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Here’s Looking At You, Kid

Originally published in Times Educational Supplement, 2005

A mother is teaching her baby to fly. He floats in the air, her hand gently supporting his outstretched arm. The touch keeps him aloft, but more important is his mother's gaze – loving, attentive, parental. While she's there, the child is safe. Indeed, he feels safe enough to look away, to turn his head and stare out at us, or perhaps over our shoulders to the world beyond.

This picture, by William Blake, is on the cover of Peter Hobson's book, The Cradle of Thought. Scrawled above it, in Blake's spidery handwriting, are the words 'Teach these souls to fly'. That's what Hobson writes about – how parents, all over the world, all through the ages, have taught their children to fly beyond their physical limitations, into the realms of thought.

Peter Hobson is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the Tavistock Clinic and the University of London. His book is part psychology, part philosophy and part ancient wisdom – so ancient, indeed, that you can see it running through the millennia in the book's illustrations: photos of mothers interacting with their newborn babies; Blake's visionary engraving; a Renaissance painting of the Madonna and child; a tomb carving of an Egyptian pharaoh dandling his infant on his knee. I first read The Cradle of Thought three years ago, and it's haunted me ever since – because if Peter Hobson is right, we now know what makes us human. And that's a big responsibility.

Hobson contends that the capacity to think requires a certain amount of nurturing. He admits human infants are born hard-wired for thought, just as they're hard-wired for language – to that extent, thinking is genetically predetermined. But, like language, this facet of nature also needs nurture before it can take its course: adults must provide some input. If babies get that input in the first year or so of life, they'll be able to understand, think, communicate, learn. If they don't, their human potential is damaged.

The triangle of interrelatedness

The cradle in which Hobson claims thought begins is the deep emotional attachment that exists between parent and child. This allows them to form what he calls the 'triangle of interrelatedness' – parent at one corner of the triangle, child at another, and the outside world at the third. Secure in the parent's presence, the child looks out at the world, then back at the parent; the parent looks at the world, then back at the child; their mutual gaze acknowledges a mutual experience – they've both seen the same bit of world. Often the parent goes one step further: 'Can you see that doggy? Look at the doggy. Isn't it lovely?' Attachment, interaction, communication – this is what teaches souls to fly.

Hobson argues that, through taking part in this emotionally-embedded triangle of interrelatedness, children acquire three key insights. First, there's the dawning realisation that they and their parent are separate beings, looking at the same bit of world from different viewpoints – the child is simultaneously attached to and separate from the parent. This is a supremely important insight, because it's the beginning of empathy. If the mind-blowing discovery that other people have their own points of view is rooted in emotional security and pleasurable communication, the chances of the child later extending empathy to a widening range of people are much greater.

The next vital insight is the infant's recognition of his own personal perspective, different from the parent's ('She's looking at it from there, and I'm looking at it from here – this is my point of view). The child thus becomes conscious of himself as a thinker, an intellectual self-awareness that underpins rational thought and behaviour. Think of it: millions of little minds throughout the millennia, experiencing their own amazing Cartesian moments.

Finally, the realisation that it's possible to have more than one perspective on an object points children towards symbolic play ('If I can look at this box in different ways, I can pretend it's a car … brmm, brmm!'). Soon they'll delight in using dolls as symbols for babies, sticks for horses, cardboard boxes for cars. Symbolic play lays the foundation for understanding the many systems of symbols used in our culture, including numbers and letters. It's also critical for the development of imagination and creative problem-solving abilities.

So there we are. The shared gaze of parent and child, their shared pleasure of interaction in the triangle of interrelatedness could be the answer to questions that have vexed philosophers since time immemorial: What does it mean to think? What is it to be human? What is the root of learning?

Answers and questions

But then, of course, other questions bubble up – Why do some people think less effectively than others? Why do some seem to have less 'humanity'? Why do others have problems with learning?

Peter Hobson has some suggestions here too. His journey towards The Cradle of Thought was via long-term research into autism. He believes children with a genetic predisposition towards autism do not naturally acquire the three insights leading to empathy, intellectual self-awareness and symbolic play. If an infant's genetic makeup prevents him from sharing in the triangle of interrelatedness, he's trapped alone, unable to fly.

What's more, Hobson suggests that if opportunities to participate in an emotionally-satisfying 'triangle of interrelatedness' are missing in their first eighteen months, even children without such a genetic vulnerability may have difficulty in acquiring one or more of the insights. He cites the example of the unfortunate babies raised with little human contact in Rumanian orphanages under the Ceauşescu regime – many more than would be expected in a normal population developed 'autistic-like' behaviour.

That's when the questions start to nag. What if a normal child isn't exactly neglected but the triangle isn't as good as it could be? What if opportunities for shared gazing and communication are limited? What if parents don't have time, or are too busy, or simply don't know how important it is to interact with their babies?

There's a growing body of neuroscientific research connecting successful early attachment with the development of neural networks in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the area associated with rational thought, decision-making, social behaviour and self-control. If Hobson is right, the way we look after tiny children is profoundly important, not only for the children themselves, but for all of us.

Yet the life we lead today doesn't exactly encourage parents to engage in the triangle of interrelatedness – in some ways, it positively discourages it.

How contemporary culture breaks the triangle

For those parents who feel obliged to return to work soon after their babies are born, time for gazing into their off-springs' eyes and chatting about the world is limited. There are huge implications here for childcare – how easy is it find someone to whom a child can attach emotionally when parents are absent?

But even when parents are at home, there are demands on their time that break the communicatory triangle. Health workers on home visits frequently report seeing mothers with a baby in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, or failing to make eye-contact with their suckling infant because they're simultaneously checking the email or watching Tricia on TV. These parents are not uncaring or unfeeling – just products of our busy, multi-tasking contemporary culture.

The story continues when they go outdoors. Perhaps because they think children are more 'stimulated' by watching the world go by, many parents use baby-slings facing outwards, so eye-contact is ruled out, and the triangle is broken. Then when children graduate to pushchairs these almost inevitably face away from the pusher: modern, light-weight, foldaway pushchairs face outwards, because the dynamics of the design require the baby's weight to be behind the front wheels.

It seems ridiculous to lunge from age-old philosophical questions to pushchair design, but like so many aspects of modern life this convenient invention breaks the triangle of interrelatedness. I watched a mother pushing her baby son through our local park the other day. She was being a 'good mum' and chatting away to him about the things all around – the squirrels, the trees, my Bedlington terrier ('Look at the lovely doggy!')– and he was totally unaware. Facing away from her, he couldn't see where she was looking, so the triangle was broken.

I wanted to rush over and tell her about Peter Hobson. I want to rush up to every parent these days and tell them. If he's right, we know the answer to questions that have vexed humanity for eons. I want to say 'Switch off the technological wonders, forgo the convenient pushchair, concentrate for a year or so on the ancient virtues of attachment, interaction, communication.' If every parent does that, all but the most unfortunate souls could learn to fly. But if contemporary culture keeps breaking the triangle… well, I'd rather not think of the consequences.

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