THE BLOG
07/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

PBS's 'This Emotional Life': The Magic of Relationships

It seems obvious that relationships are central to our lives from the moment of birth on. Relationships are also central to our lifelong learning.

Relationships "are the building blocks of healthy development." That was a primarily conclusion of the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, a committee that the National Academy of Sciences convened in the late 1990s to thoroughly examine the research on children's development from different perspectives, including brain development, and to share their findings with the general public. They went on to say that all of young children's achievements occur "in the context of close relationships with others." Jack P. Shonkoff of Harvard University and the co-director of the Committee puts it even more strongly, "There is no development without relationships."

In the eight years that I researched and wrote my new book Mind in the Making, I had the unique opportunity to see this magic, especially in very early relationships.

Let me tell you about one of the more than 85 researchers I interviewed for Mind in the Making, a book on what we know about how children develop the capacity for thinking and learning and thriving in life. He is Dr. Ed Tronick of the University of Massachusetts Boston. When he became interested in children's early relationships, he was worked with the well-known pediatrician Berry Brazelton. On Saturday mornings, he would accompany Dr. Brazelton and others to the newborn nurseries. As Tronick says,

Berry would show us things about babies that we had no idea babies could possibly do, and then we would talk about it afterward. It was just the most exciting sort of thing!

Tronick's goal since then has been to pursue how relationships affect children's development. He began his studies with infants, using the new scientific procedure he developed called the Still-Face.

In Tronick's lab, the baby is placed in an infant seat on a table across from his or her seated parent so that they're literally face-to-face. The experimenter instructs the parent to play with the baby. One mother I observed played "This little piggy went to market" with her six-month-old daughter's toes. The baby squealed with delight when her mother ran her fingers up to the baby's nose as the "little piggy cried 'Wee! Wee! Wee!' all the way home." The experimenter then instructed the mother to turn away and then to return to the face-to-face position, but not to react in any way -- to keep a still (or frozen) face.

Tronick describes what usually happens in this experiment with babies. Even children as young as three months pick up on the fact that their mothers aren't responding:

They greet the mother. They give that big smile and [then] many of them just sort of stop. They're waiting for the mother to respond, and she's not responding. Then some of the babies kind of collapse. They may look at the mother out of the corner of their eyes, but they don't turn to her -- [they have a] sad, helpless look.

Of course, the experimenter tells the parent to resume reacting normally and the child quickly recovers. Tronick has conducted this experiment with two-year-olds, and you can try it with adults. If you do, you will find that the results are always the same -- when the connection between us and another person is broken, we wonder if there's something wrong with us, we try to engage the other person, and then, if there is no response, we pull back -- if not physically like the infant, at least emotionally.

You can actually watch the video of the experiment if you follow this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0

Now you are probably wondering if you always have to be "in sync" with children, responding to their every move. Tronick had the same question. When he and his colleagues began conducting the Still-Face experiment, they believed that the more the parent and child were in sync, the better. But they've since learned that this isn't the case, as he says on the video:

Only maybe 20, 30 percent of the time is the interaction "perfectly" in sync. The rest of the time, you're in sync, you're out of sync, you're getting back into sync.

In fact, Tronick has found that moving in and out of sync with others -- is not only normal, it can be a positive learning experience for both parents and children. Parents learn that they don't have to -- in fact, can't be perfect. And children realize that they can learn new and different ways to reconnect with the important people in their lives.

The Still-Face experiment shows that there's a basic feedback loop in learning that is established very early in life: the infant does something, the parent responds, the infant responds in turn -- back and forth. When infant and parent fall out of sync, as naturally happens, the process of getting back in sync is rewarding for the child and the parent.

I don't know about you, but this experiment has changed the way I look at early relationships. I was too busy living my everyday life to notice. In fact, this process of connecting and reconnecting is normally invisible to most of us -- but when the action is artificially stopped, as happened in the Still-Face experiment, we can clearly see how this works.

Early relationships form the basis for how the child comes to feel about himself or herself, to feel about others, and to feel about learning and these are magical. But the real magic takes place in everyday normal life in the process of connecting with our children.

Are you a new or expecting parent, or do you know one? Get a copy of the Early Moments Matter toolkit at www.earlymomentsmatter.org and learn about an exciting public service effort to promote early childhood attachment. Help give our next generation the best chance at a life of emotional wellness.