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Encouraging Interest

How is it enhanced? How is it inhibited?

“I believe that even today we do not quite realize how much Charles Darwin knew”

Konrad Lorenz, 1965, In Preface to The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Charles Darwin, 1872), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. xiii.

Encouraging Curiosity

This month we continue our exploration of interest (curiosity). How is it enhanced? How is it inhibited? We will also revisit Amy, Salim, and Brianna.

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 (1992). 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 or 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 over. 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.

The idea of 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

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 about $1.50, 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 do these feelings get misunderstood, and what is the impact? These are the issues we turn to now.

How Curiosity Is Inhibited
Interferences of Interest in the Preverbal Child

We have discussed the significance of interest, how it is manifested, and how to nurture it. Now—how are interest and curiosity squelched and squashed, with the resultant constriction of learning and adaptive capacities? This inhibitory process is hugely important not only in parenting but in education as well.

Technically, the inhibition occurs when any of the negative affects are brought to bear on the child’s interest: distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. Any of these responses by the caregivers to the child’s interest can cause an interference with that interest.

Virginia Demos (1994) gives a nice example. Suppose the infant spots a pair of scissors and crawls toward them. As the infant reaches for them, the caregiver yells, “No—Stop!” But, asks Demos, stop what? Stop being interested in scissors? Stop being interested in new objects? The caregiver has acted to help prevent possible harm to the baby, but has not validated the interest affect or helped her safely explore scissors or shift the interest to a safer object. The command is simply no.

Parents may use fear and anger to interfere with a child’s explorations, especially where safety is involved. “No! Don’t touch that wire!” “Look out—don’t go into the street!” The parents’ anger is understandable. Remember that any excessive negative affect – in this case, the parents’ fear – can be “too much” and trigger anger. This anger, then, is transmitted to the child along with the fear.

Parents often use disgust to interfere with a child’s interest. For example, a little girl has some candy gummi worms, and, instead of eating them, she has become intrigued with touching and mashing them. She begins to squeeze them through her fingers. She keeps doing this, and the gummi worms turn into a multicolored paste and fragments. Mother sees this, makes a face and says: “Oooohh, yuck, disgusting!” The child may react by stopping her play with the gummi worms.

Another example of the interaction between disgust and interest moves in the opposite direction. Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham (Geisel, 1960)? The book describes the initial disgust of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.” Gradually, however, interest emerges: “I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!” The book represents a nice example of a shift from disgust to interest.

The infant and small child may have varied reactions to the interruption or interference with interest. If she is playing with a small car which is then taken away, she may get angry. If she is playing with a wire and suddenly mother yells and swoops down to take her away, she may show fear. If she looks intensely at an apparently familiar woman who turns out to be a stranger, she may feel shame. If she gets interested in food which then tastes bad to her, she will spit it out in disgust.

How might interest be constricted in everyday life? Remember Amy, Salim, and Brianna: Amy pouring milk, Salim opening a package, and Brianna mashing the Cheerios? In all three examples, a constricting response might be something like: “What are you doing?! That’s awful! You’re always misbehaving! Look at the problems you are causing!” This kind of response does alert the child to the fact that the behavior must change—you can’t have the house trashed. However, this response does not show an understanding or validation of the baby’s interest and excitement. Instead, the affects of shame and fear are elicited. This response also attacks the baby’s sense of self, rather than specifically addressing the behavior only. Finally, this type of response is not consistent with the stimulus-seeking nature of the brain, the idea that the baby will seek out items for her very important exploratory, learning activities.

What kind of response might one make? It seems such a response could address the parent’s wish for safety and order as well as the child’s need to have her interest and exploratory activities supported. “Oh, my gosh, Amy, milk all over! This sure is interesting and exciting, isn’t it? I love you, but I’m not thrilled with this mess. Look, let’s finish lunch, and then if you want to play with liquids we will get you into the bathtub.” Or: “Now look at that package, Salim! Oh, I understand… that ribbon and paper is really interesting. Alright, let’s get a couple boxes, and old wrapping paper and ribbon and we’ll play with those. But I can’t have these good presents torn up.” Or: “Brianna! Cheerios and this book?? I can see how this is neat and exciting. But I’ve got a mess to clean up. That’s okay, I love you, but we need to do this in the proper place. Let’s get an old book, and some Cheerios, and let’s get your clothes off, and I’ll put you in the bathtub and you can mash these things to your heart’s content.”

These responses take into account the parent’s surprise and distress at the episode and mess, but they also show an awareness of the baby’s interest and exploratory motivation in the activity. The parent doesn’t attack the child’s sense of self. The parent actually encourages the interest and learning by setting up the activity in such a way that the baby can continue without a disastrous mess. The interest affect is understood and validated. There is little constriction or inhibition of the stimulus-seeking and exploratory urges. The activity is done under circumstances the parent can tolerate. There is a partnership, reciprocity.

To summarize

The preverbal baby is stimulus-seeking, exploring and learning. One wants to validate and enhance this interest-to-excitement feeling. However, it’s not always easy to coordinate the infant’s interest with the parents’ need for some order and socialization. Sometimes, our squelching the interest can be subtle, or, for safety reasons, there may appear to be no options. Thus, there are a variety of ways in which the interest of the preverbal child can be interfered.

In next month’s newsletter, we will continue our exploration of curiosity by examining interferences of interest in the talking child.


Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Second Edition, Konrad Lorenz, ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Demos EV (1994). Links between mother-infant transactions and the infant’s psychic organization. Paper presented to the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society, May, 1994.

Geisel TS (1960). Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss. New York: Beginner Books (Random House).

Greenspan SI (1992). Infancy and early childhood: The practice of clinical assessment and intervention with emotional and developmental challenges. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

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. New York: International Universities Press.


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About Dr. Paul Holinger
Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and a founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. His focus is on infant and child development. Dr. Holinger is also the author of the acclaimed book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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