No pressure moms, but your baby is watching your every move. You’ll discover exactly how closely they watch you as they get older and develop your same habit of biting your lip when you’re nervous or using your favorite curse word in preschool (oops!). But you can also use their keen powers of observation to an advantage, especially when it comes to teaching them the all-important skill of grit. How? By modeling it for them. Babies as young as ten months can tell how bad you want something by how hard you’re willing to work for it, according to a new study done by MIT.
What the study says
To figure this out, researchers took 80 infants under a year old and had them watch a series of short videos. In the first video they saw a bouncing ball character jump over a short wall as part of their journey to get to a goal — but then refuse to jump over a tall wall. In the second video, the babies saw the ball jump over higher walls before giving up, essentially “working harder” even though it didn’t reach the goal. Lastly, the babies were shown a video of the ball getting to choose between the first and second goal, with no walls in the way. When the ball chose the first goal (the one it hadn’t worked as hard to reach), the babies showed surprise, indicating that they had expected the ball to choose the goal it was willing to work harder for.
Now, hold up just a second. Ten-month-olds don’t speak and it’s hard enough to figure out if their concerned face is because they’re scared of something or because they’re working on a really big poop. (Both? Big poops can be scary for anyone!) So how did the researchers know they were really surprised? According to Shari Liu, a graduate student at MIT and lead author of the paper, babies stare longer at things they find unexpected or surprising. So by staring at the ball choosing the “wrong” goal, the babies were showing they had expected it to choose the other, more logical choice — all without saying a word.
“These are preverbal babies, who themselves are not actively doing very much, yet they appear to understand other people’s actions in this sophisticated, quantitative way,” says Josh Tenenbaum, Ph.D., a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and another author of the paper.
What this means for you and your baby
You don’t need an elaborate experimental setup to recognize that your baby is watching and learning from you — just the fact that babies cry in their mother’s accent shows that imitating starts right from the beginning — so remember this lesson the next time you’re trying to do something difficult. If you don’t want your baby to give up when the going gets tough, then you can’t give up either. Also, now you know that staring is how babies show surprise…consider that the next time your kid can’t take his eyes off grandpa’s nose hairs!