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You Are Your Child’s “First Verb”

"First Verb" means parent as premier performance model

What is a Child’s “First Verb”?

Here first verb means parent. It is the caregiver as a performance model. The primary caregiver is the target of an infant’s attention. Thinking of child as “subject” makes thinking of parent as “verb” colorful and full of meaning. The "verb" describes what the subject is doing or should be doing. Parents in the eyes of children are “action figures.” They work, suggest movement, show direction, guide, link the child with a goal, and infuse meaning to the relationship.

FEEDING HOLDING HUGGING SINGING CONTAINING..., you add the rest to the painting's frame!

Parenting Landscape, oil, F.J.Ninivaggi
Source: Parenting Landscape, oil, F.J.Ninivaggi

The accompanying painting, Parenting Landscape, hints at a neutral background upon which the many styles of effective parenting paint themselves over time. Parenting is "one," yet expresses itself as an infinite array of family portraits. Action terms (Feeding, Holding, Playing, Smiling, etc.) frame the family portrait.

What is a Child’s “First Verb”?

Here first verb means parent. It is the caregiver as a performance model. The primary caregiver is the target of an infant’s attention. Thinking of child as “subject” makes thinking of parent as “verb” colorful and full of meaning. The "verb" describes what the subject is doing or should be doing. Parents in the eyes of children are “action figures.” They work, suggest movement, show direction, guide, link the child with a goal, and infuse meaning to the relationship.

The accompanying painting, Parenting Landscape, hints at a neutral background upon which the many styles of effective parenting paint themselves over time. Parenting is "one," yet expresses itself as an infinite array of family portraits. Action terms (Feeding, Holding, Playing, Smiling, etc.) frame the family portrait.

Why This Novel Metaphor?

Learning from example is the last parenting consideration discussed in this series. This form of caregiving has the power to imprint a child with indelible memories lasting a lifetime. Learning from living example is an emotionally based learning beginning in the preverbal period of infancy. It is built on language development in the toddler and pre-school years. Alluding to the power that verbs have on their subjects conveys by analogy the strength of parental example. A strong developmental perspective runs through this article. Real-life examples show how emotional learning starts at birth and unfolds afterward.

Three Types of Emotional Learning Shape Personality

Example, imitation, and identification are three different mechanisms of learning in children. They flow through transactional sensitivity, the exquisitely subtle exchange of conscious and nonconscious information between family members, particularly parents and children.

The vital importance of parental example in raising children is key to the biomental perspective. The primacy of example is axiomatic. Children, up to age seven, naturally imitate parents. They also imitate much from the surrounding environment. Children are natural witnesses and observers. They imitate what they see and hear. How this develops will be discussed.

The Development of a Personality

At birth, three biomental templates drive personality formation: (1) growth, (2) maturational unfolding, and (3) development. Growth and maturational unfolding are largely genetic, constitutional, and dispositional. They are influenced by innate temperament and are what the child brings into the world---the "nature" component. While difficult to measure and accurately predict what this will become, it is significant in determining the course of one's life.

The developmental template is flexible and open to learning. "Nurture" shapes. Its first language is emotion. Development is exquisitely contoured by emotional learning through imitative identification fed by living example.

Growth, maturation, and development contribute to the person one becomes. Each plays a part and their interplay creates a unique individual. Nature-nurture etiologies are very difficult to separate. Neither alone determines personality.

Children come into the world with recognizable styles and preferences---temperaments. Children both choose experiences and are exposed to a variety of experiences. Emotional sensitivities can make all these vivid and meaningful. Unexpected events and unforeseen consequences also occur. Personality formation is a curious mix of stability and fluidity.

The Development of Emotional Learning in Infancy and the Pre-school Years

While children’s impressionability is a familiar fact, clarifying details adds precision. The whole child and whole infant learn primarily by seeing and hearing the caregiver as a total person. In the earliest years, emotions are the vehicle that motivate and crystallize learning. Cognition, ideas rather than feelings, is important but not addressed here.

