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Posts exploring brain development in the early years.

How to grow your baby’s inner teddy bear – while out in the buggy

How to grow your baby’s inner teddy bear – while out in the buggy

In my last blog, I told the story of a baby who was having a tough day.  Some commentators wrote to say they felt unsettled by what I’d written.  They wished I had ended the piece with ideas about the kind of steps readers — especially parent readers – could take to guard against the possibility of a baby’s distress.

So that’s aim of this blog.  I’m going to suggest five simple steps parents can take to grow their baby’s inner teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.

But first…

First, though, let me start with a preamble.

I’m always reluctant to provide advice.  Parents are practically drowning in advice these days, and often it achieves the opposite of what it intends.  Advice can easily undermine parents’ confidence, because it feels like someone else knows better than you what to do.

I’m not there when parents have to make decisions.  I don’t know what challenges are going on in a parent’s family or a parent’s life.  Knowledge about children development in general is not the same thing as a knowing a particular child.

So I don’t like providing advice because it can seem like the advice is more important than a parent’s curiosity.  That is never the case.  Parents are the experts on their children.  My only real advice to parents is: “Be curious. Be kind.  Be gentle.  Remember connection.”

On the other hand, I realise that parents often find suggestions helpful.  Being in a relationship with a child is tiring and relentless and confusing – and, yes, sometimes joyous.  (Note that I have not used the word ‘parenting’ in that sentence, because I don’t like that word.  ‘Parenting’ sounds like a task to be performed.  Making a relationship with a child is not a task.  It is a process.  Being in a relationship with a child or a friend or a partner is a way of being.  It’s one aspect of walking through life.  Relationships are not tasks.)

Since suggestions can be helpful, I have crafted the ones I will shortly discuss.  I don’t see them as advice, but more as pointers. They are tips that I hope can make parents’ lives easier and babies’ lives more secure.

Let me reinforce that last observation by turning to one other hand  (if there can be such a thing as three other hands).  It is really important that we keep babies’ emotional security in mind.  Attention to babies’ emotions quickly slips when life become busy and pressured.  That’s partly because babies’ emotions are subtle and fleeting.  It’s easy to overlook them.  Their body movements can be hard to read.  This interpretive process is made much more difficult if you don’t even know that babies have a biological, absolute need for emotional connection.

The struggle I find regularly myself facing is how to balance suggestions against baby’s imperative need for connection.  The suggestions I offer never sound complicated.  Rather, they sound simplistic: “Connect.  Take the baby’s lead.  Connect.  Meet the baby’s need.  Connect.  Reassure.  Connect.”

Until you understand how tremendously important connection is for babies, my suggestions don’t sound vital.  Connect?  Smile?  Laugh?  Cuddle?  Pay attention?  Those suggestions don’t sound serious.  They sound sweet.

I’m not trying to be sweet.  I’m trying to help us understand that without connection, babies suffer.  That’s why I tell stories of distress and disconnection, like the one I told in my last blog, entitled ‘How not to judge families sitting next to you in the café’.  If we are brave enough to see babies’ distress, without turning away from it or denying it, then we begin to really understand what the science of connection is telling us.

But it takes courage to look upon a child’s discomfort.  The things I write and talk about are unsettling because they confront us with our own limitations.  We realise that, even as loving parents, we could cause discomfort in our children.  We could do this without ever intending it or even being aware of it.  This possibility easily tips us into guilt or anxiety.

Guilt and anxiety, though, are not helpful to parents or to their children.  Nor are they what I ever intend.  What I have come to accept is that they are always a risk when I talk about connection.

Thus, the challenge for all of us interested in raising happy children, and in embedding connection in our professional practice, is how to balance:

1) babies’ need for connection…against….

2) our wish to be good parents and professionals and people….against…

3) the knowledge that sometimes we fail to meet babies’ needs.

That is why is compassion and curiosity are so important in this learning process.  Compassion for ourselves, as much compassion as for others.  Curiosity about what is happening inside ourselves, as well as curiosity about what is happening for others.

Compassion and curiosity get us through the moments of anxiety and guilt and doubt.  We become comfortable with the idea we don’t have to be perfect.  No one has to be perfect, including parents sitting next to us in a café.  We forgive ourselves when we ‘mess up’.  We forgive our children when they ‘mess up’.  We are less critical of other parents who ‘mess up’.  We begin to replace blame and judgment with a search for opportunities to help.

We begin to really believe that making up is more important than messing up.  We strengthen our own inner teddy bears.

And then, finally, we begin to relax.  We believe that being a good enough parent is good enough.  We don’t have to be perfect. Even if others criticise us, we have confidence in our own ‘enoughness’.  We do not have to feel ashamed of moments of imperfection.  ‘Parenting’ stops being a task you can fail or succeed at.  Making a relationship with your child becomes a process you live every day.  Some days are better than others.   There is an awful lot of learning involved.

I have come to believe that discarding the anxiety about failure is key to balancing the three key components I listed above:  babies’ needs vs. parents’ hopes to be good enough vs. fears we aren’t good enough.  When we are confident that, even in our imperfection, we are still good enough, then we become better able to cope with scary ideas.  And the idea that babies have an overwhelming need for connection, and that we sometimes fail them, is indeed scary for many parents.  Perhaps ‘scary’ is not a strong enough word.  Maybe the idea that we could fail our children is better understood as shameful.

So here is the good news:  Babies do not need connection all the time.  Even in healthy human relationships, people spend only about 33% of the time in connection.  But we do need that 33%.  Babies absolutely need that 33%.  And they need extra-strong doses of connection when they’ve had a moment of fear – when they’ve found themselves fighting sabre tooth tigers.

The discoveries science is making about emotional trauma tell us that many babies don’t experience connection 33% of the time.  And many of them don’t get extra doses of connection when they are scared, because their parents didn’t realise they were scared in the first place.

