In Small Cultures With Small People Part One, I talked about how we create culture as a means to organise human group behaviour. Now, I want to move on to the way that babies start to make culture.
In Western cultures, the first prolonged form of culture making we do happens within the family, though we also develop experiences of doing this with other people we come into contact with. Just think how often babies are happy to smile and interact with new faces and you can begin to see that we are built for this. We are born to connect with other people, born to love.
In this post, I want to explore some of the ways that culture-making abilities might develop during the first year of life. To skim the surface of this topic, I would like to look at some evidence that culture-making is innate and well into an advanced form by baby’s first birthday.
Nature and Nurture
There is a longstanding question about whether nature or nurture is more important in human development. On the one hand, we are teeming biological organisms, with a particular genetic history, while on the other, we are social constructions, in a particular sociocultural context. Regardless of which is more dominant in particular circumstances, it is clear that both these factors are crucial to understanding the basic apparatus that we set out with in life. So, when it comes to understanding how we interact with others, how we love, then it is important to consider that our biological and social realities both play a part. Not forgetting that what individuals choose to do with what they have is part of this equation too.
Our Innate Capacity For Connection
There is no doubt that our biology disposes us to be social creatures. As babies, we cannot survive alone, and require a large amount of parental investment to make it in the world. Like elephants or dolphins, we are ‘allomothers’, which means that we are mammals who specialise in group living, and rely on our ‘families’ a great deal for mutual support in raising our young and caring for our elders (Gopnik 2009). Therefore, it is vital for infants to be able to form connections with their parents, siblings, and other significant family members or caregivers.
Throughout the first years of life, we learn to recognise who we need to connect with, and how to sustain those connections. We create a working model of how to interact with others which is powerful enough to influence our relationships for the rest of our lives (Johnson 2010). We are able to do this because, even as newborns, we have all the apparatus for interaction and love, even if we do not operate it in the same way that adults do. Given that we have an innate capacity for connection with others, we must also have the innate potential to create culture.
Adrian Holliday points out that culture is created by drawing boundaries around a group of people. Culture is constructed by each individual, according to where they perceive these boundaries to be. This means the culture changes as circumstances and perceptions shift. Read more here on his blog.
The best book I have read that tries to imagine the infant experience is The Baby In The Mirror by Charles Fernyhough (2010). I used this account to look for the emergence of culture making ability.
The first boundary a baby experiences is the journey from inside to outside of the womb. Their little brain has been growing for some time, and is already adapted to the specific environment they will find themselves in. The flavours of their mother’s amniotic fluid will have given them a unique preparation to be born into that place, at that time, to those parents.
While little one has been gestating, the family that the child is to be born into will have also been making preparations to receive this new person. They have a set of beliefs and expectations about raising children that are activated through the experience of pregnancy, and which will shape the child’s experience of the world from day one.
The first cultural boundaries that the infant mind creates might be between people and non people. Newborns do not know themselves to be persons, as they have no idea that they are an individual, bounded entity. They live in a synaesthetic dream world that is hard to comprehend with an adult mind. However, there is firm evidence that they are born with the ability to perceive faces and mimic facial expressions. This ability recedes over the first few weeks of life, while the senses become more organised towards what mature brains perceive, but it is right there at the beginning.
Another ability which may be innate is to tell the difference between objects which can move of their own accord, and those that cannot. They will recognise the voices of their parents, even if they do not yet understand the relationship between sound and object. Thus, the baby starts on the path to distinguishing actual people, but it will take around eight weeks for this to happen.
Throughout the first six weeks of life, the puerparium, the people caring for the baby undergo powerful transitions in their own right. The mother will feel her body pulled into a new, non-pregnant shape, and many will take their place as half of a breastfeeding diad (or a triad in cases where there is shared feeding). These shifts in the body are coupled with changes to the brain, as the mother adapts to her role. Fathers or partners also undergo physical and mental adaptations which mark the start of a new phase in their life.
Though the baby cannot yet recognise who is who, the way caregivers carry out their roles, and the way they shape their environment in order to do so, will have a profound effect on the baby’s developing sense of reality.
Between six and eight weeks of age, infants have learned enough to begin to control their facial movements at will. Their facial recognition software has been rewritten, allowing them to distinguish individual features, and in particular to identify eyes and gaze. They know when they are being watched and when they are not. They discover that when they mimic the smiling expression of the watcher, that person reacts with yet more smiles, and so they begin to explore the social world in a whole new way. People are not just there for food, warmth, and comfort, they are…fun.
Two things come out of this shift. First, that babies begin to recognise their parents and other important figures who pop up a lot. Second, they realise that certain people respond to them with a greater degree of interest and affection than others. Both these factors lead to attachment, which is a huge change in their culture-making processes, as the baby creates two categories of people, an in group and an out group. This is the baby’s first real experience of creating a culture.
The infant must establish security, then they can grasp at independence, so it makes sense that the next step the baby takes is to begin to understand themselves as an individual who can be separated from the person or people they are attached to.
This is an extremely important boundary to draw in terms of culture-making, because it is then possible to be left, and to be returned to, or to leave and return. Thus, they can also understand that they participate in a wider range of groups. Some babies will undergo more distress than others at this discovery, and how they are responded to is a powerful shaper of their worldview. The pattern this takes will be crucial to the baby’s growing construction of what interpersonal behaviour looks like, and what response is appropriate to certain situations.
