Growing Up Human: Like the Trees in the Forest
Note: Dates in the body of this paper are rough estimates interned to give a sense of the time period in which these thinkers writers were considering, researching, and writing about their topics.
Child development progresses within a social context: a baby develops in the midst of relationships and connections with people. This social network is much like the interconnected web of roots that lies beneath the forest floor and enables trees to talk together and respond to one another, as Susan Simard
(2016) described in her fascinating TED talk.(1) While development advances from an infant’s dependency to a child’s expanding independence, like Simard’s trees, there is an interdependence that exists from the very beginning. Infants and their caregivers have a continuous, mutual, back-and-forth exchange of communication, influence, and impact upon one another.
Erik Erikson (1956) identified a progression of psychosocial goals for a child advancing from infancy to school age. He outlined these stages as beginning with the establishment of trust, and continuing on to the achievements of autonomy, initiative, and industry.
(2) Erikson placed development in an interpersonal context within which the most important relationships for reaching the goals at each stage have been identified: for infants the primary relationship lies with mother, for toddlers it is with parents, for preschoolers it is with family, and for school-age children the neighborhood and school connections are most important.
These early years from babyhood through early grade school are a formative period in which a child’s personality, capacities, psychology, and identity are becoming established. As children grow within their interpersonal networks, they achieve competencies of all sorts, and acquire greater self-regulation and self-awareness. They also gain an understanding of how others think and feel. The interactions between a developing child and the people who are continually engaged with them make a significant contribution toward who a child ultimately becomes.
D.W. Winnicott (1975) once proposed, “There is no such thing as a baby.” He went on to explain this perplexing comment by saying, “If you show me a baby you certainly show me also someone caring for the baby...”
(4) Winnicott was speaking of his belief that babies are not separable from their surroundings, particularly from their primary caregivers. He described that, in the beginning, a baby is not an individual: “The unit is not the individual, the unit is an environment-individual setup... The centre of gravity of the being does not start off in the individual. It is the total set-up. By good-enough childcare... the kernel (which has looked all the time like a human baby to us) can begin to be an individual.”
(5) From Winnicott's perspective, and in keeping with Erikson’s ideas, a baby's personhood evolves in connection with the baby's relationship with the mother or primary caregiver. It is from a “two-body relationship” with a “good-enough caregiver” that the infant begins to take shape as an individual person.
Edward Tronick (1989) proposed that it is the back-and-forth relating of an infant and caregiver that shapes a child’s development and contributes to the growing capacities for communication, self-regulation and coping. “The emotional expressions of the infant and caretaker function to allow them to mutually regulate their interactions.... The infant and adult are participants in an affective communication system... The operation of this system has a major influence on how well the infant accomplishes his or her goals, the emotions the infant experiences, and the infants’ developmental outcome.”
Tronick described that "it is now well established that the face-to-face interactions of infants and adults starting as young as three months are bidirectional (i.e., mutually regulated) rather than just being the product of adult social skills. That is, infants modify their affective displays and behaviors on the basis of their appreciation of their mother’s affective displays and behavior... adults make similar modifications.”
(7) He described that there is a coordination and synchrony in the back-and-forth exchanges between infants and their caregivers.
Tronick elaborated that not only is there is two-way communication between infant and caregiver, but that it includes a series of clarifications, corrections, adjustments, and repairs on both sides. Through many repetitions, this process leads to an experience of recognition, positive self-esteem, trust, and competence for both of them.
“With the accumulation and reiteration of success and reparation, the infant establishes a positive affective core, with clearer boundaries between self and other. From this experience, the infant develops a representation of himself or herself as effective, of his or her interactions as positive and reparable, and of the caretaker as reliable and trustworthy. “
(8) The concept that development takes place through this interchange is compatible with Erikson's concept of the importance of establishing trust in infancy, and fits with Winnicott’s description of the necessity for the baby to have a relationship with a good- enough caregiver.
Mary Target and Peter Fonagy (1997) considered the nature of the early attachment of the baby to the parent, as well as the child’s capacity for self- reflection and for recognizing the mental state of another, such as recognizing that one’s mother has her own separate thoughts and goals. They put forward the idea that secure attachment leads to parent-child exchanges that develop a child’s capacity for self-reflection and for grasping how minds work.
From the perspective of Target and Fonagy, like the views of their predecessors, “the development of children’s understanding of mental states is embedded within the social world of the family, with its interactive network of complex and at times intensely emotionally charged relationships...” They added that these relationships “constitute the primary content of early reflection.”
Target and Fonagy described that a child develops the ability to reflect and understand the mind through a secure attachment: “The parent’s capacity to observe the moment to moment changes in the child’s mental state... lies at the root of sensitive caregiving, which is viewed by attachments theorists as the cornerstone of secure attachment... Secure attachment in its turn provides the psychosocial basis for acquiring an understanding of the mind.”