That’s why I was worried for the baby in my last blog.  For the 25 minutes I sat in the café near he and his family, there was never one moment of connection, no moment that would have helped him to relax and feel that the café was a safe place.  He turned to electronic technology for comfort because, for whatever reason, his parents weren’t able to offer him the emotional comfort he needed during that half hour.  I say this believing that it was never their intention to ignore his needs.  I fully believe they love him.  I also know he will have suffered, when, at only 18 months old, he went 25 minutes without feeling connected.

This is the courageous balance we need to achieve as individuals and as a society:  to stand in the knowledge that parents who deeply love their children can damage them.  When we can accept that these two things go together, without laying blame on the parents, then we can move into the compassionate place that lets us think about how to help other parents.  Parents can move themselves into a curious place about what else they could do to support their baby’s need for connection.  They don’t have to protect themselves from fears of their own imperfection.  They have already become comfortable with its reality.

I know scientists don’t usually talk this way.  It sounds more like I am speaking from what I humorously sometimes call ‘Dalai Lama Land’.  Nonetheless, it’s still true.  The science of connection ultimately leads us to lessons in forgiveness and compassion.

And with that very long, very essential, preamble, here are my suggestions for five simple thing parents can do to help build their baby’s internal teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.

Five steps to guard against causing your baby anxiety

1. Change the language in your head:  Use the word ‘baby’, not ‘buggy’.

Experiment with never using the phrase ‘pushing the buggy’.  Instead, try always using the phrase ‘pushing the baby’. This simple linguistic shift reminds you that inside that piece of mechanical technology is a real live baby, with a brain and body that needs to feel safe.  The baby’s sense of safety comes only through their confidence that you are always nearby, that you haven’t forgotten them.  The problem with buggies is that they too easily interfere with a baby’s sense of connection to trusted adults.  There is a mismatch between babies’ brains and buggies’ design – especially when buggies face outward.

2. Don’t park the baby far away from you.

If you are going into a café, or a bus, or a shop, don’t park the baby across a large space.  Take the baby, in the buggy, with you.  (Better yet, lift them out and carry them.  This gives their muscles a chance to stretch.)  They will feel safer, because you are nearby. They won’t have to wonder when you will come back.  They won’t have to worry whether you might never come back.  Their physiology doesn’t have to start gearing up for sabre tooth tigers that might sneak into the café or bus or shop before you get back to them.  All unfamiliar environments are, for babies, settings in which a tiger might spring out and gobble them up.  The only way to prevent that fear is for them to feel confident that their trusted adult is looking out for them.

3. Be sure the baby can see you.

If you do have to park the baby far away from you, be sure you have oriented them so that they can keep their eyes on you.  Being able to see you will keep them feeling a bit safer.  You can keep turning around and talking to them, smiling and nodding at them.  That responsiveness will comfort their brain.  They will know you haven’t forgotten them.  They will believe you are keeping your eyes out for any sneaky, dangerous sabre tooth tigers.  If the baby starts to cry, go back and lift them out of the stroller.  Your cuddle will be the reassuring comfort they need.  If they are crying hard, don’t take the stroller by the handle and rock it.  Being soothed in a stroller is not the same as being soothed in your parent’s arms.  Babies recover more quickly from fear when they have the warmth of human touch to help them

4. Touch the baby before you leave and when you get back.

Another thing you can do if you have to put space between you and the baby is to make physical contact with them before you leave and as soon as you get back.  Talk to them at that moment as well.  Tell them where you are going and when you will be back.  Point to where you will be.  Do all this even if your baby can’t talk yet.  They will hear the tone of your voice as reassuring.  That moment of physical connection will boost the hormone oxytocin, which will give their physiological system a boost in coping with the anxiety of your distance.  The conversation will also slow down the speed of your departure.  Remember, babies didn’t know you were both going into this space.  They weren’t in on the planning, so they have little expectation about what might happen.  Your departure to the other side of the room will be one more surprise.  Try to ensure it isn’t an abrupt surprise.

5. Tell the baby you are about to lift them out of the buggy.

When you go to lift the baby out of the buggy, don’t life the baby abruptly.  Give them a chance to realise a change is about to happen in their body.  Hold out your hands and tell them you are about to pick them up.  This lets them be an active participant in this transition, rather than experiencing themselves they as a passive being in an unpredictable world.  If you are surprised by my suggestion that you speak to the baby in this way, please rest assured many parents find this suggestion surprising.  Most parents do not know that by the unbelievably young age of 2 months, some babies are already beginning to anticipate when their parents are going to pick them up.  If a parent doesn’t make that move too rapidly, and gives the baby time to read the parent’s signals, then babies adjust their own posture to ‘help’ parents in picking them up.  You can see babies making these astounding postural adjustments in the photos below, which come from a 2013 research study by Professor Vasu Reddy, where she reported on this ability.  If you like, you can even watch videos of parents and babies participating in the study, on this link here.

 

Finally

As a human species, we didn’t always need to ‘know’ consciously about connection.  In our evolutionary past, we just lived it.  That’s because we lived in a way that allowed it to happen naturally.

Nowadays, our modern way of life too often interferes with connection.  We need to use the knowledge that science is providing to guide our thinking about the way we relate to our babies.

I like knowing that understanding the science of connection helps us not only in relating to our babies, but also to ourselves.  Whatever the problem, curiosity is the answer.

 

 

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

I spend most of my time these days thinking about how we, as a society, get information to parents about infant brain development.  ‘Brain development’ isn’t the right terminology, though.  The English language doesn’t have a word for what I mean.  I mean something more like the intersection of brain and body, self-awareness and self-regulation, anxiety and comfort, and the way that relationships underlie the development of all these systems.  That’s the most crucial point for parents to understand: relationships matter.

Our Western society does not begin to comprehend the importance of relationships for children’s development.  Our modern way of life damages our children – and ourselves – in ways we don’t realise.  It happens without our intending or being aware of it.  It happens because we are increasingly cut off from one another and from ourselves, even from our own bodies.  We end up surviving, rather than thriving.

Let me tell a story to illustrate what I mean.

I was sitting in a café last week, watching a family who had come in to have a meal.  Mum pushed the baby in his buggy, about 18 months old, over to a table.  Dad, Mum, and Big Sister put down their bags and coats.  The three of them went over to the counter to choose drinks and food, leaving the baby parked beside the table. 