Susan Johnson (see above) discovered that babies whose caregivers respond to separation cries expect this to be the norm for everyone, while babies whose caregivers ignore separation cries are puzzled when they see the opposite reaction. The infants had clear stories about ‘what happens when you cry’ that shaped their reality, and predicted whether or not they would demonstrate distress to their loved ones or not when they were left in the care of others. These early experiences are shown to shape behaviour well into adult life, with broader cultural groups often favouring general demonstration or suppression of emotions.
Another key factor in how a baby’s culture-making develops is their growing personal agency. As the baby begins to gain greater mastery over face, head, arms, and hands, and can exploit this to communicate and play in new ways, these skills are brought into their culture-making repertoire. Where they are able to enjoy a game of peekaboo, find amusement in the sensations of bathing, or show annoyance at being placed into the rather expensive swing that their parents thought would help them sleep, they are able to have a direct effect on the culture being made at a given time. They are becoming more active participants in the social life of the family.
As their charge grows, the baby’s parents and other carers will also adapt to the physical and mental development that is happening. In some cultural groups there may be rapid ‘baby proofing’ and ‘routines’ put in place, while in others the baby may begin to be looked after more by siblings, and to make little cultures with local peers. The form of these inevitable transitions will create new dimensions in relationships between younger and older family members, which will be reflected in the way the baby acts towards them, and visa versa.
In culture-making, we create our own behaviour and that of others to a greater or lesser degree, but there is much more of a grey area around who prompts what behaviours in whom. Some babies and some parents are more adaptable than others, so suffice to say that you will see yourself mirrored in your children in all kinds of ways, and also be able to pinpoint in ways that you have changed as a result of having them.
Wherever they are, babies will experiment with new behaviours and draw conclusions around the results of their investigations based on responses. This is a point where the behaviours which are most valued in their social environment will be prioritised over those that are not, and some abilities will take a back seat. So, if the child is growing up on the plains of Mongolia, they will probably be encouraged towards greater physical independence than if they are being raised in a tiny flat in Tokyo. In my own experience, babies in Portugal are expected to interact with a larger cross section of the population than those in the UK. Factors such as gender, religion, ethnicity and so on will impact the way the baby is treated as they become more of a social agent in their own right.
Compelling as it might be to catch on to cultural traits that span large groups, there are many nuances to individual culture-making that are lost when you cast the net too wide. You never can use environment as an absolute predictor of social behaviour. The way it works is so much more fluid than that, as the world of this moment is not the same as the last, and there is always the potential for change and innovation.
By the baby’s first birthday, he or she will have made a detailed study if those around them, and the place they inhabit. They will have undergone the necessary physical and mental development for feeding themselves and walking upright, though they may not yet have developed this skill. The urge to be like the people caring for them will become more and more apparent, as their independence increases. Though there are many, many variations regarding what ‘milestones’ are in different culture groups, and the speed at which each individual child reaches them, the child’s biology and chemistry will be saying ‘grow, grow, grow’.
By their first birthday, a child will have experienced participating in a range of small cultures, and be able to change their behaviour according to situation. So, for instance, they will know that going to their baby singing group or the doctors is different to going to grandma’s house, and that grandma’s house is not the same as their house. Different activities will happen and they will be expected to behave in different ways in each setting, and they will be aware of different degrees of closeness to particular people. Thus, they will be able to shape their behaviour more to specific situations, or to create situations to suit what they feel like doing.
How their agency is received, and the part they are ‘allowed’ to play in the culture making of the family and immediate surrounds will affect their first working model of ‘how I make culture’. This model will become the base from which they move into more diverse small cultures and from which they take responsibility for creating new culture.
The Importance of First Culture-Making Experiences It is from our early culture-making experiences that our sense of ‘who I am’ and ‘what I do’ comes. Whoever we are, it is deeply related to ‘who our folks are’ and ‘what our folks do’. Regardless of this, it is important to realise that these are mere ideas that are constructed through our experiences and what we imagine is expected of us in society.
While on paper, concepts like nationalities and ethic groups are straightforward and you are either a member or not, in reality they are only labels. The same too, goes for things like ‘attachment parenting’. They are powerful labels that can trap people into ‘this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is what is possible for us’, but they are labels just the same. They cannot possibly give an accurate description of reality. In actual fact, we are capable of creating ourselves and our cultures ad Infinitum. As J.K Rowling observed, there is an expiry date on blaming your parents for who you are.
It is vital to consider that even little babies are learning how to make their own choices and take their place in the world in their own way. They may be tiny, but their birth creates new cultural groups and sets off a ripple effect that shifts the small cultures they participate in. The perceptions that their biology renders them capable of making, and the way they are received by those around them affects how they use their innate ability to make culture. It is through culture making that they come to express love and to be loved. This is a beautiful reminder of our social nature and creative potential, which is with us from day one.
I would love to look at this in more depth some day, as I find it so fascinating how our abilities emerge as we grow, and how different environments offer various ways of understanding and encouraging the experience. It is hard to fathom that babies have often been considered a kind of helpless, incomplete adult in western cultures. Though they lack the means to care for themselves they also show us the amazing capacities we are gifted with from the start of life, many of which adults forget how to use in an effective way as we get older.
In Part Three of Small Cultures With Small People, I will look at how we negotiate the culture that we create in a young family.
What do you notice about the way your baby interacts with others?
What are you creating together?
Let me know what you see, and send me any questions or comments. I would love to explore this with you!