Normal child development is complex. This brief review will discuss the central role that emotional development and the regulation between positive and negative emotions play in early childhood. It is written from the Biomental Perspective. This is an integrative approach that incorporates scientific child psychiatry with aspects of phenomenology, philosophy, aesthetics, and pragmatic experience-near considerations. An implicit aim is that such integrated material may be translational, cross the academic/scientific boundaries into areas that are useful, and promote effective performance guidelines for parents and caregivers. 

Envy and Extreme “Two-ness”

Envy may be foremost since it contributes heavily to the balance between well-being and dysregulation throughout the entire lifecycle. The earliest roots of what is recognizable as “envy” in later life can be understood as the normal sense of “two-ness,” discussed in this article. Just as emotion cannot be eliminated from experience, envy and its correlate, “two-ness,” cannot be eliminated. Both can be used to promote healthy development. Envy and “two-ness” are and remain non-conscious, implicit psychological processes throughout life.

One must consider that normative envy, whatever forms its early psychological roots may take, is active in earliest infancy, especially the non-verbal era. The period of early childhood is highlighted because this “upstream” era is formative and especially sensitive to being shaped by parents. The “downstream” development--later course of childhood and adolescence--is just as crucial but carries a different set of considerations.

"The School of Athens", detail by Raphael c.AD 1550
Source: "The School of Athens", detail by Raphael c.AD 1550

“Two-ness”

“Two-ness” is an innate dispositional preference that has pervaded the structure of all philosophical, religious, psychological, and scientific systems purporting to explain the human condition and the world. The visual image of Plato and Aristotle suggests titanic forces arguing antithetical or polar opposite points of view (suggested by their pointing up/pointing down) majestically clashing in dialog. Yet, each one is a real and meaningful perspective that advances understanding and wisdom in diverse realms.

The essence of the thesis rests on the normal “two-ness” conceptualization. Here, it proposes that in early infancy, sensory perception and mental conception organize themselves by “seeing” reality as polar opposites and simultaneously attempting to reconcile perceived discrepancies. Gradually, they achieve varying levels of meaning, coherence, value, value judgment frameworks, and form an emerging aspirational life-map. When the first polarizations are too extreme and the values attributed to each too ideal or too demonized, then excessive envy is emerges. The biomental perspective takes seriously this high-value conceptualization.

Polarized “Two-ness” is Excessive Envy

Excessive envy, if not addressed and modulated properly, may become non-normative and contribute to serious conflict. The “two-ness” proposed here is an emotional polarization between the extremes of ideal versus all forms of negativization. This includes all forms of hatred, fear, and ill will. Negativization takes the form of seeing “black spots” on what is perceived. The two poles range from extremely good to extremely bad. They are experienced or felt as attitudes, not clear-cut ideas. Negativization positively correlates with emotional dysregulation.

Polarized “Two-ness”, Excessive Envy, and Extremism go Hand-in-Hand

The polarized experience evokes dissonance. In earliest infancy, cognition is unmatured and incapable of intellectually reconciling such discrepancy; thus, emotional strategies are used. In the preverbal period of infancy, the infant uses its emotional tools, primarily nonconscious parts of its implicit memory systems, to process a great deal of information. This is retained subliminally throughout the lifecycle. These emotional strategies (“defense mechanisms to manage anxiety and conflict”) may span a range from avoidance and denial to blatant negation. Negation amounts to a spoiling or aggressive deletion of what is discrepant and felt to be strange. Excessive envy is hallmarked by spoiling, which is a bitterly felt vitiation that becomes more intense with age.

The mind’s default position is to organize itself in a dualistic manner: perceptually and conceptually grasping reality as if comprised of polar contrasts. After this first step, trying to modulate this extreme and rigid ideation by environmental tutoring softens it into more of a reality-based flexible apprehension. This is achieved by the influence of the early childhood environment, especially parental modeling and interaction with a child’s own resilience. Later on, school cultures significantly add to this modifying process.

The Biomental Developmental Perspective

Several components play a role in shaping human development: genetic, neuromaturational, temperamental, innate resilience, the effects of the environment on facilitating, suppressing, or introducing novelty, the profound impact of intimate human relationships, and the occurrence of unforeseen and random events. These act in an integrated way to propel development forward.