The baby immediately got agitated, wriggling and holding out his hands toward them, scrunching his face, and protesting very quietly.  They didn’t notice, though, because their backs were to him, while they read the menu at the counter.  Plus, they will have believed him to be safe, strapped into his stroller and parked near their things at the table.

As minutes passed, the baby’s arm movements and face got more frantic.  His cries did not get louder, though; they stayed consistent and pleading, in their rhythm and tone.  I found myself getting agitated.  His family couldn’t see or hear him.  He needed help to get their attention. 

So I tried a technique that sometimes helps solve things, when a baby is in need and parents are distracted.  I like it because the parents don’t feel offended or blamed.  I simply said to the baby, in an empathic voice loud enough for his parents to hear, “Oh, are you feeling lonely?  Are you missing your Mummy over there?  She’ll be back in a minute.” 

My brief interjection helped Mum to turn around and realise her baby was needing her.  She smiled at me as she came back to the table, and I smiled back at her.  As she neared their table, the baby’s arms quit waving so frantically, and he relaxed a tiny bit, although his arms remained up in the air, as if he was hoping to be picked up.

That made sense to me.  He’d been missing her, far across the room in this unfamiliar place, so stress hormones like cortisol would have been rising.  His brain and body would instinctively have been craving a cuddle, since the reassurance would have brought the cortisol levels down.  Oxytocin would have been boosted too, by her touch, and that would have relaxed him even more.

However, a cuddle is not what happened.  Instead, Mum reached for the handle of the stroller, and moved it back and forth, trying to comfort him by the swaying of the buggy.  I knew that wouldn’t work fully for him, because the swaying of your buggy isn’t the same as the warmth of your mum’s hug.  But I didn’t know how to help the baby this time.  No parent wants an interfering busybody of a stranger telling them how to care for their own child. 

But the baby was still distressed.  His low-level cries of protest continued; his face scrunched; his head hung down in a kind of defeat.  Mum continued to ‘rock’ the stroller with one hand, leaving her other hand free to adjust the coats.  She was now focused on making space at the table, and so she wasn’t looking at his face any longer.  He had neither her gaze nor her touch to draw on for comfort. 

Watching all this, I found myself thinking that her physical closeness would be helping him feel somewhat safer.  The cortisol in his system should at least be levelling off, rather than rising higher.  His overall state wouldn’t change rapidly, though.  Cortisol stays in your system for at least 20 minutes – which is why reassuring touch in this situation is so helpful.  Cuddles kick-start the decrease.

Very soon, Dad and Big Sister came over to the table, having made their choices.  I wondered if the baby might now get a cuddle, or even a hand-hold, since there were more hands available.  This seemed hopeful, because his distress hadn’t ceased.  He was still quietly moaning and looking at the ground.

Let me pause in the midst of my storytelling.  Before I go on, I want to consider what might be happening for you, Dear Reader.  If I am telling this story vividly enough and compassionately enough, then maybe you will be feeling something of the anxiety I was feeling for that baby.

If he can’t get the comforting attention he needs from his family, then he has a problem.  At only 18 months old, his brain is still too immature to fully comfort himself when he is distressed, so he has to look to an outside source for that comfort.  Right there, in that café, in that very ordinary moment, he is learning lessons about where comfort comes from.  It isn’t from his family.

Perhaps, in order to cope with your anxiety for the baby, you might be feeling frustrated with the parents.  Why aren’t they giving him the attention he needs?  That reaction of frustration or exasperation or even anger makes sense to me, because these emotions signal that a situation we are witnessing requires some sort of action.  The trouble is that these emotions easily lead to judgement, and judgement is everywhere these days when it comes to parenting.  Modern parents live with the constant anxiety of being judged harshly.

Consider, for instance, what recently happened to political correspondent Robert Kelly, when was he “interrupted” by his two young children while giving a live television interview to the BBC from his office at home.  His spontaneous response, along with that of his panicked wife (or perhaps nanny – the internet can’t decide), solicited all sorts of criticism from observers.  Commentators on social media began arguing with each other over what response would have been most appropriate, and even the couple’s use of a baby walker was criticised.  My own response was to wonder how I would have reacted as a parent, handling such an unexpected, personally exposing situation, being broadcast live on international television.

So, returning to my story, what happens if we counter any rising sense of judgement with curiosity?  What happens if we wonder what was going on in that moment that kept this little boy’s parents from noticing his distress?  Were public places uncomfortable for them? Had they had to walk a long way in the cold?

What happens if we expand our curiosity even further and wonder what might have happened for them within the last hour or earlier in the day or within their general family interactions?  Had they just had an argument or come from a difficult doctor’s appointment?  Was Mum suffering postnatal depression?  Were they on the edge of divorce?  Did they believe that electronic devices help young children to learn?

And what happens if I search for the words that help this story to prompt curiosity in readers, rather than judgement or anger or blame?  Here are a set of ordinary parents, busy and tired and distracted by the tasks of modern life.  They probably have no idea how scared babies can get, parked far away across the café in a stroller, or that cuddles have a biological impact on a child’s brain.

In that case, how would it be helpful to them if I were to get frustrated about something they did unintentionally?  My curiosity will be more helpful than my frustration could ever be.

And, as it turns out, curiosity is going to be incredibly important for all of us, if we are to reach the end of this story in a compassionate place.  Because it’s about to get worse.

The whole family is now at the table, with Dad sitting next to the baby.  Mum and Big Sister are across the table, stretching out, having taken off the last of their coats.  The baby, though, is still strapped into his stroller, unable to stretch out or shift his posture.  His low level protest cries haven’t stopped, either.  His head is still hanging down, moving slowly back and forth in a restless fashion.

Dad must have noticed though, because he moves to offer the baby a kind of comfort.  He reaches into a bag and brings out a phone.  He hits a couple of buttons, and hands it to the baby.  It must be playing a video.

Sure enough, the baby’s whimpering stops, his head comes up, and his hands cease moving as they grasp the phone.  His agitation fades almost immediately.  He is intensely focused on the display on that phone.

