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The Curious Human

Interferences of interest in the talking child

"In the foundations of law, or mathematics, or science, or art, or child rearing,… [the] issues constitute a polarity extending from the extreme left through a middle of the road position to the extreme right-wing position. The issues are simple enough. Is man the measure, an end in himself, an active, creative, thinking, desiring, loving force in nature? Or must man realize himself, attain his full stature only through struggle toward, participation in, conformity to a norm, a measure, an ideal essence basically prior to and independent of man?”

— Silvan Tomkins

“I read but few lives of great men because biographers do not, as a rule, tell enough about the formative period of life. What I want to know is what a man did as a boy.”

— Ulysses S. Grant

The Curious Human

Interest, or curiosity, appears to be one of the nine or so feelings—or responses to stimuli—with which we are born. Interest is crucial to our learning, exploratory activities, and creativity. The psychologist Sivan Tomkins has explored this feeling (“affect”) in depth. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist, calls this reaction “SEEKING” (his capitals).

But what happens when this feeling of interest/curiosity is squashed… especially if there is an inhibiting pattern early in a child’s life?

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.

So what to do? What would you do?

In the November 2016 and December 2016 Newsletters we discussed the built-in feeling of interest or curiosity. Interest is crucial to the exploratory and learning capacities of human beings. We explored how curiosity can be enhanced or disrupted early in life. This month we examine how interest can be thrown off in the verbal child.

Interferences of Interest in the Talking Child

What about the toddler? As the baby begins to verbalize, usually somewhere between one and three years of age, the interferences with interest can take different form. Parents often get anxious about the expression of feelings and the use of certain words and phrases. Hence, they often act to suppress this expression, rather than use these expressions as opportunities for understanding how their child is feeling and as a learning experience for the child.

One of the three major keys to emotional life is to allow the expression of feelings.

Initially, in the preverbal child, this will be in facial expressions, vocalizations, and movements. Later, words will come into play. Sometimes parents forget to translate the words back into the feelings in order to understand what the child is experiencing and what signal is being sent. How is interest to excitement squelched and constricted on a verbal level?

Child: “I hate you! I no like you!”
Parent: “Stop that! We don’t talk like that here!”

It can startle and hurt parents the first time their verbal child says “I hate you” or “I no like you.” The first impulse may be to try to stop the flow of words: “Stop that! We don’t talk like that here!” However, the words “I hate you…I no like you” are usually reflections of excessive distress, or anger, and we want those feelings expressed. All negative affects are SOS signals. They are calls for help, whether nonverbal or verbal.

I remember a story about a family which had been on vacation, and father had lots of good times with his 2-½-year-old son. They returned home and father went to work. He returned home, went to kiss his son, and his son says, “No kisses! I hate you! I no like you!” What happened here? As they sorted it out, this family realized how much fun the little boy had had with his father on vacation. Then his father went off to work. The little boy felt sad and abandoned, and he missed his father. He was hurt, distressed, and angry. And when he saw his father again, he expressed his anger in words. He had been interested and excited about spending time with his father, and the interest had been interrupted, and the anger emerged. The family was able to understand this, talk about it, and thereby maintained a good interaction between father and son. The interest was understood, and the feelings behind the words were translated and appreciated. The anger was correctly understood as an SOS signal, and the problem was figured out.

“Mind Your Own Business”

How many of us heard the phrase, “mind your own business,” or “MYOB,” when we were young? And how many of us use that phrase almost automatically at times as a parent? Now, often it is necessary to establish boundaries, set limits, and provide structure. However, frequently the “mind your own business” stance comes in response to some curiosity or interest on the part of the child. “Mommy, how much money do you make?” “Daddy, what did you say to the neighbors?” Or “How much did our house cost? What were those people doing over at our home last night? How much do you pay in taxes?”

These questions reflect the stimulus-seeking brain at work and the triggering of the interest affect.

They are wonderful opportunities for learning. One can begin talking to the child about financial matters, giving information and eliciting feelings. If the parent is concerned the child will talk about private financial matters inappropriately at school, for example, one can ask her to keep such discussions and information at home. They usually will. Questions about feelings are learning opportunities as well. The child asks if the parent likes Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So. The parent can elicit the child’s feelings, and also talk about his or her own positive, negative, or ambivalent feelings. This sets the stage for discussing all kinds of relationships, friendships, romantic feelings, and problems with people.

“Why? Why? Why?”