Mind and body have been spoken of as separate and virtually distinct. In fact, it is language that requires a descriptive vocabulary that by its very nature must dissect that which is unitary. Using language reinforces a sense of “two-ness” or plurality on multiple levels. To “know” and understand by using language, an analytic process of breaking apart, splitting up, and then attempting to put together and synthesize, discrepancies stand out. This is not incorrect but must be recognized and understood in perspective. In philosophy, this has been termed “the problem of the one and the many.”

I have coined the term “biomental” to discuss this hidden assumption and put emphasis on the unitary quality of human growth and development. Processes such as “emotion” are complex amalgams both in makeup and in how they are originally generated and maintained. The biomental perspective develops the framework for the book, Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting.

This unique attitude—“envy”-- integrates both emotional and cognitive frames of reference early on and adds a lasting attitudinal bias to all mental perspectives throughout life. In other words, envy is a the base of noticing differences, and then imputing value judgments of superior versus inferior to that recognition of difference. Over time, this sets up strong personal attitudes that reinforce values and preferences. These then drive behavior and contribute to how choices are made—consciously, unconsciously, and reflexively.

Envy, whether raw or in its more matured state (admiration and gratitude) is the amalgamation of emotional color and form that gives balance/imbalance to the composition of one’s life.

Most infant researchers recognize that an infant’s receptive understanding is much greater—although less easily measureable—than is the direct expression of its understanding. However, contemporary research with its sophisticated protocols has shown remarkable skill at measuring an infant’s comprehension in its conceptual development within the first six months. They trace this progression through eleven months and see it refining itself at the key age of eighteen months.

Important “Take Home” Points: Inevitability of “Two-ness”

Vision/seeing is a primary receptive modality in early infancy, especially since there is no developed speech and language in the first year and a half—the preverbal period. The rudiments of cognition and knowing—mostly in the infant’s awake and implicitly conscious state-- structure themselves with noticing. This noticing includes perceiving differences, experiencing a biomental dissonance/distress, and then trying to reconcile this sense of discrepancy or “two-ness” between differences.

The first six months of life, therefore, are primary gateways to perception. Babies have innate cognitive equipment to process data, but rely heavily on input from the environment—parental modeling—for information used to shape already forming attitudes, feelings, and ideas. Although concentrating here on vision, taste and touch are also central. Parental love, biomental warmth, and engagement are experienced through taste and touch regularly. Early infancy is a protracted state of dependency and receptivity. Observational exposure in this unique context may have lasting imprinting effects.

The Second Half of the First Year

Babies’ normative anxiety to a stranger—stranger anxiety—seen typically at about seven months suggests awareness of a capacity for some conceptual differentiation. A fear response to perceived discrepancy and danger is clear-cut. It is evidence of an infant’s ability to discern differences and show an awareness of the familiar (“mother”) in contrast to the strange (“other”). This lasting phenomenon is a behavioral expression of possessing a sense of “two-ness.”

To pinpoint when an infant is first distinctly aware of “two-ness” is complex and certainly depends on how “two-ness” is defined. One way would be to define it as an awareness of multiplicities of units in a single field. These are grasped as existing in some sort of coherent, contiguous spatial context—many within one, or many and one. More detail with regard to these ideas is beyond this presentation since it reaches into abstract theorizing, and how this may correlate with brain maturation in infancy.

Infant Behaviors that Express “Two-ness”

The infant’s motor behavior also clearly can suggest its awareness of “two-ness” by its experience of being in space and being aware of another in the distance. An example is the ability to point. This distinct event is first seen at about nine months when neuromuscular integration and intent to substantially influence another person are sufficiently consolidated.

Child developmentalists refer to this era as one of joint attention, which is a sharing of interest—both attentional and emotional-- in an object with another person. Both participants acknowledge their shared interest. Peek-a-boo games, smiling, and clapping show the normative development of a capacity for surprise, fascination, and feelings of joy. These phenomena herald that the balance of emotional regulation is positive, not extreme or negative. This has significance because it indicates objective evidence that the infant is not experiencing its existence as insular, but rather as interpersonal and socially embedded.