I imagine that the father thinks he has comforted his child.  Outwardly, he does appear calmer and happier. 

As I watch the child’s fierce concentration, though, I think of the dopamine being sparked in his brain.  Dopamine is the hormone of novelty.  We human beings crave it.  It’s the feel good factor.  Dopamine is what gets triggered when we fall in love.  Our brains and bodies yearn for it.  We get addicted to it.

I knew I was watching a father comfort his son’s distress by fostering a biological addiction to technology.

And I knew the father didn’t know that. 

And I knew that when the father would eventually try to take the phone away, the spike in the baby’s disappointment and distress was likely to cause a terrible, wailing conflict – which would further distress everyone in the family. 

And I had no way to explain any of this to them.

Dear Reader, how am I doing? In telling this story, I am trying my best to turn you into a watcher, rather than a reader.  I am trying to have you sit with me in the midst of that café, trying to decide what you would do, how you would feel, what you would think.  I am aiming for that because, of course, we sit down next to ordinary families every day, whenever we walk into cafés.

How do we help ordinary families to understand what science is discovering about children’s development?  How do we help tired parents feel more curious about their baby’s emotional needs?  How do we help them to connect the dots, so that they realise their responses hold long-term, biological consequences for their children?  If this little boy’s brain becomes addicted to the dopamine hit his father’s phone is supplying, the parents will soon have major ‘behavioural issues’ on their hands.  And their little boy will suffer.

The points I am making are not novel ones.  They are part of the reasoning underpinning recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics that children under 2 years of age should never view screens alone.  Other organisations have used language shifts to emphasise the biological impacts, arguing that early technology use should be regarded not as an ‘educational’ or ‘cultural’ issue, but as a ‘medical’ one. The author Mary Aiken dedicates several chapters in her new book, The Cyber Effect, to exploring what is happening across our society as children encounter a mismatch between their basic physiological needs and their parents’ technology habits.

I found myself thinking about all this guidance as I watched the final stage of this family’s interactions.  The story doesn’t end happily.

With the baby now (apparently) settled and engaged with the phone, Dad again reached into a bag.  I realised he was taking out his son’s lunch, probably because there was a gap of time available before his own order arrived.  He could feed his son before eating himself.

And that’s what Dad proceeded to do.  He fed his son, spoonful after spoonful of packaged food going into his mouth — while his little boy never took his hands off the phone or his eyes off the display.

The baby didn’t protest.  He didn’t shake his head or refuse.  He passively accepted each spoonful of food the father delivered to his mouth.  His father looked relieved it was going so smoothly.

I knew, though, that this experience meant the baby was not engaged at all with his own body.  He wasn’t developing a conscious awareness of hunger or how to take care of feelings of hunger.  He wasn’t consciously learning about feeling ‘full’ or about ‘relief’ or about ‘companions’.  What he was learning was that you solve uncomfortable feelings with technology. 

The more the baby’s brain experiences that solution, the more the child will be out of touch with his own body.  His internal teddy bear (to use the language I frequently use) will be weaker, less able to comfort him from internal, self-regulatory sources.  He will become more dependent on external sources of comfort, turning to solutions like videos or games or drugs or alcohol or food.  It sounds extreme, to knit these outcomes together, but it is exactly what the research on addiction is teaching us.

I knew I was watching a father nurture an addictive personality within his infant son.  I also knew he had no idea that’s what he was doing.

As I stood to leave the café, 15 minutes later, the rest of the family’s meal was being delivered by the waitress.  Dad could relax.  His son was fed and was engaged in an activity.  He could have his own lunch in peace.

I have no idea what havoc may have descended when it was time for Dad to take the phone away.

That family has clearly stayed with me.  A week on, I’m still thinking about them – and now I’m writing about them, telling their story to a wider world, in the most compassionate way I know.

My hope is that their story, unknown even to themselves, might help other parents feel more curious about what’s going on in their children’s brains and bodies.  And I hope it might help those of us trying to support families, to feel more curious about the unknown struggles going on in parents’ lives.

Curiosity is always more powerful than judgement.

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

Donald Trump has done it. He’s won the Republican nomination, having convinced enough Americans that he has the qualities needed to be a Presidential candidate. The rest of the world is looking on with disbelief, confusion, terror and derision.

Many commentators are firmly of the view that, given the statistics, Trump has no chance of actually being elected Presidentcome November 2016. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant now. Trump has already changed America. He has unleashed extremity, humiliation, suspicion and blame. He has done that with a personal style that is abrasive, rude, narcissistic, belligerent, untruthful and ludicrous. Yet he has drawn support from across the USA.

How can that be explained?

Some analysts have put his appeal down to the economic struggles facing many AmericansOthers have attributed it to educational divides. Statistician Nate Silver has highlighted Trump’s ability to manipulate the media. Journalists for the magazine The Week ascribe his success, alternatively, to conservative Republicans’ willingness to abandon traditional norms of governing and also to liberal Democrats’ intolerance of views that they find objectionableThe commentator Steven Poole even jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) put it down to linguistics: Trump loves to punctuate his dazzlingly vague speeches with the thrillingly seductive morpheme ‘so’. “Together”, he says, “we are going to win so much and you are going to be so happy.” Presumably his supporters are so so happy now.

I want to add another explanation to this mix. Attachment theory can go a long way toward helping us make sense of Trump’s popularity.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump2I think we will need such an analysis in the coming months and years – regardless of whether or not Trump wins the election. The American political system is in meltdown. So are other political systems. The UK will shortly hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Union. The outcome of that could well prompt a second Scottish referendum on separating from the UK. The refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe is prompting the return of very real, razor-wire boundaries between countries. Political distrust holds consequences that matter for the whole of our globe. Political distrust is driven by fear. And that’s what’s driving Trump’s success. Fear.