(10) They believe that, over time, a child registers, and internalizes, his parent’s reflected view of him as a thinking-feeling-acting individual: “That exploration of the mental state of the sensitive caregiver enables the child to find in her mind an image of himself as motivated by beliefs, feelings, and intentions, in other words, as mentalizing.” They elaborated that this process leads to positive gains for the child: “There is considerable evidence to support the view that secure attachment enhances the development of inner security, self-worth, and autonomy...”
In essence, Target and Fonagy conveyed that attuned interactions between babies and good-enough caregivers lead to secure attachment; secure attachment fosters back-and-forth communication between parents and young children about feelings and intentions; and this helps a child to understand the mind, or mentalize. Mentalization is “the capacity to understand minds, both one’s own and those of others, and therefore to recognize that human behavior is motivated by mental states—by things like thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and desires.”
(12) Understanding minds helps children to understand themselves as well as others. It enables them to make sense of feelings and motivations, to predict behavior, to grapple with difference, to have empathy and compassion, to negotiate conflict, and to live and work compatibly with, and among, others in groups and communities.
Allan Schore (2000), in his writing about brain research, has described that actual brain development occurs in response to attachment and early social interactions, which is consistent with the ideas and findings of all of these earlier theorists and researchers.
According to Schore, “The specific period from 7 to 15 months has been shown to be critical for the myelination and therefore the maturation of particular rapidly developing... areas... of the human cerebral cortex...” He explained that attachment experiences affect the wiring of the brain “at 10 to 12 months and... complete a critical period of growth in the middle to the end of the second year. This timeframe is identical to Bowlby’s maturation of an attachment control system that is open to influence from the developmental environment.”
Schore stated, “There is a growing body of studies which shows that the infant’s early maturing right hemisphere is specifically impacted by early social experiences.” He went on: “Attachment can thus be conceptualized as the interactive regulation of synchrony between psychobiologically attuned organisms. This attachment dynamic, which operates at levels beneath awareness, underlies the dyadic regulation of emotion.”
(14) Schore’s descriptions of biological brain development and function are in keeping with Tronick’s earlier findings of mutual regulation. The parent and child continuously affect and regulate one another, and this impacts the biological development of the infant’s brain.
Schore described, similarly to Tronick, that face-to-face interactions give infants and parents an opportunity to coordinate their biological rhythms: “The visual prosodic-auditory, and gestural stimuli embedded in these emotional communications are rapidly transmitted back and forth between the infant’s and other’s face, and in these transactions the caregiver acts as a regulator of the child’s arousal levels.” He explained that “these mother-infant facial interactions serve not only to regulate positive emotion but also moments of asynchrony and distress, which is helpful to an infant for coping with negatively charged affects such as those that occur with separation stress.”
According to Schore, these early back-and-forth interactions enable babies to regulate emotion, deal with stress, and provide useful social understanding, “These affect regulating events are particularly impacting the organization of the early developing right hemisphere... It is now established that face-to-face contexts of affect synchrony not only generate positive arousal but also expose infants to high levels of social and cognitive information”
(16) Shonkoff and Phillips described this as well.
Shonkoff and Philips (2000) compiled a comprehensive review of current knowledge about childhood development. They located many of the developmental achievements of youngsters—achievements that serve them well as adults—as taking place within a network of relationships. In fact, they found that the secure attachment that comes from the primary caretaking relationships in babyhood contributes to later thriving in the social sphere. “Secure attachment in infancy is associated with social competence for toddlers and preschoolers... also predicts greater popularity with peers during the preschool years... and more harmonious, supportive friendships with other preschool children.”
They extended the implications of secure attachment even further, citing studies showing that securely attached young children are found to have “a more balance self-concept... a more sophisticated grasp of emotion... a more positive understanding of friendship... and they show greater conscience development...”
(18) In other words, these early abiding relationships “shape the development of self-awareness, social competence, conscience, emotional growth and emotion regulation, learning and cognitive growth, and a variety of other foundational developmental accomplishments.”
Shonkoff and Phillips, like Schore, wrote extensively about regulation as well. “Regulation in early development is deeply embedded in the child’s relations with others. In caring for infants, parents are acting as extensions of their internal regulatory systems.”
(20) Zooming out from Tronick’s close-up look at moment-to-moment caregiver-child interactions, Shonkoff and Phillips described: “As parents and other caregivers respond to an infant’s emotional expression, manage the child’s feelings, and later label and discuss emotional experience, they help to organize and give meaning to early emotional experience.”
(19) They continued, saying, “Emotional regulation is fostered, in other words, not one by the parent’s immediate interventions but also by the security and confidence that the relationship with the caregiver inspires in children as they grapple daily with feelings that, initially without even vocabulary to describe them...”
