. This physical awareness of separateness also appears in dealings with other children, in freely punching, kicking and licking them. It’s a discovery that other kids do not respond as the child expected, that others are separate beings.

Toddler life thus provides an early grounding in the experience of complexity and of difference. Children hardly ‘hibernate’ from each other, to invoke Robert Putnam’s image, as a result. If anything, separated and at cross purposes as they may be, they are ever more interactive. In this regard we want to put parents into the picture. On one account, parents who talk constantly to their babies produce two-year-olds who are more sociable with other infants, less anger-triggered against care-givers, than silent parents whose infants are more likely to be social isolates; the difference parental stimulation makes is detectable in greater or lesser activation of the infant’s neural circuits in the brain. But even if parental stimulation is inhibited, the baby’s physical drive to exchange cannot be extinguished. By the second year of life, all infants begin noticing and imitating what others do; learning about physical objects also speeds up, particularly about the size and weight of things, as well as their physical dangers. The social capacity to cooperate together on a common project, like building a snowman, becomes well established in toddlers by the third year of life: young children will do it, even if parental behaviour does not encourage it.

One virtue of understanding early experiences of cooperation as a rehearsal is that this concept explains how infants deal with frustration. Inability to communicate produces the frustration evinced by wailing, and trying out different wails is something infants learn to do – with a surprising result. Bowlby found infants are inclined to wail more as their vocal repertoire expands, since they now focus on, and are more curious about, the vocalization itself; they are no longer simply sending a sheer report of pain.

Equally important is the matter of structure and discipline. In a rehearsal, repetition provides a disciplining structure; you go over things again and again, seeking to make them better. Sheer mechanical repetitiveness is, to be sure, an element of play in childhood, just as hearing the same story over and over exactly in the same form is a pleasure. But mechanical repetition is only one element. Round about the age of four, children become capable of practising in the sense we understand it, either in playing a sport or a musical instrument; through repetition they try to get better at what they are doing.

Social consequences follow. In the nursery, Bowlby found, repetition begins to bond infants to one another when they experiment together and repeatedly; in performing a gesture together, the frustration of singing in coordinated time, for instance, becomes what he called a ‘transitional affect’, that is, no absolute bar to trying to get the coordination right the next time. Much other research has found that rehearsing, in the sense of working over a routine to improve it, is harder when done alone. Put more formally, repetition in time makes cooperation both sustainable and improvable.

The developmental origins of cooperation advance a further step by the age of four. Of course, sign-posting by years is arbitrary; development is elastic, varying from child to child. Still, by this age, the psychologist Erik Erikson has shown, young children become capable of studying their own behaviour reflexively, self-consciously, the act detachable from the self. In practical terms, he means that children have become more capable of self-criticism without the need of cueing or correction from parents or peers; when a child can do this, he or she has become, in Erikson’s framework, ‘individuated’. Around the age of five, children become avid revisionists, editing behaviour which has served them before but which no longer suffices.

Reflexive, self-critical thinking doesn’t imply withdrawal from other kids; children can be reflexive together. One piece of evidence Erikson provides for this process is game-playing. At the age of five to six, children begin to negotiate the rules for games, rather than, as at the age of two to three, take the rules as givens; the more negotiation occurs, the more strongly do children become bonded to one another in game-playing.

A century ago, in his study of play, Homo Ludens, the historian Johann Huizinga noted the difference between observing the rules of a game and discussing what these rules should be. To Huizinga, these seemed just alternatives children could choose at any time; modern psychology instead sees them as a sequence in the process of human development. As a recent study put it, sheer obedience comes first in the developmental process, the powers of negotiation later. A profound consequence ensues: development makes us capable of choosing the kind of cooperation we want, what its terms of exchange are, how we will cooperate. Freedom enters the experience of cooperation as a consequence.

Erikson’s sweeping point about this passage is that cooperation precedes individuation: cooperation is the foundation of human development, in that we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart. Erikson may seem to declare the obvious: we could not develop as individuals in isolation. Which means, though, that the very misunderstandings, separations, transitional objects and self-criticism which appear in the course of development are tests of how to relate to other people rather than how to hibernate; if the social bond is primary, its terms change up to the time children enter formal schooling.

From the book "Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation," by Richard Sennett. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2012 by Richard Sennett. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press. Available wherever books are sold.

By Richard Sennett

Richard Sennett's works include "The Craftsman," "Respect," "The Fall of Public Man" and "The Corrosion of Character." He taught for many years at the New York Institute of the Humanities and also at the London School of Economics where he is emeritus professor of sociology. He is now a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge.

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