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Mentoring Basics: Tuning in, Infant-style

My nephew and niece - the smartest, most adorable children on the planet!

I am an Auntie…and boy is that a great job!

Unfortunately I do not get to see my nephew and niece often enough as we do not live in the same city. …which means that every time I do see them, I am literally speechless upon witnessing how much they have learned, and grown.

They also take after their mom and dad (and their aunt I hope!) in their musical abilities. Already there is a tiny piano set up in the corner, a small violin that my nephew enjoys as much for its stretchy strings as for its haunting melodies, and a small electric guitar (courtesy of yours truly).

In fact, my brother and sister-in-law have a third child who will arrive just in time for Christmas, which, with our family’s background in bluegrass music, means the rest of us are already envisioning the next year’s family-wide Christmas gift – a tiny replica of Jonas Brothers (and sister) for our listening pleasure.

Exciting times are definitely ahead!

Not to mention that (lest you spend too much more time wondering what all this has to do with mentoring) these kiddos have a lot to teach us about the kind of focus it takes to learn something new….like recovery.

I recently read a fascinating article that recounts cognitive research in infants using music. The gist of the research findings is that infants can pass complex music-based tests that practically every adult will fail.

The reason, as music researcher Eugenia Costa-Giomi explains, is simple: “[Babies] are paying attention to everything. As adults, perhaps we are so tuned in to detecting changes in content that we miss the changes in voices.”

And other changes as well, including changes in others, changes in our environment, and most importantly, changes in ourselves.

Why is this critical? If we don’t notice changes in others, we will never learn that the world does not revolve around us (even when we are deathly ill with an eating disorder) – nor do we revolve around the world. If we do not notice changes in our environment, we cannot learn about what triggers versus supports us, and learn to focus accordingly.

And if we do not notice changes in ourselves, we cannot celebrate ourselves as we are making progress, or encourage ourselves in healthy, recovery-fostering ways when we falter.

Yet there is another element to how babies learn as well that we adults would do well to remember. Babies are also naturally attuned to similarities, which Costa-Giomi reports is an equally important skill for learning something new.

She states, “To go around the world and perceive the similarities among events and objects is really crucial. Detecting just differences would be a very inefficient way to learn about the world. After all, most things are somehow different from each other. We need to perceive similarities.”

Where this can be really helpful to us in our mentoring work and recovery progress is to notice “north” and “south” signs as they appear, and be able to learn from our past to map out our future. Things that may send us “south” – away from recovery, may be things that have triggered, upset, or otherwise sent us back to the thoughts and behaviors that put us in danger once or many times before. So when we encounter a relationship, circumstance, or situation that sets off those “ding ding ding warning” familiarity signals within us, we can recognize a road sign that points us south, turn around, and walk the other way.

Similarly, as we notice similarities in the types of relationships, situations, and circumstances that heal, help, nurture, and encourage us, we can seek out more of the same, keep our feet firmly pointed “north”, and continue walking in that direction.

Given all the challenges and treacheries this world can produce, it is literally a miracle that any little one survives babyhood – we are living proof of that. Yet with their innocence, intelligence, intense focus and attentiveness, and their fascination with all things new, and….new, an infant may just be an ideal mentor for us as we slough off our southerly course and chart a new path towards recovery and health.

Today’s Takeaway: How will you pay extra close attention to the “north” and “south” pointing road map signs in your life today?

Mentoring Basics: Tuning in, Infant-style

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2010). Mentoring Basics: Tuning in, Infant-style. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Nov 2010
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