Shonkoff, himself, put it succinctly, in an interview for The Children of the Code, a social education project and public television series: “The active ingredient in the environment that's having an influence on development is the quality of the relationships that children have with the important people in their lives. That's what it's all about." His interview comments concluded with the viewpoint that society “needs to also give children a lot of time to just kind of learn on their own, and just kind of have fun, and be kids. And having fun and playing is a very important medium for learning about the world.”
Fredrich Froebel understood that children need to play. And like Simard and her interdependent network of tree roots, Friedrich Froebel (1895) believed in the interconnectedness of all living things and based his educational approach on this. Froebel, who was known for “Inventing Kindergarten,” as Norman Brosterman
(1997) entitled his book on the subject, endorsed the value of play for the development and learning of young children.
Froebel believed, according to Brosterman that kindergarten was “not just the instruction of isolated facts and skills but the ‘creation of a sensitive, inquisitive child with an uninhibited curiosity and genuine respect for nature, family and society.’” (
23) Brosterman wrote that, for Froebel, “Play was fundamental to the success of the kindergarten. Froebel discerned that harnessing the natural activity of children... the impulse that impels children and, indeed, many other animal young to play, learning would be made easier and knowledge more long- lasting.”’
According to Brosterman, Froebel described in his essay, The Education of Man, that play is a fundamental part of human and natural life that “produces, indeed, joy, freedom, satisfaction, repose within and without, peace with the world. The springs of all good rest within it and go out from it.”
(25) In Froebel’s kindergarten, play activities included singing, dancing, gardening, storytelling, gifts (play objects), and occupations (activities). As Brosterman put it, “This early acknowledgment of children as something other than simply small stupid people engaged in useless activity set the stage for the development of child psychology and the Child Study movement at the end of the nineteenth century.”
Rachel E. White (2012), in her thoughtful, well-described, and thorough review of play for the Minnesota Children’s Museum, related that Mildred Parten had described in 1932 four levels of social play across which kids’ development progresses: solitary play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play.
While Froebel placed kids in kindergarten around age 7, White described that children demonstrate the capacity and interest in interacting, playing and learning from each other much earlier on. She explained that “most recent research provides a revised account of the development of social interaction in play settings... When children are in the company of a familiar peer, they can cooperate in play though games like peek-a-boo or running and chasing after one another as early as 18 months... Around this same time, children reliably interact during play by showing each other their toys, occasionally offering to share, inviting peers to play, expressing disapproval of their playmates behavior, and communicating their feelings.”
White described the benefits of play for development, stating that “recent research shows that even small dose of pretend play - less than 10 minutes- improves children’s performance on a subsequent executive function task, further suggesting that pretending may encourage the flexible thinking required for children to overcome impulses and successfully control behavior.” Years earlier, Fonagy and Target had concluded, about the benefits of play, “it is highly plausible that joint pretend play or playfulness fosters the understanding of mental states.”
In her review, White outlined numerous benefits from play, including the acquisition of conceptual knowledge, problem solving, creativity, STEM skills, executive function, social and emotional capacities, language and literacy, socialization, negotiation, emotional regulation, coping and resilience.
Peter Gray (2011) similarly outlined the ways in which play promotes good mental health in children through the development of intrinsic interests and competencies, learning how to make decisions, solving problems, exerting self-control, learning to follow rules, regulating emotions, making friends and getting along with others, and experiencing joy. All of these gains contribute to competence, emotional stability, fulfillment and contentment, much as Froebel had described.
Educator Nancy Carlsson-Paige (2014) wrote an article about raising kids to become thriving adults. She said, about childhood play: “When kids are confused or scared or they don’t understand things, they work it out in their play. Using their imagination, they rework things until they feel some sense of mastery. This is kids’ ongoing way of coping with life and it is crucial for building inner resilience and security. That inner strength and resilience begins to develop at birth. It is first felt as a sense of trust in others—adults who respond to cries of hunger and who can provide a home, safety and health. As time goes on, kids start to carry that security with them on the inside.”
(31) Carlsson-Paige’s own parenting, which included play, likely contributed to the success of her two flourishing boys, now adults— actor Matt Damon and sculptor Kyle Damon.
Perhaps Winnicott’s perspective that “there is no such thing as a baby” could be extended to apply to all of us, at any age: perhaps there is no “self” without “others,” and we are not separable from the interpersonal networks within which we reside.
As Simard pointed out, when speaking of the Paper Birch, Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar she studied, and all the other talking species of trees within the forest: "Through back-and-forth conversations, they increase the resilience of the whole community. It probably reminds you of our own social communities and our families... Forests aren’t simply collections of trees, they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation. And this makes the forest resilient.”
This resilience is something we can aspire to, through mutual engagement and play, for our kids’ sakes and our own, and for the sake of our human species— starting from babyhood.
-Kim Foehl, MD 03/02/17