Emotional learning is encoded distinctly from both conventional conditioning and declarative memory related to facts. It would be a mistake, however, to regard these different processes as mutually exclusive. Emotional learning augments the motivational charge in executive cognitive functioning. Executive skills enhanced by emotion facilitate actualized performance.

For example, imitation means reproducing what one sees and hears; it is concrete mimicry. Imitation follows actual forthright example and demonstration. Imitation suggests a conscious or consciously aware replication. In testing situations, imitation is showed at about twenty-four months.

The term copying, more sophisticated than imitation, denotes a more independent and self-directed duplication of what is seen and heard. It requires no preliminary demonstration or living example. “Copying” used here includes reproducing something from printed matter, for example, copying a circle using a picture of a circle. It may also result from something remembered. In testing situations, it is showed at about thirty-six months. Imitation and copying are routine with little emotional salience.

The term identification, by contrast, is the human psychological verb causing imprints and memories in the child’s mind. More basic and primitive than imitation and copying, psychological identification is a nonverbal, nonconscious internalization of emotionally laden interpersonal experience. It begins in the first months of life when vision, taste, and touch are more developed than other senses. Put another way, this learning is emotional and sensory-based, not conceptual or verbal. It starts at birth!

Identification encompasses automatic and implicit internalization into the memory of a significant personal event. This mode of acquisition hallmarks nonverbal awake life in infancy. After earliest infancy, identification is accompanied by some consciously aware and intentionally guided imitation and self-directed copying; language comes into play and has significance. Identification, however, characterized by an emotionally charged interpersonal absorption, remains the premier conduit of learning at all ages.

Living example by identification is the verb that forges imprints into children’s memory.

To summarize: because the terms "imitation" and "copying" refer to external, concrete acts, the term "identification" refers to the implicit psychological internalization of emotionally charged interpersonal events. The internalized imprints of identification are integrated into mental life and automatically reappear in everyday behavior. Children learn not only by hearing what parents say and teach through words but primarily by identifying with a parental example. Children are always learning---from parents. This occurs silently---no words needed!

Developmental Examples

A developmental example of imitation is the ability of the twenty-four-month-old to draw a vertical line after watching the explicit demonstration of another. At about thirty-six months, when development becomes more complex and more competent, not only can the three-year-old imitate drawing this basic shape, but he or she can also copy a circle, not by a person’s example, but merely from a static representation, as from shapes on a page.

When people use the word “imitation” in a casual way, shorthand to suggest the more complex notion of imitative identification (person to person), more than mere mimicry. In this article, the nontechnical term imitation means formal imitative identification, which presumes identification to be its underlying psychological process. Imitative identification is technically the process of “identification” and occurs most intensely during the earliest years. This identification has its onset in the first six months of life and strengthens with age.

Thus, in early childhood before ages six or seven, the nonconscious incorporation of aspects of another person establishes the child’s “learning” from adults. In this process, the child as “identifier” becomes more like the other person from whom he or she is learning. During imitative identification, the child first notices similarity between himself or herself and the other and sees an attribute viewed desirable; the child psychologically “keys in” to this, identifies with it, and makes it an integral part of his or her personality---attitude and behavior.

These steps are also accompanied by the incrementally expanding capacity for greater conscious awareness and conscious thought. By the pre-school years, ages three to five, imitative identification is accompanied by even greater degrees of conscious, thoughtful imitation.

For example, pre-schoolers love to draw pictures of houses, families, dogs, and cats from memory. They also play pretend games such as imitating mommy with a baby, daddy driving a car, and so forth. A base in automatic, nonconscious identification is always maintained and reflected in the drawings. Many parents begin to recognize a need to change aspects of their own long-standing behaviors as children begin to mirror and mimic them in obvious ways---sometimes unflatteringly---during this stage of pre-school development.

Facilitating Emotional Learning in the Preschool Years

From birth to about age seven, children learn principally through identification and imitation, not by intellectually oriented instruction. The pressures resulting from today’s inordinate value placed on speed, efficiency, and acceleration can be stress provoking. The sounds of parents telling their children to “Hurry up!” are all-too familiar occurrences in contemporary family life. Recognizing the potential outcomes of this rushed mentality requires caregivers to step back and reassess priorities in a mindful way.