So what is attachment theory? It’s an explanation of why humans (and all other mammals) seek out a sense of safety. Attachment theory helps us realise that this search is a biological drive. We humans have a physiological need to feel safe – not simply to be safe, but to feel safe. Our brains don’t believe we are safe until we feel safe.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump3Attachment theory first emerged in the 1950s, led by paediatrician and psychologist John Bowlby. Since then, the core tenets of attachment theory have been repeatedly affirmed. Particularly helpful has been the development of technologies that allow neuroscientists to track brain development. This new evidence confirms what Bowlby and his colleagues suspected: early life leaves a long legacy. Our experiences as babies and toddlers lay down neural pathways in our brains that determine how safe versus how risky the world seems. Those pathways are obstinately robust.

Thus, fear starts early in life. If the environment often feels scary to you as a baby, then it’s very likely to feel scary to you as an adult. That continuation happens because your brain and body became wired with enough fear sensors to keep you trapped within the physiological emotional framework your brain set up as an infant. Your brain sees no reason to question that framework. Why question reality?

How, then, does attachment theory help to explain Trump’s success?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump4The answer lies in appreciating the extent to which fear is driving Trump supporters. Last September, a political scientist named Matthew McWilliams gathered some striking data while completing his PhD. His findings are drawing considerable attention across social media. He found that the factor most predictive of support for Trump is authoritarianism. The surprise was that this factor cuts across conventional demographic boundaries: education, income, religiosity, age, class, region. McWilliams argues that what binds such diversity together is authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of personality profile. It characterises someone who has a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. Authoritarians look for a strong leader who promises to take action to combat the threats they fear.

In short, authoritarians are seeking a sense of safety. Their political choices are driven by an attachment need. Trump makes his supporters feel safe.

That’s why Trump supporters can hold views that can sound scarily extreme to others.  Muslims should be banned. Mexico should pay to build a wall. Gays and lesbians should be prevented from marrying. In fact, let’s ban them from the country too! And while we’re at it, why not critique Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves?

McWilliams’ data are compelling because they have proven so predictive. He has conducted several large polls, and the factor that keeps coming up as most predictive of Trump support is authoritarianism. Here, for example, is the graph showing his data from the South Carolina primary. The higher a person’s score on the Authoritarian Scale, the more likely they said they were to vote for Trump. The slope of that line is so steady it’s unnerving. Little wonder, then, that Trump has won 26 primaries so farThat’s half the states in the USA.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump5

McWilliams isn’t the only one to have highlighted the importance of authoritarianism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler reached similar conclusions in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarisation in American Politics. They argued that the Republicans, as the self-proclaimed party of law and order and traditional values, would inevitably prove attractive to large numbers of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. They just hadn’t predicted it would happen as quickly as 2016. But what’s happening completely fits their predicition: “Trump embodies the classic authoritarianism leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

How is authoritarianism measured? It’s astoundingly simple. You just ask four straightforward questions:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four questions were devised by political scientist Stanley Feldman in the 1990s. The responses that emphasise behaviour, as opposed to internal qualities, are associated with authoritarianism. Feldman’s studies showed that these four questions turned out to be so reliable in assessing authoritarian tendencies that they now form the field’s ‘industry standard’ and are regularly incorporated into all sorts of political surveys.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump6It was, though, earlier research that had provided the platform for Feldman’s thinking. Psychologist Diana Baumrind carried out ground-breaking work in the 1960s that identified three main parenting styles in America. Her findings have stood the test of time.

  • Authoritarian parents tend to be rigid and controlling, focusing on external behaviour rather than internal experience. They expect a lot from their children, but without offering warmth or being responsive to their emotional needs. Children are expected to do as they are told, without questioning. The data showed that children raised in environments where they have such little control over their own lives tend to be unsure of themselves, don’t trust easily and have difficulty completing tasks. Baumrind emphasized that parents might adopt such a style due not only to their own personality but because they were trying to protect their child from a dangerous environment.
  • Permissive parents offer lots of warmth. However, they don’t set limits or impose expectations. These children often grow up impulsive and frustrated, with difficulty in adjusting their own desires to meet those of the wider society or relationship partners. It is harder for them to adapt to the restrictions of adult life.
  • Authoritative parents have high expectations of their children, like authoritarian parents. However, they also offer warmth, like permissive parents. They are responsive to their children’s emotional needs; they are flexible; they listen. Children’s internal experiences and emotional needs matter to them.   These children tend to become self-reliant and independent, with high self-esteem and respect for others. They function pretty well in the adult world.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump7While three descriptive categories absolutely do not explain the whole of a person’s character, Baumrind’s account provides a starting point for making sense of adult behaviour that can, at first, seem bewildering. It helps us to see how a parent’s style of relating to their child intersects with that child’s attachment needs, resulting in a mindset for the child as to how risky or safe the world is.

Except its more than a ‘mind’-set. It is actually a biological orientation to the world. It is a reflection of the child’s early emotional experiences, which may bear absolutely no relation to the present, but which is now woven into their very physiology. Their brain is stuck in the past, filtering the way they perceive and react to the present.

What’s really sobering is that Baumrind’s research with the children started when they were 3-year-olds. Children were already of an age that “rendered them unlikely to alter their genuine, instinctive reactions.” That sounds unbelievably early to most people who are new to the science of the early years. Yet, the age of 3 years is commonly identified by neuroscientists and by attachment theorists as marking a shift in children’s developmental trajectories.

This all explains why it does not matter to Trump’s supporters whether he grasps international affairs, diplomacy or honesty. What matters is that he makes them feel safe.

And guess what? That’s exactly the approach that Hitler took too.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump8Hitler made Germans of the 1930s feel safe. No, not all of them. Far from all of them. Many resisted his vision, including his fellow politicians. But Hitler made enough of his citizens feel safe. His message resonated with enough Germans to to allow the Nazi Party to prosper.

The problem wasn’t Hitler. The problem was support for Hitler.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump9I hope that, at this point, you might have taken a deep breath. It is very clear that I have just compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I am not, of course, the first to do that. The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has done so, as has Holocaust survivor Zeev Hod. Commentator Adam Brown carried out a detailed policy analysis of that comparison in October 2015, and the Philadelphia Daily News made the same comparison on the front page of their paper in December 2015. The historians Robert Paxton and Fedja Buric have taken such uncomfortable debates to a new level by seriously discussing whether a comparison to the fascist Mussolini might be more accurate. The NY Daily News chucked Stalin into the mix.