Children can often get on their parents’ nerves with the seemingly-incessant question, “Why?” And, sometimes a child is looking more for interaction with the parent than for an answer or discussion about a question. However, frequently enough the “why” of the child represents the stimulus-seeking brain, the interest affect, and the exploratory tendencies. In addition, responding positively to the “Why’s” can convey that their child’s interest and curiosity is of interest to the parent. The parent thus provides the crucial function of validating both the child’s feeling of curiosity as well as the content of the curiosity.

[Mom talking to son] The “whys,” then, create a learning opportunity on a number of levels. First, the child’s curiosity itself is validated. Second, the parent has an opportunity to convey information to the child. Third, the parent can convey to the child how he or she thinks about things, how the parent tends to problem-solve and make decisions. “Why are we turning here, Mom?” “Well, I realize traffic is moving slowly here, so I thought we might try the street two blocks over…there’s no construction there.”

Finally, one also has the opportunity to start a process with the child. The child’s “why” might elicit from the parent any one of a number of responses which could initiate a discussion: “Why do you think the light is blinking? What do you think we should do?” This can start a discussion, a process, helping the child weigh pros and cons, aiding reality processing as well as creative thinking. One positive outcome of this type of interchange is the child does not simply get answers. Rather, she begins to internalize a decision-making process.

“Bad Words”

The child’s using so-called “bad words” represents another area within which learning can be either constricted or enhanced. It is not unusual to hear the words “damn” or “crap” come flying out of a rather small mouth. Some people recommend immediate punishment, or even “washing the child’s mouth out with soap.” However, these strategies again seem inhibiting and constrictive. These types of strategies subvert an opportunity for learning.

Instead, why not reach for the dictionary? Talk about the word, what it means, where the child heard it, how you feel about it, where and when it may or may not be appropriate to say it; this is consistent with the stimulus-seeking brain and enhances rather than restricts the curiosity of the child. Learning takes place, rather than inhibition.

“Don’t Talk to Me That Way!”

How many of us have heard—and said—this phrase? And yet, let’s step back and try to recall under what circumstances those words have been uttered. Usually, I would suggest they are responses to some insult or disagreement that leads the parent to say, “Don’t talk to me that way” or “in that tone.” The parent’s feelings have been hurt.

So let’s ask: What feelings might be behind what the child has said?

Has the child said, “I hate you,” or “You are a lousy father,” or something similar? These phrases all suggest the expression of distress and/or anger. In other words, the child has probably suggested in words that they are distressed or angry about something.

How else might one handle this? First, translation is necessary—what feeling(s) is being expressed with the words? Then, perhaps, one might say: “You sure seemed distressed, or angry…the way you put it hurts my feelings…maybe we can figure out a better way to express what you are upset about—one that gives me more information. Let’s talk about why you are distressed and what you are angry about.”


Usually when a parent feels a child is not showing respect to a parent, it is when the child is expressing distress or anger. The issue is similar to the phrase, “Don’t talk to me in that way.” One wants to try to identify the feelings behind the disrespect and comment on them. Is the child distressed? Angry? Scared? And about what?

The idea about allowing the child to express her feelings at home does not necessarily mean “anything goes.” One can, while acknowledging the child’s feelings, also set reasonable limits on the verbalizing. That is, one walks the line between encouraging the verbalization of feelings, but also sets limits on personal attacks. One might tell the child that you understand she’s angry, but the way she’s expressing her feelings hurts your feelings. Or one might try to convey that you hear she’s angry, but “just telling me you hate me doesn’t give me any information about how I disappointed you and how we can fix it.” In other words, ultimately the goal is to figure out what the problem is, what triggered the feelings, and what possible solutions exist.

“Because I said so.”

Why do I have to do this or that, asks the child. “Because I said so,” is the frequent response. Sometimes parents are in a hurry, or attending to a dangerous situation, and they don’t have time to explain their reasons. But when parents do have time, these interactions provide a wonderful opportunity for learning.

Why do I have to go to school? Why do I have to put my coat on? Why do I have to take a bath? All these questions can be explored further to find out what the child is trying to express. Perhaps one will find there is room for negotiation. It is a positive development for the child to realize a rational discussion can take place around these issues and caretakers can be reasonably flexible.

In addition, these questions give the parents a chance to think and talk about why something is important and to discuss their decision-making process.

This process of letting the child in on the parents’ thinking and decision-making is crucial. “Because I said so” cuts off further learning and discussion. Talking about why something makes sense or not enhances the child’s decision-making capacities. And learning a process of weighing pros and cons, and then making informed decisions, will help a child far more in life than simply a set of stated rules or demands.

“Shut up!”

The parent saying “Shut up” to the child is a pretty blatantly inappropriate way of telling the child to be quiet. It expresses the distress and anger of a parent who has heard enough. Needless to say, there are better ways for a parent to deal with their child.