Perceptive parenting remains mindful when a parent realizes that modern technology must not replace the nontechnical expression of people’s humanity as mothers, fathers, and “flesh and blood” people. For example, when children see how adults speak with one another and negotiate, how they prepare meals, how they do housework, how they tend a garden, drive a car, have an occupation, and treat children, these living examples are remembered and used as models for future behaviors.

Teaching children younger than seven by didactic discussions can be part of helping them to learn, but is secondary in terms of effectiveness. Learning by imitation and through activities of movement that include the physical body remains primary. It is not useful and may be ineffectual to teach children under seven using solely intellectual methods. Taking the whole child into consideration, such an overemphasis on direct intellectual instruction may produce lopsided results.

Put simply, the main ways that parents can help children learn include doing with, reading to, and permitting children time to engage in free, relatively unstructured play in observing and identifying with responsible adults. This approach enhances epistemophilic literacy—the inner refinement of a love for knowledge. It also lays the groundwork for future elaborated expressions arising from within---creativity and leadership.

Transactional Sensitivity and Empathy

Transactional sensitivity denotes a focal point of interdependent engagement. It comprises the conscious and nonconscious exchange of information, notably communicating psychological expectations and needs. These attentive focusings encompass strong elements of mental pause, perspective taking, and empathy in developing children, adolescents, and adults. Empathy experienced decreases extraneous interactional noise. By enacting transactional sensitivity with children, they identify with it and develop the roots of perspective taking and empathy.

Empathy is predicated on intuitive listening and the process of emotional and cognitive understanding. Listening and understanding are the motors that drive transactional sensitivity. As empathy expands over time and self-reflection, more consciously developed insights emerge. Biomental child development places heavy emphasis on empathy’s richness. Living example reinforces empathy.

Children are keen observers. They carefully watch and internalize a parent’s emotional attitudes, the tone of language, expression, gesture, posture, and behaviors. This entire process is communicated and assimilated. Reciprocal, active participation in promoting desired behaviors reinforces this practice.

Parental Example: The Premier Action Verb

Effective parenting results from not only how parents teach children but also how children learn from these parenting strategies. The earlier two articles in this series on parenting discussed two decisive parental approaches: nurturance and discipline. This last article discusses living example as the teaching strategy most powerful and enduring.

Parental example---showing proper behaviors—speaks much louder than precept, rule, and verbal instruction. The phrase “You are the message” denotes living example. Put differently, parenting is not merely a series of demands; it is a continuous, living, warm, and communicative flow of directive preferences offered to guide a child’s development. Although here delineated from nurturance and discipline, both nurturance and discipline are embedded in living example and “bring it to life.”

Example is the premier tool parents can use to love, nurture, contour, and facilitate their child’s healthy development. Living example heavily shapes good behavior and how to perform successfully in concrete situations.

The composite “you” is the effective message. Skill development in the face of exposure to human interaction is a powerful learning tool. Successful parenting and effective discipline are persuasive and influential when conveyed in a framework of compassionate sensitivity. This is shown most convincingly by living example.

Compassionate sensitivity is antithetical to attitudes that are merely egocentric, brazen, brash, impudent, authoritarian, or perceived as boldly “obnoxious.” It is important that parents take great care that such noncooperative and disagreeable models are not exhibited since children may identify with them. The medium of the caregiver in his or her entirety gives adhesiveness to all motivational messages. Current research lends support to this.

Each individual’s biomental structure has what is called a social brain. The functional expressions of this innate neural substrate encompass social perception, social cognition, and a plethora of social communication skills. These include the abilities to differentiate between self and others, to perceive others as having emotions and thoughts of their own, and to infer the intentions and motivations of others as different from one’s own. The ability to grasp the perspective of others with empathy denotes this humanizing skill.

The Family: a Child’s Micro-Culture of Living Example

The family system has a culture. A culture is both an explicit and implicit set of values, beliefs, preferences, goals and customs that guide the flow of the family system. Family cultures by their living example become imprinted on infants and children as they witness their family’s everyday life. This influence is particularly powerful in the pre-school and early elementary school years to about age seven. During this time and extending into adulthood, children are in complex ecological systems. These relationships include not only family, but also the multi-layered networks that encompass the people and logistics comprising the extended culture of a community, society, nation, and greater world.

