Learning from Babies

What a baby does best is make the world new all over again. It does so by reminding us how the  ordinary is just the extraordinary taken for granted, how the most elemental facts about ourselves give us the greatest occasion for wonder. They are the commonest creatures of all, with thousands born every minute; you’ve been one yourself, and you’ve seen thousands of them. But to have one growing up close by (like, in your home), is a quite distinctive novelty, one that polishes and waxes the mundane and renders it anew.

A baby demonstrates how the most essential and vital of human activities, sleeping, does not, in fact, come naturally to us, that we might have to be ‘trained’ to learn how to simply fall asleep; it shows us how the simplest of sensations–like drowsiness–if not understood and interpreted appropriately, can be experienced as uncomfortable invasions of our sensory fields, requiring loud and persistent protest in response.  It gives us cause for pride; not the usual one associated with proud parents, but the kind that we experience when we realize that over the years we have mastered the many skills that seem so insuperably difficult for the infant.

A baby is a laboratory in action; one conducting relentless experiments to determine the world’s causal mechanisms and its own perceptual responses to its stimuli. We ensure and create safe spaces for it to conduct its experiments and watch it, slowly, ever so gradually, begin to build up a catalog of regularities and correlations, and consequent expectations. And as we observe a baby and consult the gigantic reams of literature published on its psychological and physical capacities, we are struck by just how little we truly know of the baby’s merkwelt; it is not a member of our linguistic community and does not speak our language; what can we coherently say about its experiences? Does it make sense to describe its actions using predicates and terms that have only acquired meaning among us?

A baby experiencing the world with its own peculiar mix of puzzlement and curiosity reminds us that the world become weekday for us was once a source of perplexity and wonder; a fount of fantasy in which lurked endless material for play. Every turn of its head, every startled look, every grasp and reach is a reminder of this. Its reflexes–the strong grip, the sucking, the startle–remind us of its evolutionary history and ours; they point to our pasts, to our slow, persistent maneuvering into our present ecological niche.

As a baby encounters the world’s textures and contours we are reminded of how elemental these initial interactions with the world are: something gives, something resists, something offers succor, something hurts. We slowly differentiate and distinguish and classify, aided at every step by our fellow travelers, beginning with our parents. These maps we construct finally place us in the world, in a spot made familiar for us by the language that surrounds us, coats the world with meaning and tells us how to interpret the new.

A baby might know little, but to watch it is to learn a great deal.

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