But even with such illustrious company, you might wonder if I haven’t taken things a step too far. It is not a bit far-fetched to compare Donald Trump to Hitler? Is it not just a bit too insulting or too unimaginable? Is it not according him slightly too much power – especially as he hasn’t yet been elected President and many think he hasn’t got a hope in hell of that anyway.

No, its not. Because, as I said, the problem wasn’t Hitler. And the problem isn’t Trump. The problem is support for Trump.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump10In his brilliant book Parenting for a Peaceful World, published in 2005, psychologist Robin Grille carried out a psycho-historical analysis of 1930s Germany. He traces the parenting advice popular at the end of the 19th century, just at the time when many Nazi supporters would have been young children. His review shows that the most popular childcare experts were promoting an authoritarian parenting style. They recommended ignoring and even crushing children’s emotional needs, in order to raise well-behaved, obedient adults.

It doesn’t take much to start crushing children’s capacity for connection – especially if experts are encouraging you down a harsh, unwavering path of relating. You can make a pretty good start by the age of 3. By then you’ve had a lasting impact on a child’s brain. And you don’t have to be a parent to achieve that change. Institutions charged with caring for young children, including childcare, social work, orphanages and hospitals can do a lot to damage children. It’s easy. You don’t even have to intend to. Just create policies that prevent staff from meeting children’s emotional needs, make the staff ratios so high there’s too little opportunity to meet them anyway, and be sure to humiliate, exclude and punish bad behaviour.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump11Adults who had been raised in authoritarian settings were just what Hitler and the Nazis needed — adults who would dispense with compassion in order to have safety. Adults who could feel so good about themselves in the process.

Robin Grille makes the point that such political success didn’t require all German parents of the early 20th century to follow expert authoritarian advice. He has no doubt that many German parents were highly empathic. Indeed, when comparing autobiographical accounts of Nazi sympathisers versus Nazi resisters, he is able to identify distinct differences in the way their parents treated them during childhood.

So  a country – whether that’s Germany or America or anywhere else — doesn’t need all, or even a majority, of its adult citizens to adopt an authoritarian parenting style in order to wreak widespread cultural havoc. All that’s needed is enough of them. As Robin Grille puts it (pg. 120): “Only a critical mass of harsh, authoritarian upbringing is needed to skew a nation towards dictatorship and war.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump12The articles currently circulating on the web that explore this issue tend to focus on ‘American authoritarianism’. And its certainly true that there’s plenty of that about. For example, Daniel Kolman (@kolman) recently tweeted that he was shocked to discover that 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in schools.  I have myself previously written about the book No Greater Joypopular amongst the Christian Right community in the USA, which advocates training babies’ behaviour by regularly beating them with a 12-inch piece of lawn-strimming cord. After the age of 1 year, the authors recommend upgrading to plumber’s supply line, which is thicker and which you can find at any hardware store, in a variety of colours for you to choose from. The book gets plenty of five-star ratings on Amazon.

A petition in 2011 tried (and failed) to ban Amazon from selling the book. A member of the UK Parliament tried to at least get its sale banned in the UK. But Amazon is global, isn’t it? Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries.

And that’s my real point in this piece. Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries. It isn’t present just in America. It is present in all cultures where humiliation, shame or violence is used to control children. It is present in all institutions where adults become more concerned about managing children’s behaviour than responding to their feelings. It is present in many of the homes in your community where parents are simply trying to do their best to raise their kids.

Donald Trump is dangerous NOT because he is now the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump is dangerous because he legitimises fear.

Leftover baby fears are oh so powerful, lurking in the dark of our neural pathways. That’s the point of attachment theory.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump13If you’re worried about this election, whatever country you live in, don’t fight Trump. Fight fear.

If you’re worried about world events beyond the American election, do the same thing. Fight fear.

 

 

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

We are conflicted about nappy changing these days. As a society, it makes us uncomfortable. It is distasteful, involving dirty, smelly bodily substances. It is anxiety provoking, requiring the exposure of babies’ genitals. It is inconvenient, necessitating a pause in the midst of whatever other activity a parent has underway. And it frequently emotional, with babies refusing to lie still or staring intently into their caretaker’s face.

For all these reasons, nappy changing is something we don’t usually talk about in polite circles. It may be a necessity of life with a baby, but it’s not exactly a subject for the dinner table, is it? It might therefore seem too inconsequential a topic for a whole article, especially when you consider that other pieces in this blog series have focused on ‘serious’ subjects, like terrorism and abuse and brain development.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies1Yet, to my mind, that is exactly the reason for writing a piece on nappy changing. Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their nappies changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways. Nappy changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So nappy changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

I thought, therefore, that it would be interesting to reflect on the ways in which modern society encourages us to approach the task of nappy changing. This is an appropriate moment for such reflection, given that Real Nappy Week is taking place this very week in London. Most people won’t have any idea there is a group of committed individuals who want to celebrate the benefits of real cloth nappies. This article is my way of supporting their efforts.

So what are some of the big messages we get about nappy changing in today’s society?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies2One message is that nappies are disgustingly funny. Take, for example, the videos that regularly travel the web that show fathers wretching whilst changing nappies. In August 2015, a tattooed, uniformed father gained international attention when the video of him vomiting as he soldiered on with nappy changing went viral, featuring eventually on television and in newspapers.

Why is it always Dads? I know that we regard ourselves as having ‘moved on’ as a society, because once upon a time fathers never changed nappies at all. But this humiliating form of humour says something darker about the way we frame modern masculinity. We are either laughing at dads’ incompetence – or turning them into heroes for coping with something ordinary. Indeed, if you want a gag gift for new fathers, you can buy a doodie apron, which comes complete with nose peg, face mask and gloves, all designed to help a father keep the disgusting productions of his baby’s body at bay.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. And I know I sound like I need to get a life if I’m not laughing at the innocent joke. But I find myself wondering about the baby’s experience. Is the baby scared when confronted with Dad clad in a face mask? Does the baby feel ashamed when Dad looks disgusted in reaction to the substances that her body produces? Does the baby feel embarrassed when parents start laughing whilst filming ‘poo faces’ to send to Pampers as part of an advertising campaign?