By this time in the first twelve months, the infant has some awareness of itself and others, and able to point out what it points toward. Later on, between ten and fourteen months when the phenomenon of social referencing becomes clear, the typical infant and toddler look toward and may approach something, but sense some ambiguity, and so look back toward parent for guidance, usually through a facial expression of approval that suggests safety or shows a need for avoidance. It is here that parental/cultural/environmental influences obviously appear to exert strong effects on the child’s choices. Children’s behavior and preferences are now clearly taking on the specific direction that typically becomes reinforced with further environmental tutoring over time.

During the toddler years, biomental maturation expresses itself in several remarkable advances: walking, speaking, and the ability to say “No.” These developmental achievements herald a burgeoning capacity for psychological complexity, preference emergence, and capacity for choice. The normal “two-ness” attitude is seen in the “black-and-white” thinking that becomes very apparent in the preschool and early school years. Typically, it softens as more healthy mental integration accompanies interpersonal experiences and learning over time.

How Parents Can Modulate the Experience of Envy in Childhood

A general survey of earliest infancy shows the importance of the development of the capacity for a sense of “two-ness.” “Two-ness” has cognitive dimensions (e.g., understanding objects as separate and distinct), and interpersonal dimensions (e.g., the infant gradually sensing itself as separate from mother and sensing mother and father as distinct from one another). Emphasized here is the emotional dimension (e.g., strong feelings determining value-laden attitudes).

Envy Theory proposes that envy is a primary dispositional attitude. Its deciphering template recognizes the world by first attempting to position reality into one of only two opposites of an emotionally laden polarized spectrum—superior (ideal) or inferior (valueless). In typical development, an attempt is made to equalize this toward the nuances of reality, a view less prejudiced, polarized, and negatively biased.

Modulating the role that normative envy plays in early development is possible. Parental tools to modulate this can be suggested. Intellectual understanding alone, however, does not provide an infant with the nurturance required for healthy development. The “milk of human kindness” is a complete response between two human beings that transcends intellectualized generalizations. Valuing the goodness of this “milk” and not envying or spoiling its beneficence is the healthy goal.

First, recognizing an infant’s innate disposition is possible and necessary, especially early on. Family involvement is essential. Temperamental proclivities may be apparent in the neonate, and span the spectrum of very active to less active, very responsive to less responsive, very sensitive to less sensitive, and so forth. In the first three months, a baby’s disposition is becoming recognizable; by six months, it is much clearer. Parents can adapt their own style of parenting to suit the infant’s needs and the interactional needs of the infant-caregivers, and parents themselves. This helps the infant to modulate its biomental rhythms spanning physiology to psychology.

Modeling and behaving in a way that demonstrates kindness not extremes exposes infants to environments conducive to biomental balance. The healthy maturation of envy, therefore, may be given a chance to emerge as a sense of admiration and gratitude. De-emphasizing polar contrasts in value judgments is important. This modulation particularly refers to idealizations versus demonizations. Demonizations perceive “black spots” in any experience. 

In childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, the conscious derivatives of envy organize and become more recognizable and experience-near. Some of these conscious derivatives are jealousy, greed, and exploitation. Envy and possessiveness are also correlated; these, in turn, provoke greed and exploitation. Simply put, modulating excessive envy and what I have termed the sense of “two-ness” early on decreases trends toward emotional dysregulation and helps balance a healthy developmental trajectory.

A word of caution: developing a “sense” is the preliminary step that prepares a child for the culmination step: performance. It is only in doing, at first, with practice, then, with motivated intention that true refinement in empathy arises. This practice and “doing” occurs in one’s emerging character through learning from experience over the lifecycle.

These approaches may appear simple, yet they foster empathy and the gradual development of perspective taking. The articles in this series on “First verb parenting” and “Discipline, Nurturance, and Living Example” expand on these parent strategies. They help children appreciate that a balanced world—subjective and objective--is composed of multiple points of view. These are nuanced by different shades of meaning and a variety of contrasting emphases. Together, these varied tones form the brilliance that gives meaning to the human portrait.

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