Great Kids, Great Parents

Infant/Child Development and the Importance of Children's Feelings

Enhancing Curiosity

How can one sustain and enhance the child's interest?

We are exploring the three pillars of development—feelings, language, and cognition.The past several months we have been immersed in feelings. Currently, we are examining one of our most important inborn feelings: interest (curiosity).
The affect of interest is responsible for our exploratory activities, learning, and adaptation. The key questions in development, then, are “What enhances interest?” and “What inhibits interest?” These questions are crucial to character structure, parenting, education, politics, and much more.



Enhancing Curiosity

How can one sustain and enhance the child’s interest? The first order of business is for us to appreciate the importance of the interest affect and the exploratory behaviors which accompany it. This is not a small step, recognizing the existence of an interest affect and the resulting behaviors. If we can see this process, be aware of it, then we have a chance to deal with interest in a way which enhances the development of the child.
Infant observation research and clinical work with babies and young children demonstrate how pervasive and intense the expression of interest can be. These exploratory, searching activities are crucial to the child’s learning about herself and her world.
But interest does not only involve the child's learning and exploratory and adapting behaviors… it is also responsible for much of the child’s sense of self and identity and self-esteem. Thus, through her interest, the child is not only learning about the world, but she is learning about herself—what she likes, dislikes, is good or not so good at doing, where her passions lie.
The child's self and self-esteem involve a complex interaction between what she brings into the world neurologically (temperament) and how the environment (caregivers, traumas, etc.) treats her. Nature and nurture. Or, as our friend Donald Winnicott calls them, the Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (1965).
The interest affect has special importance in this process of establishment of a sense of self: it involves one’s passions, talents, and later ideals and values. Tomkins again: “It is interest … which is primary … [Interest] supports both what is necessary for life and what is possible” (1962, pages 342, 345). Finding what one is interested in can help overcome major traumas and the destructive power of negative affects. Negative affects such as fear and shame can wreak havoc with the interest affect and developing self, so one needs to protect the child’s interest, her growing awareness of herself and her world.
So—how do we do this? How do we understand, share, validate a child’s interests? The brilliant infant researcher Daniel Stern (1985) has described the importance of these validating, sharing processes on the part of the parents. His concept of affect attunement involves a process of understanding and sharing the baby’s feelings, and conveying that back to the baby. How do we convey that sense of understanding and sharing with respect to the feeling of interest, what the baby is intrigued with?
One technique used to address these issues is called "floortime," developed by Stanley Greenspan. Floortime was initially used by clinicians to help assess infants and young children with problems. It turns out that floortime is a marvelous way for parents to better understand their children and enhance the parent-child relationship.
The idea is to get down on the floor with your baby or young child for 10 to 15 minutes and play whatever and however he/she wants to play. Perhaps you can put a blanket down–or pick out a comfortable place–and bring some of the child’s favorite toys. Then simply follow your child’s lead, be the gracious assistant, let her do what she wants to do, and do as she asks of you. Don’t take over the game; let her lead the way. If she wants to play with the blocks and build a tower, fine; perhaps she’ll motion to you to hand her a block, and you can participate in that way.
Two very important processes are occurring here. First, the baby is getting a sense that her interests and feelings are being understood, validated, and responded to. This helps her understand herself better, helps her reality processing, and gives her the relationship-enhancing experience of you being interested in her and what intrigues her. Second, you learn about your child—she shows you who she is and what she likes. You get to see what she can and can’t do yet and understand where she is developmentally. Most importantly, you begin to learn and appreciate what she is interested in.
Finally, it is helpful to put words to this process: “Oh, you like this, don’t you? That was neat what you did, fitting that piece into the other one. Anything you want me to do? Want me to hold this? Or shall I just watch you?” Infants and young children understand verbalization and tone of voice much more than may be apparent. Furthermore, it is never too early to start putting words to the infant’s feelings, i.e. labeling the affects.
Floortime is one way to understand your young child better and to let her know you understand her feelings and interests. Another conceptualization of this process, noted above, is "affect attunement" as described by Daniel Stern. Stern highlights the importance of understanding the child’s various feelings and interests and validating those, i.e. conveying back to the child through words or tone of voice or actions that these signals have been heard. This aids the parents in knowing their child and helps the child know herself.

Amy, Salim, and Brianna—Revisited

We met Amy and Salim and Brianna last month. They and their parents were in some very interesting situations! So, practically speaking, what is one to do with Amy, Salim, and Brianna?

  • First – Recognize that the child is exploring. Her interest affect has been triggered. Her good brain is doing just what one wants. Her actions, however, can come across as misbehaving... so how shall we think about that?
  • Second Put the process into words. “That sure is interesting, isn’t it?” “This is really exciting!” 
  • And, third One needs to set up circumstances so that both the infant’s need to explore and the parent’s need for order and neatness are met. This can be done easily–in other words, it is not too difficult to set some limits and structure and also allow the child room to explore.


With the baby pouring the milk out, one might say: "Oh my gosh – what a mess! But I can see how exciting this is for you – all the splashes and noise and taste. But we just can’t have milk all over. Let’s finish up lunch and if you still want to play with liquids, I’ll get you into the bathtub. Heck, a quart of milk is only $2.50, we can even use milk—that’s a pretty cheap play-date! I think, though, I can’t leave you unattended with a cup of milk here until you learn how to drink it properly." This style addresses both the infant’s interest affect and desire to play as well as the parents’ need for neatness and order.
With the ribbon example, the scenario might play out as follows. "Oh, the package! I must confess I’m distressed, but I understand how interesting that ribbon and all those colors and movement and noise are – look, we can’t wreck this package … I’m going to wrap it again and put it out of harm’s way. Then, let’s take some of this ribbon and paper and we'll play with that. We can try to wrap things … want to pull this ribbon? Here, want to learn how to make a bow?"
With the example of the Cheerios, things might progress in this fashion. "Aaeeiii! What a disaster! We can do this if it’s really fun and important to you… yes? … okay, but we have to clean up here, and then let's head for the bathroom. Let’s get an old book, and get those Cheerios. Here, take your clothes off… let’s get you into the bathtub; then we can just wash the Cheerios dust down the drain. Yes, you can wear your bathing suit. But, no, we can’t use this book. Here, we have to use this other book that’s not at all valuable. OK, all set? Then you can crunch those Cheerios to your heart’s content… let’s just do it in the right place with the right equipment."

In all these scenarios, the positive affects of interest and enjoyment are responded to, and there is no overloading of the negative affects of anger, fear, and shame.
Whatever terms one uses, this process of understanding and validating the child’s feelings not only helps the child’s internal world but also enhances the relationship with the parents. A solid, healthy attachment with the parents depends upon this process. Indeed, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of understanding the child’s early feelings in the development of optimism and healthy relationships.
But what happens when things go wrong? How is interest inhibited? How do these feelings get misunderstood, and what is the impact? These are the issues we turn to next.

References for Interested Readers

Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.
Tomkins SS (1962). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume I): The Positive Affects. New York: Springer.
Winnicott DW (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist and adult and child/adolescent psychoanalyst. He is author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.


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