Here’s my point: we feel okay about all this laughter because we think it’s only about the adults. We don’t think it matters to the babies. We wouldn’t laugh at older people with dementia who are pooing, because we would think that was disrespectful. But when it comes to babies, we think they don’t notice. That why the joking seems innocent and can’t do harm to anybody.

Except it’s not true. Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them. This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as nappy changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting. It is ominously fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during nappy changing. As parent, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies3What’s another message that we get in today’s world about nappy changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change. The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth. Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of nappies, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are. But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation? The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable to us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable nappies weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if nappy companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mum’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies4That’s one of the aims of Real Nappy Week. The celebrations aren’t designed only to highlight the value of non-disposable nappies, but to get us as a culture to rethink the whole business of nappy changing.

So what’s one final modern-day message to which we might pay attention? How about the way in which our fear of sexual abuse now overlaps with nappy changing?

Many nurseries now have a policy that requires two members of staff to be present when nappies are changed, in order to guard against the risk of inappropriate touch. We are scared that the people who have been vetted to take care of our children might harm them, and nakedness makes nappy changing seem a particularly vulnerable setting.

Videos that instruct new parents on how to change nappies are frequently shot from an angle that avoids revealing babies’ genitals, or are edited so that the genitals are blurred out. How ironic that the very parts of the body that generate the need for a nappy change cannot be shown on film. In our struggle to come to terms with the very real risks that children face of being sexually abused, we have further sexualised our youngest children.

In the run-up to Real Nappy Week, my team released our brief film ‘dance of the nappy’. The film is excerpted from our longer feature-length film, ‘the connected baby’, first released in 2011 with funding from the British Psychological Society. We estimate that the longer film has now been viewed by 100,000 people, but this is the first time we have released an entire segment for public viewing on YouTube.

Dance of the nappy

The film shows the intricate emotional dance that goes on between a 5-week-old baby and his mother during an ordinary nappy change. The baby’s emotional responses to his mother’s movements and facial expressions are so nuanced that it would be easy to miss them. That’s why we wanted to make the film: because such moments of connection are happening for babies across the world, but it is easy for parents to overlook them because they are so subtle and fleeting. Video footage makes it possible to slow everything down and reveal what is not apparent to the naked eye.

After filming that session, I realised the baby’s genitals were in full view. The mother realised it too. She commented on it at the time, whilst we were filming. Later, during editing, she confirmed that she was comfortable with retaining the footage. But I had to ask myself: was I comfortable with it? Was it appropriate in today’s society to show a 5-week-old baby’s genitals on a movie screen? What would I say if someone challenged my decision? What if, later, when the baby is grown, he resents having had his bum shown off to the world? What if I was accused of encouraging inappropriate touch because his genitals appear briefly but undeniably?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies5My decision was not to change anything. I decided that real-life nappy changing means exposing and cleaning baby’s genitals. I decided that merely alluding to that, by editing out that footage, actually feeds our modern day fear that genitals are inherently sexual, even those of a 5-week-old baby. I decided that I was making a film that was trying to show how connection is possible at all points in a baby’s day, including during an activity as ‘disgusting’ as changing a pooey nappy. Because that’s exactly what the film shows – not just a Number One, but a Number Two. And the interaction between the mum and her baby is still loving and affirming. The baby gets no sense that his bodily excrement is shameful to her. After weeks of fretting, I decided I could defend such a scene to the world.

This week, I was reminded about my early worries. Since our public release on YouTube last week, I have received queries from three people, expressing unease that the film shows ‘everything’. I was relieved to realise that I now welcomed such debate, rather than feared it. Those weeks I had spent agonizing had been valuable, for they enabled me to articulate the position I take in this debate.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-ChangingNappies6And here is my position: Something is emotionally askew in our modern society. On the one hand, the global company Pampers can make an award-winning film that is intentionally designed to make us laugh at babies’ unease and discomfort when they poo. On the other hand, we can be made uncomfortable by a film that shows the real poo and the parts of a baby’s body that produced it. Something is awry in our reasoning.

I like the idea that a scene of something as tediously ordinary as a pooey nappy can become a radical act. A baby boy’s bum can make us reflect in new ways on our own humanity.

So, to the grown man of the future who was once that baby boy, let me offer my thanks and my apologies now. It was your bum that offered us this gift of reflection. Your mother says in the film: “One day you might really hate that I did this in front of the camera.” I hope you don’t. Because every time I show this film, I offer you a silent, grateful thanks for the trust you placed in us that day.

The science of Bing Bong and other imaginary friends: On joy, loss and growth

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong1Bing Bong has made it safe for children to enjoy their imaginary friends.

That’s a worry that parents have carried for a long time. You can find anxious articles all over the web. Is it normal for my toddler to have an imaginary friend?”  “Are invisible friends a sign of social problems?”  “Should parents be worried about imaginary friends?”  Bing Bong reassures adults that the answer is: “Yes! Stop worrying and start celebrating the creativity of your child’s mind.”

If you find yourself asking ‘Who in heaven’s name is Bing Bong?’ then you are one of the few people left in the Western Hemisphere who has yet to see Pixar’s award-winning animated film Inside Out. It has already won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and now an Oscar.  If you’ve missed all the fun and the tears, can I suggest you take 90 minutes out of your daily life to remedy this gap in your life? This film is, by my reckoning, one of the most insightful films ever made on human emotions. The viewer may never realise they are getting a scientific lesson in attachment, brain function and trauma. They think they are watching an entertaining cartoon.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong2I have been talking and writing about this film since it was released in Summer 2015. Tons of parents have now written to say they found in it a shared language for talking with their children about feelings. Foster and kinship carers have been in touch to share stores of how the character dolls helped their traumatised children make sense of confused emotions. Staff teams have scheduled a night out together to go see it. One nursery chain – Kirktonholme Nurseries, in Scotland’s central belt – thought it so valuable that they hired a theatre and took 200 of their children to see it. They even got their local paper to do a story on the science behind their outing!

