During my first DIR/Floortime course we were introduced to the Still Face Experiment. In this research, a parent is asked to interact with their baby by responding to the baby's coos and gestures. The babies in the experiment use gestures, babbling, and their affect to interact with their parents. The beginning of the experiment reflects Stanley Greenspan's theory that a baby's first understanding of cause and effect is not at 9 months when they pull a bell on a string like Piaget theorized, but is instead much, much earlier when the child first learns he can interact with his parent through pre-verbal communication such as smiles and coos. It's here that not just communication is born, but also a child's sense of self. In these moments babies learn that everything from their gross motor movements to their babbles can have meaning.
In this video of the experiment, the baby points and the mom looks to where the baby points, honoring the baby's motor planning and intent to communicate. Then the parent is told not to respond to the baby's attempts to interact. I find myself becoming physically uncomfortable every time I watch this part of the video. The baby becomes desperate to interact with the mother, and tries everything until finally shrieking, crying, and turning away from the mother. At the end of the experiment the mother is able to comfort her child.
The first time I saw this I had an immediate sick feeling in my stomach. Not just for the baby in the video, but I saw uncomfortable parallels for my own child and my phone. Yes, the great iPhone. The very thing that kept me sane in those middle of the night feedings, and allowed me to form great bonds with friends across the country as we sent each other "Will this baby ever stop eating? I may never get up from this chair" texts. The phone gave me sanity during those infant days. But what about now? How often have I unknowingly reacted this experiment with my own children, honoring their communication attempts during play, and then suddenly stopping and going cold when I get a text, email, or even a Facebook post I "have to" respond to right away?
The behaviorist side of me thinks "It's good for children to learn to wait. Even from a young age children should know that mommy will go away for a minute and then come back. The world does not revolve around them." But watch the child in the video. Mom is there, but not. With our iPhones, it's just a thin rectangle suddenly in between mom and the child. How does the child know why the iPhone is suddenly more important than their coos?
How many of us are creating this experiment on a daily basis, over and over again, and not honoring our children's attempts to communicate because of this tiny little rectangle that constantly takes precedent over them? Our children have learned of course, that this is a part of daily life. That their parents are there, and then suddenly not there, and then there again, as we toggle back and forth between honoring their sense of agency and then ignoring them while we respond to our phones.
One blog notes that this experiment while may see the Still Face experiment as a recreation of children growing up in neglectful situations and experiencing a loss of attachment, what it also shows is an example of a child suffering from a loss of agency. Our sense of agency is our understanding of how our movements, and actions have meaning in the world. In this experiment, for a brief moment, the baby's emotions, ideas, and thoughts are ignored, suddenly sending a confusing message about how the child is able to interact. Which is exactly what we do to our children when we interrupt their play to check our phones.
I don't mean to write this as a guilt trip for us all. I am hugely guilty of frequent phone checks, and even after wrestling with this question myself for a few months, I'm still guilty of it. But it does make me wonder. I'm trying to be more aware of honoring my children's thoughts and expressions in the moment, and if I can't respond to them I try to tell them exactly why "Hang on, I need to text Daddy and ask him to stop by the store" just so they know I'm ignoring them for a reason, and not just leaving them to flounder alone. I have no idea if that helps. But I suspect there is a connection between the Still Face experiment and how we constantly parent with a phone in our back pocket.