The family group is a transactional system. In this bidirectionality between and among individuals and systems, each member is sensitive to the explicit and implicit communications of others. Each individual then responds in characteristic ways and influences the other and the family as a whole. Thus, not only are parents guides for their children, but children also act as guides to their parents. In this energetic give-and-take, the overall trajectory of the family moves in ways specific to the dynamics of that unique family.

Social Referencing as Living Example

Children learn from the world around in several ways. One of the earliest examples of children’s need and ability to orient to the world is the observable phenomenon of social referencing. This behavior can be seen in typical infants as early as ten months of age. When infants find themselves in novel, ambiguous, or potentially distressing situations, they look back to the faces of mother or father to see the parental emotional expression. It is presumed that they can differentiate positive from negative expressions and then respond to uncertain events accordingly. This ability contributes to learning suitable responses to difficult situations.

Toddlers (12 to 24 months), eager to explore in more expanded ways, such as by locomotion, use social referencing to compare their own emotional preferences with those expressed by trusted adults. They may even show behaviors that suggest personal preferences rather than those referenced by the adult. Such manifestations hint at increasing autonomy and a developing sense of self. Social referencing between child and caregivers is a prominent interpersonal behavior throughout the childhood years.

Such observational learning is the process of learning new responses by watching the behavior of another. Parental modeling provides children with the capacity to develop more keen psychological sight—“eyes to see” and the language for articulating inner experiences, formulating questions, and begin to learn to problem solve. This complex activity requires attention, memory retention, motoric reproducibility, and stimulates a child’s motivation for further understanding. Perceived similarities between observer and model make this learning compelling to the child.

The enduring power of example can be seen in middle-aged adults who suddenly see they are “acting just like my parents.” This often-abrupt realization is startling, at first troubling, but revealing. Gradually, one realizes that the early influence and modeling previously internalized from parental behaviors is real and long-lasting. In fact, at crucial developmental ages, such as the toddler phase, the two-year old's exuberance, strong-headedness, and natural inclination for opposition may act as a mirror allowing parents to reflect on similar qualities perceived within themselves. If these realizations become obvious and, perhaps, distressing, “learning moments” can offer parents pause for self-reflection, self-exploration from a secure base, and an opportunity for personal change. Parents may notice these insights arising during struggles that involve interpersonal control.

Living Example in the Elementary School Years

The elementary school-age years (about 6 to 12) are the era of socialization and a child’s sense of personal productivity. Perspective taking now can become actualized to a greater degree than it had when the child was more naturally self-preoccupied. Sharing, teamwork, generosity, and reciprocation are important values learned by example.

For instance, parents saying “Thank you” in receipt of a gift or an act of kindness shows in a concrete way to a child confirmation of a helping transaction. Responses of “You’re welcome” convey expanded gratitude. In addition, written or even electronically written “Thank you” notes reinforces for the child recognizing the concrete reality of generosity, gifts, and gratitude.

Gratitude and a sense of generosity enhance developing personality traits and lifelong styles of agreeableness, cooperativeness, and conscientiousness, all of which are correlated with mental health. The ability to feel gratitude makes the complex process of "forgiveness" possible. Feelings of anger, vengeance, and grudge are countered. Teaching children to write "Thank you" notes is particularly important in the elementary school age years (about 6 to 12).

Modeling by example also helps children identify with, imitate, learn, and internalize such personality characteristics as patience, empathy, self-reliance, trust, and respectful interpersonal attitudes. Good manners, civility, and social competence are positive behavioral outcomes of this process. When parents inspire their children in a wholesome way, children feel a sense of admiration, which counters negative and envious feelings. Rather than sensing themselves as inferior, children who are positive and see parents with positive, enthusiastic attitudes are stimulated to act in the same way.

