12/16/2014 10:37 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

A Chance Encounter Left Me Thinking...

He was down on the floor in a little navy pea coat and crying. Each ear had a little diamond earring and he was so sweet looking with his close cropped haircut and big brown eyes. Well dressed too, his mother, saying not a word to him, was trying to grasp his hand but it was buried in his sleeve. She wanted to hoist him up again and drag him along as she had been doing. She couldn't carry him as she had too much to hold. I watched sadly and asked if I could help, "Would he let me pick him up?" She sort of agreed, nothing explicit, and left me lift him to my shoulder. She turned on her heel and I followed her to one of the fast food counters while patting his back and telling him what a good boy he was. By the time we arrived at the counter, he had stopped crying and was clinging to me. She had me put the baby down on his feet and thanked me. She had forgotten to bring her stroller. She expected a lot from a baby around 12 months of age.

Sensitive and responsive parenting is a phrase we use in our field to capture the kind of parenting that research shows makes all the difference for children's development. Parents who talk with their children and pick up on their signals have children who are more likely to succeed in school and to acquire the listening and attention skills that fuel learning. Seeing the world through your child's eyes is crucial to being a sensitive parent because that allows you to anticipate situations you will find yourself in and plan ahead. Letting your child -- yes even your 1-year-old -- be in on your plans with make scary and unpredictable situations manageable for your child. Children understand much more language than their own language production reveals.

What I had just experienced was a demonstration of how not to be a sensitive parent. Expecting that a 1-year-old could walk from check in, through security, into the vast food court, and onto their gate at Philadelphia airport was unrealistic. Acting without talking to the child or attempting to comfort and coax him along was not helping him move forward. It made me wonder about what will happen to this child. I heard him crying again later as she continued to the gate. Did she bring some toys for him for the plane ride or would she just expect him to be good? Will she tell him how the airplane will fly in the sky like a big bird and carry them through the clouds? Will he hear bedtime stories?

I fear that he will be one of those children with blank eyes when the teacher asks him a question. He will not know how to interact with adults and profit from what they tell him. He will not expect to be treated with respect and have anyone ask him what he wants. He will likely not develop the sizable vocabulary or acquaintance with stories that children need to succeed in school. And, perhaps most importantly, he will have to rely on himself for comfort and succor because his parent does not see the world through his little eyes.

The bigger, unsolved question is how can we reach parents like this to help them understand that babies' needs matter. Taking care of a baby is more than dressing him in cute clothes and providing a clean diaper. Child Trends reported that babies treated in this way are already lagging relative to their peers by 9 months of age. From birth, adults have to work to offer babies the talk and comfort they need to understand their world. Stimulating and talking to babies pays off too. Children who are talked to and whose needs for stimulation and understanding are met will eventually talk with you rather than flipping out when life doesn't go their way. Channeling feelings through language dramatically reduces frustration. Carolyn Roben at the University of Delaware found that babies who have better language are less angry and less likely to tantrum.

I fear the anger that this little boy may develop -- for him, for the adults in his life, and for the community. In this holiday season, wouldn't it be amazing if we appreciated our children -- the very best gift of all?