Child Development 101: You’re Not the Boss of Me

Animated cartoons in which a tiny mouse stands up to a big, boisterous cat are raising eyebrows among certain viewers – 10 to 16-month old babies. A recent study released by Harvard and UCLA found that infants take interest in cartoon scenarios where the smaller character appears to win a battle over a larger character, indicating that babies use size as a means of determining who will prevail in a conflict between two individuals.

Researchers conducted five experiments on 144 infants between eight and 16 months old, observing how they reacted while watching videos featuring interactions between cartoon characters of varying sizes. In scenes where the smaller character prevailed over the larger, babies 10 months and older watched longer than they did scenes with a more expected outcome – the smaller character yielding to the larger one. According to earlier research, babies tend to watch something longer when it surprises them.

Study author Lotte Thomsen of Harvard’s Department of Psychology said that the results suggest humans are either born with an innate understanding of social dominance with respect to size, or we develop it at a very early age.

But Fran Walfish, a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, questions the study’s findings. “Kids determine who’s boss by tone of voice and facial expressions. In a household, a baby will perceive the parent who responds to his demanding cries as the nurturer.”

While infants may start out with the idea of a physically larger parent being boss, Walfish believes the child will adjust her perceptions if the smaller parent is more aggressive in tone and demeanor.

Noted by the study authors is the fact that, in the animal world, creatures such as cats and birds tend to puff themselves up to appear larger – and more powerful – in threatening situations.

Regardless of how babies determine who’s in charge, Walfish urges parents to model healthy social interaction in the home. “I believe power comes from inhibiting impulses. Parents should teach their children that power comes from restraint and self-discipline, not aggression.”

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