Parents can also model basic interactional patterns that show that people do not have to be “perfect” to get along, love, and be loved. For example, parents showing joint responsibility and sharing both financial and domestic duties offers children a fair view of different gender styles and gender cooperativeness. Mothers realize that often they need to ask in a clear way for what is needed from fathers. Fathers really do respond more cooperatively to such direct requests. School-age children, who do housework with their fathers, for example, get along better with peers and perform more competently in team activities outside the home.

Observational learning becomes notably influential in the elementary school years in watching and interacting with peers. The earlier this foundation of agreeableness, cooperation, and conscientiousness is established, the easier it will be to navigate the challenges and difficulties that emerge in adolescence. Particularly important is the early establishment of a sense of respect and value for real-time interpersonal communication. Respect for the integrity of oneself and another reinforces self-containment, impulse control, and reduces tendencies to “act out” in unsafe ways, all of which come with emerging adolescence.

Adolescents and Exposure to Screen Media

In the adolescent years, observational learning is not only fed by peer interactions and pressure but largely by what is experienced through the media. This proposes that the material seen on the Internet and experienced—sometimes in 3-D—in movie theaters has a powerful effect on stimulating emotions, fantasies, and vicarious wishes for power and romance. It is vital that parents closely check children’s participation in these influential activities since their negative impact may lead to behaviors that are undesirable and reinforcing.

First Verb Parenting: What to do with this tool

First Verb Parenting means parents are a child’s first verb. Child as subject is activated and motivated toward a developmentally facilitating goal, whether the object is eating, cuddling, soothing, learning to walk, talk, become toilet trained, to witness safe, adaptive, ethically balanced behaviors, to curb aggression, or merely experience quiet, paused time with one another.

Parent as “first verb” is caregiver as a performance model. This modeling infuses meaning to the child and the relationship. Corrective redirection and discipline, addressed in an earlier article, add concrete structure to living example. The reader is advised to reexamine that material closely. Discipline as child guidance is carefully discussed about its hormetic effect. Using intelligently pre-planned doses of corrective guidance is a 'eu-stress' intervention. Discipline as guidance has "adverbial" effects that reinforce example. Discipline is not a "dirty" word; it is behavioral literacy.

The enduring influence of observational learning transmits itself across generations. What children witness parents do becomes so strongly internalized that later on in life children, as adults, reenact scenarios observed in childhood. Children often repeat in adulthood what they are exposed to in childhood. This phenomenon is the mechanism whereby culture is transmitted from generation to generation. While forms of child maltreatment and domestic violence are transgenerational, parents also shape more subtle forms of children’s character including values, morals, and ethics.

While living example is best when positive and health-promoting, the example can be negative. This is not necessarily a destructive influence since personality formation is dynamic and fluid. Emotions have degrees of resilience and a "righting" capacity. Children's innate temperaments and freedom of choice can "undo" maladaptive influences and bounce back from trauma. Personal motivation and the extended environment with its richness of healthy options makes this possible.

In a very recent article, Discipline, Nurturance, or Living Example: Which Works Best?, a comprehensive review outlines parenting skills and real-life strategies for effective parenting.

Living Example: a 200-year-old “Example”

Last, a poignant example of this principle can be found in the work of the German academic scholars, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (c.1800 AD). Their studies in philology (the development of written language: history, structure, and meanings) produced voluminous folklore. The tale, “The grandfather and his grandson,” reflects their findings of the transmission of beliefs. The story describes a family of mother, father, four-year-old son, and grandfather. When the grandfather became aged and feeble, his hands shook and he spilled much of his food on the table and on himself. To avoid dealing with this “inconvenience,” parents removed him from his seat at the dining table and assigned to have meals in an obscure corner of the kitchen, using only the barest of utensils and a bowl. After a time, parents noticed their young son in his fantasy play pushing some pieces of wood together on the floor. When they questioned him, he said he was making a little trough for mother and father to use for their meals when they got old like the grandfather. Parents sobbed and realized that their example had created conditions that would be reenacted with them in the future. This realization altered their view of the aged grandfather. After sober self-reflection, they returned grandfather to the dining table to restore his dignity and their family’s integrity.

You really are your child’s first verb!

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