All of that activity has tended to focus on the five characters — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – who live in the head of the central figure, 11-year-old Riley. The character who has had less attention than anyone else is Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong. Part cat, part elephant, part dolphin, Bing Bong once rode with Riley on their song-powered rocket ship (better known to adults as a wee red wagon). Now, though, Bing Bong lives forgotten in Riley’s subconscious long-term memory. And (SPOILER ALERT!), before the movie is over, Bing Bong will sacrifice himself to the eternal abyss of the Memory Dump, in order to help Joy find her way back to headquarters in Riley’s brain.

Pixar’s message in Bing Bong’s death is very clear. In order to keep growing up, Riley will need Joy more than she will need an invisible friend. Bing Bong accepts his heart-breaking fate with a final wrenching request: “Go save Riley. Take her to the moon for me.” With those two short sentences, Pixar is aiming to crack open adult viewers’ protective shells. Pixar is bringing us face to face with the loss that is an inherent part of growing up.

Bing Bong’s death scene has been dubbed the most profound moment of the film. It embodies the bittersweet quality of other chronicles of growing up, such as the 1960s hit song Puff the Magic Dragon (by the group Peter Paul and Mary) or the scene from Toy Story when Andy gives away his toys. Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip adventures of a child and his stuffed tiger, never have to face such a poignant turn because Calvin never grows up. If you are going to move beyond childhood, you must learn to endure loss.

It is striking how tough such an in-your-face message is for adults. Bing Bong’s death scene was originally supposed to be 40 seconds longer. That proved way too heart wrenching. Viewers couldn’t take it. So Pixar cut it down.

Inside Out is ultimately a story about the power of sadness. Its moral is that growth and loss come together, hand in hand. One doesn’t exist without the other. On a first viewing of the film, it is easy to come away thinking that message is conveyed by the two lead characters, Joy and Sadness.

But look closer, and it becomes clear the story is deeper than that. It is Bing Bong who makes sure we really really really get that message. Pixar has ensured we aren’t merely watching a story about sadness. Instead, they make us experience sadness. They lead us into loving bumbling Bing Bong before we are subjected to his unexpected but inevitable demise.

So is Bing Bong just a metaphor? Is he simply a vehicle that allows Pixar to tell a story about the wistful journey that is growing up? How much resemblance does he bear to children’s real imaginary friends?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong2We can turn to the science to answer that question. That’s a surprising turn for many people, because they have no idea that scientific interest in invisible friends exists. Yet there have been several books published on the subject. The classic is The House of Make-Believe, by Dorothy and Jerome Singer, published in 1990. A decade later, in 1999, Majorie Taylor published her own fascinating account in Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Paul Harris, too, provides delightful insights in his book The Work of the Imagination, published in 2000.

What does that research tell us? We learn three key things:

  1. Imaginary companions are healthy. It is not shy, lonely children who create companions as a way of coping with emotional troubles. In fact, the reverse is true. Research shows that children who create pretend friends tend to be sociable and outgoing. And while companions can help in times of trouble, the main motivation for inventing a friend is fun. So Riley turns out to be pretty typical of children with imaginary friends.
  1. Imaginary friends allow children to try out new perspectives. You can discover what its like to be brave if you have a pretend friend walking with you past a scary dog. You can figure out how to deal with bossy friends if your imaginary companion is forever disobeying your requests. Interactions with imaginary friends give children practice with situations that they will encounter in real life. Perhaps that is why they are so common. Research estimates that 65% of children have an imaginary friend at some point.
  1. Children with imaginary friends are not confused about reality. Interviews with children make it clear that, even if they get very caught up in the fun, children know that imaginary companions are not real. They have not misunderstood the borders of fantasy. Instead, scientists have concluded, the existence of a pretend friend indicates that a child has a pretty good grip on the boundaries of reality.

So when children invent imaginary friends, they are, as Marjorie Taylor puts it, “engaging in a basic human urge” (p. 48). They are discovering what companionship is like. That urge for connection is one that all human beings bring with them at birth, woven into their neural pathways.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong4In the creation of Bing Bong, Pixar has been brutally deceptive to its adult viewers. They have used animation, a classic children’s form, to confront us the loss of our own childhood. The director, Pete Docter, christens Bing Bong ‘the spirit of childhood‘ – while still killing him off. It is not easy for most of us to come to terms with the inevitability of loss in our lives. How do you acknowledge that and still reach for happiness?

That philosophical question explains why Bing Bong had to die in the story. Joy may have learned lessons about the power of sadness. But it is Bing Bong who puts those lessons into practice. It is Bing Bong who shows us what it truly means to embrace sadness with grace.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong5This is how Pixar describes their decision to play the story out in that way:

“We need to find our characters at their most challenged: ‘What’s the most difficult thing you have to face in life?’ We’re going to go there. And it’s heartbreaking.”

What I love about this movie is that it isn’t just a movie. It’s more like a tool that can help the rest of us figure out how to bumble our way through this journey called Life.

And given the correspondence I now receive, it seems that tool is working for lots of folk. One more example can be found in a New Year’s Eve piece by a young blogger named Joshua Huggins, posted just after he’d seen Inside Out:

“It’s almost New Year. Every year I post a sappy photo about how I’m going to turn this year around and make myself happy. I seem to be failing in a lot of ways. So this year my resolution is the opposite. I’m going to take the sad and miserable parts of my life and explore them in a way I’ve always been afraid to do…I’m a bit excited. My New Year’s resolution is to be sad.”

Joshua Huggins is wise.  We’d all be better off if we could learn the lesson in Bing Bong’s sacrifice for Riley.  In order to know growth, we have to find the courage to embrace loss.

Along the way, there really is fun and joy to be had. As our children know, that’s the real point of having a companion in the first place, whether real or imaginary.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-BingBong6