What about when a child says “shut up” to a parent? The motivation may be the same—the incoming stimulation to the child is getting too distressing and enraging. When the child says “shut up,” one’s first response may be “don’t say that to me,” or “we don’t use that phrase in this house.” But this shuts down the communication process. “Let’s talk about what you’re distressed about” or “It seems you’re upset by what I said”—these approaches open up the possibility of discussing the feelings, which is what one wants. And, one can certainly say something like: “I’m not thrilled with the term ‘shut up’—that doesn’t give me much information.” This sets some limits on the provocative phrase “shut up,” but allows for further communication.

A Few Years Later… The Older Child

A 5-year-old boy is sitting with his mother on the Amtrak train. After a while, he starts moving around—in his seat, aisle, everywhere. His mother begins to try to keep him settled, in his seat. Her voice gets louder, sharper, more punitive, and he starts getting more and more upset.

Does he have any of “the big three” problems? That is, is he tired, or hungry, or sick? Let’s say no, he doesn’t seem to be. Then what is going on? Understanding the feelings of interest makes it all clear. The brain is stimulus-seeking. This little boy is looking for something to do—his brain is doing just what it is supposed to! Mom brought no books or drawing materials.

How many times have you seen this type of pattern, at the grocery store, restaurant, airport, train? And how many times does it end up with the parent raising his or her voice and often hitting the child? Actually, this presents something of a dilemma.

So, what to do? Does one intervene, or is that too intrusive?

I have adopted what one might call mini-psychotherapy. I have about 90 seconds to make an intervention which may help. First, I try to form an alliance with the parent, by commenting on what a terrific young man or young lady he/she has for a child. Then, second, I try to describe what is happening: “I think he’s just a little bored…” “His active brain is doing just what it should… he’s looking for something interesting to do.” Finally, third, I’ll offer something to them, whether some pictures out of a magazine, or some paper and a pencil to draw a picture on, or whatever. And, if the parent has become intrigued, I’ll explain a little more about interest and curiosity and how important it is. Most of the time, this sequence proves to be very useful—at least for the short-term episode (Holinger, 2010).

In Summary

Thus, there are a variety of ways interest can be enhanced or interfered with, verbal as well as non-verbal. This interference can be overt or quite subtle. The early and sustained interference of interest is problematic, in that these inhibitory patterns can become ingrained in the character structure of the child. Given the importance of interest/curiosity for our learning, adapting and creating, one wants to enhance, not interfere with, interest. This is consistent with one of the keys of development, i.e. allow and encourage the expression of all feelings.


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

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Holinger PC (2010). Small steps. Amer J Psychiatry 167: 752-753.


Goodnight Everyone
Chris Haughton, Author & Illustrator
Candlewick Publishers, 2016
A lovely goodnight story – mice, hares, deer, and a little bear… and gorgeous pink, orange, blue, and green illustrations.

The Very Fluffy Kitty, Papillon
A.N. Kang
New York: Disney, 2016
Papillon means butterfly in French/Latin. It also refers to a breed of small dogs! So – this is a fun, wonderful book for small children.

Papillon is a cat who is so fluffy he floats, so his owner tries many silly ways to keep him on the ground. He floats and gets lost, and a new friend helps him find his way back home.


Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children
T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
Boston, MA: DaCapo Press. 2013
A wonderful autobiography by Berry Brazelton, marked by interesting history, wise insights for parents and children, and marvelous stories.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life
Peter Gray
New York: Basic Books, 2013
A terrific book about education—focusing on eliciting children’s and adolescents’ interests and creativity, rather than imposing.

The Brain, the Mind, and the Self: A Psychoanalytic Road Trip
Arnold Goldberg, M.D.
London, UK: Routledge, 2015
This is a fine, thoughtful book which tackles the conceptual issues involving the neurosciences and psychodynamic and psychoanalytic perspectives. Arnold Goldberg, a close colleague to Heinz Kohut, has been a brilliant contributor to the psychoanalytic literature for decades. Goldberg states: “The present need is to delineate the mind and its study from that of the brain and the self. One (the brain) is a vital organ composed of neurons, synapses, and computer-like activity. One (the mind) covers the vast area of meaning and offers us an entry into interpretive science, which stands apart from empirical science. And one (the self) is the seat of agency, which defines our individuality. It is necessary that the three are never reduced to the one or the other, despite the lure of reductionism” (p. 14, parentheses added).

About Dr. Paul C. Holinger

Dr. Holinger is the former Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, 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 book What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.