Post No.: 0605
‘Joint attention’ is the shared focus of two individuals on an object. One way this can be achieved is by one person gazing at another person, pointing to an object and then returning their gaze on that person. The abilities to share a gaze with another individual, and to be able to identify their intentions, are important skills for a child’s empathic and language development.
Without being able to understand what another person is thinking, communication doesn’t work – we speak words and in a way that we hope another person will understand without confusion. Many words or phrases can only be properly understood in their intended contexts. And it’s often surprising how well different individuals are able to coordinate together without really knowing what’s going on in each other’s minds, such as in situations where I need to guess what you’re going to do, and you simultaneously need to guess what I’m going to do, and we both know that trying to guess each other’s minds is exactly what we’re trying to do!
Even toddlers are able to comprehend, without words, when an adult, who has both hands full with books, would like a cupboard door opening. Toddlers will seem to enjoy helping people out too! Joint attention plays a key role in the development of ‘theory of mind’.
In a ‘high-low coordination game’ between two people, both people must simultaneously say, “High” or, “Low” – and if they both say, “High” then they’ll share a big prize; if they both say, “Low” then they’ll share a small prize; and if one says, “High” and the other says, “Low” then they’ll both receive nothing. Despite the need to try to guess what the other person will choose, while the other person is trying to guess what you’ll choose, it seems obvious to choose ‘high’ every single time because we don’t have to think of ‘my thoughts’ and ‘your thoughts’ but rather think in terms of ‘us’ or ‘we’ i.e. what should we jointly do? It seems natural to coordinate, and joint attention and the furry theory of mind helps us to socially coordinate.
So joint attention demonstrates how young children already understand the purpose of pointing gestures. Young children are also able to detect other non-verbal gestures – so if a parent gives a piece of vegetable to a toddler and pulls a negative facial expression of disgust to him/her as the parent tries the vegetable for him/herself, then the toddler will likely read that expression and copy or reinforce the notion that the vegetable is to be shunned. And if the parent ceases to serve this child that vegetable ever again then he/she will find it difficult to adapt to happily eating that nutritious vegetable. Therefore parents need to be more cognizant of their own non-verbal body language signals. (One must, with calmness and positive tones and body language, serve one’s child a food that has a less-than-most-pleasant-taste up to maybe 10-15 times before they start to accept it and realise that it’s not harmful. Relatively few life forms really wish to be eaten because they wish to survive thus even safe and highly nutritious vegetables have evolved to be bitter in taste to try to deter animals that wish to consume them. It can take time and experience to override our overly crude instincts, but in cases like this it’s worth it because not all that is bitter is toxic. And it’s also much easier to adapt when young rather than older.)
At ~9 months old, children understand how people express their beliefs and desires through pointing and so they pay attention to where other people point, and will begin pointing at things they want themselves at this age too. Toddlers will be able to express a range of innate gestures (that might be common with other great apes too).
By ~2-3 years old, children begin to figure out that different people have different desires, such as that other people may prefer broccoli, even though a child him/herself would prefer crackers – in experiments, kids who are younger than this will always reward other people whom they like with crackers even after they’ve been shown evidence that these other people would actually prefer broccoli. Children just under 3 years old will begin to engage in pretend play and imagining what it might be like to be someone else with their thoughts and desires, etc..
Social play allows members to work out and test the limits of the social rules, work out whom one can trust (which can result in lasting friendships), strengthen existing social bonds, and learn skills like chasing each other’s tails as if training for catching prey or play-fighting as if training to defend oneself. For some animals, social play can also be used to determine the hierarchy within one’s group. Some children have imaginary friends as devices to help them role-play and imagine playing different characters and social interactions. So play isn’t just about physical training but also importantly about mental and social training.
Young infants also socially connect with others via imitation. Children copy from their (especially high-status) peers; and young children have a tendency to more readily copy and follow naughty peer pressures than obedient peer pressures too!
Many adults seem to underestimate children and are surprised if they do something considered clever. But young children are frequently profoundly rational and very frequently profoundly self-focused – if a behaviour gets them what they want then they’ll learn to continue doing it, no matter how much it annoys daddy or mummy! Or if a behaviour doesn’t get them what they want then they’ll eventually stop doing it. So young children are very good at intuitively linking ‘action and consequence’ together, and this allows them to learn what to do to be rewarded rather than punished. But before they develop enough empathy, they only really seem to care about what they want and not the stress it may cause their parents if their behaviour ultimately gets them more of whatever they want and less of whatever they don’t want! They might learn that a cheeky smile can elicit forgiveness for their misdemeanours. Of course, they can more easily get away with this when they’re young so they need to be encouraged to consider the longer-term gains and losses of their actions, the feelings of others, and understand that, in most cases, working with other people will better help them get more of what they want.
Adults are sometimes also surprised at how fast children pick things up and how easily they absorb and copy the influences in their environment, such as what they see on TV. Children are more likely to copy their peers (please check out Post No.: 0520 for more on the topic of peer influences) but they’ll also copy adults too, especially at home. So lead by example – through positive role modelling. For instance, if you’re calm in the face of obstacles then they’ll more likely learn to be calm in the same situations. Or if you tend to instantly shout at them then don’t be surprised if they tend to instantly shout back at you or at others! We therefore have to look at ourselves first before judging the behaviours of our children.
Children do as others do, not as others say! Children are again often more clever than adults give them credit for. They’re very good at learning from the spontaneous things that parents do all of the time. They’re good at learning by simple observation and imitating their parents and other people. This even includes picking up your values, traditions, rituals and habits just by watching what you do. This may mean that trying to sit down and intentionally teach your child something like your values may be far less effective than letting them hang around with you to see the things that are important to you, the things you do every day and how you cope with certain situations.
Converse with them more and they’ll pick up more words and more likely talk more too. They like to copy whatever you do – the desirable or healthy and undesirable or unhealthy behaviours, and many other habits or quirks inbetween. Even your subconscious behaviours set an example. For instance, if you lean away from or avoid people of a certain skin colour, or stare at them as if they might do something nefarious, your children will pick up on that and think that people of that skin colour should be avoided too.
Woof. In general, we all copy those we respect because we want to be more like them. So parents – who wish or expect to be respected by their children – instructing their children, “Do as I say, not as I do” send a conflicting message, not just because it’s hypocritical but also because parents are supposed to be their respected role models.