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Babies Have to Get Their Way Somehow

New research indicates that babies understand social dominance related to size. Scientists discovered this by showing babies two cartoons in which two blocks with faces come face-to-face. In one cartoon, the smaller block defers to the larger block and steps aside, in the other the larger block steps aside. The babies looked longer at the cartoon in which the large block defers to the small, which indicates that they were surprised by this turn of events.

There’s something almost scary to me about this image of babies gazing thoughtfully at the small block in charge. We seem to learn something new every day about babies’ capacity for understanding, so I imagine gears cranking furiously as the babies considered the possibility that they are more powerful than they realized. Were they just showing interest or were they planning a coup?

Just kidding. But seriously, fact is, itty-bitty babies actually do hold the power to make big people cater to their needs. Their basic techniques are looking cute to get cuddles, and crying or fussing to get everything else. Of course, some adults respond to these cues, others don’t.

Consider, for example, the “let ‘em cry it out” school of sleep training. This is anathema to “attachment parenting,” a philosophy based on John Bowles’ attachment theory and centered on principals of nurturing, respect, and responsiveness.

Parents raising their children according to these principals don’t subscribe to the notion that children left to cry it out will learn to soothe themselves. Research indicates that infants don’t have the ability to self-soothe and all the “cry it out” technique does is stress them out and mess with their developing brains. So when baby cries in the night, attachment parenting parents are on-the-spot to offer comfort.

The goal of attachment parenting, proponents say, is to raise children into caring, empathetic adults. Not that other parents hope to raise sociopaths, but attachment parenting parents are pretty sure theirs is the best way to better outcomes. (And, as with much everything related to parenting, discussion on this topic can get heated.)

This research into early awareness of the relationship between size and social dominance seems related. Babies raised by attachment parenting parents learn that size doesn’t trump everything—that even little people can reliably get results when they express a need.

But what if parents don’t consistently respond, in light of this new research? If babies know that size matters, and if they cannot get their needs met by the biggest things they know—their parents–simply by expressing needs in the best way they know how, they need another plan. Is this the seed that grows into manipulative behavior and social aggression as they get older?

Is it possible to develop empathy when you feel powerless for reasons beyond your control? It seems to me that rather than empathy, you might develop radar for others’ vulnerabilities, to exploit them in order to get your needs met. Or maybe even become a sad-sack loser to engender sympathy. And we’ve probably all known good-looking people who exploit their looks to get their way–and equally good-looking people who don’t.

Brain gears were cranking on something as those babies considered the little square with power. If not world dominance, perhaps just techniques for surviving the itty-bitty phase of life.

Babies Have to Get Their Way Somehow

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Babies Have to Get Their Way Somehow. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 8 Feb 2011
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