“It is interest…which is primary…[Interest] supports both what is necessary for life and what is possible…”
— S.S. Tomkins, Vol. I, p. 342, 345

When your baby expresses the signal for interest, he is clearly engrossed. His eyebrows are slightly lifted or slightly lowered. His mouth may be a bit open. If the object that’s caught his attention is moving, he’s following it closely with his eyes. His whole body seems alert, a little tense. He then turns his head, and perhaps his body, toward the object of interest. If he can crawl or walk, he’ll move toward it. Interest is expressed on a continuum from interest to excitement.

I have two girls, grown now, but both of them, from the very beginning, expressed their special talents and personalities through what interested them. The youngest, who ended up going to art school, was always captivated by the color and shape of things — once she could crawl she would always make a beeline for the most colorful item in the room. And she loved to touch things, to trace their shape with her hands. From the very start we tried to put a lot of interesting visual experiences in front of her, to help her experience the world as she liked it. But my older daughter was much different. She seemed to like to figure things out, how they were put together, what people were saying, what things meant. She was much more analytical, and in some ways more observant, less of a participant. Maybe because she was my first, I wasn’t as sure of how to encourage her. I would get her blocks, and other toys that she could build things with; then I’d get on a kick taking her to a lot of movies, even when she was only two. They held her attention, unlike most kids. She was more self-contained even at a young age. Well, she’s an accountant, and a good one. Both my kids really enjoy the work they do. I guess we were able to let them discover their interests and then pursue them. I think if you really pay attention to babies, they will let you know a lot about what they will become as adults, and, as their caretaker, it’s our job to help them get there as smoothly as possible.
– Kim, 47

Kids’ interest in what’s around them starts right from the beginning — even if it’s directed at little more than a breast or an embracing arm. Exploring the world is how they learn about themselves, others, and life in general. Infants are great big interest machines — devouring up whatever comes across their line of sight, taking in every drop of input they can. From birth, a child’s brain is programmed to seek out and respond to all forms of stimulation. Children are driven to use their senses to make sense of the world. They gain information and enjoyment from expressions of interest such as looking, touching, smelling, tasting, and those behaviors that many adults try to suppress, such as throwing, grabbing and pulling. These exploratory, stimulus-seeking tendencies are very important: they are how we learn.

There are many times when children’s expressions of interest strike adults as bad or risky behaviors. A mom’s understandable concern about an infant’s safety or desire to eliminate some of the chaos, noise and debris that an “interested” kid can produce, may create a conflict with the child’s expression of interest. If a child’s interests repeatedly are not given their due—are repressed, criticized or thwarted — a child can be made to feel ashamed of his curious, exuberant behavior. This shame may constrict these exploratory activities and erode the development of self-esteem and a sense of competence. That doesn’t mean that parents have to forgo order or rules or their need for a bit of peace and quiet, but it does mean that from day one parents face the challenge of finding ways to encourage and appreciate interest even as they redirect or shape it.

For example, if your baby crawls over to the wrapped package on the floor and starts pulling at the ribbon, your goal as an adult is somewhat complex: to prevent the package from being destroyed, and at the same time to see what’s happening from the child’s point of view, not just your own. Then you can resolve the conflict so that the package is preserved and the child is allowed to feel good about expressing interest.

To the infant, pulling on the ribbon unleashes a cascade of novelty and new information. The color and the texture of the ribbon are interesting. The fact that the ribbon, when pulled, gets longer, is intriguing. The baby is changing the shape of an object. It’s a mystery and a pleasure. The child is having an effect on the world; she is actually experiencing a bit of power, something children have very little of. She is unable to move through the world on their own, get food for herself or compete with adults. But with the ribbon, oh boy! Baby conquers world! In this little event there is, for the growing brain, a clue to what life can be like.

To the parent, the event may look much different. The child is destroying something that has value only when left intact. There’s no pleasure or interest in untying the ribbon. The child is messing with the world as it is supposed to be. The parent feels challenged and even a little distressed.

See the conflict? With children, even the simplest interaction may have a larger meaning. In a circumstance such as this, how you react may have all kinds of repercussions, short term and long term. In the short term, your response to the signal for interest may impact your child’s mood and yours — and influence whether you are left with a fussy, upset kid (never pleasant for you) or if the two of you will continue enjoying your interactions, as you nurture your child’s curiosity. In the long-term, if you don’t take time to see what’s happening from the child’s point of view and try to respond with that in mind, you may establish a relationship with your child that is based on power conflicts — conflicts that often escalate and consolidate over the passing years. A relationship founded on ‘No,’ may become a battleground.

So what do you do when baby pulls on the ribbon? You need to let him know he’s done a great job, that’s he’s discovered a marvelous piece of information. “See how that ribbon works?” “You’ve really got that one by the tail, don’t you?” There will be plenty of opportunities when he’s older to explain that making the bow took effort, a concept he could never understand now. If there’s time, and whenever possible, it’s important to allow a baby his triumph.

At the same time you want to shift his attention and interest to a less problematic object. “See, if you pull on my shoelace, it comes untied, too. Let me show you.” Or perhaps get another piece of ribbon and a box for him to play with. Or simply distract him, “Hey, what do you think about giving Teddy a ride on your belly? Here’s Teddy. Want to say hello?” Redirection and distraction are your two primary tools and they do work. Shape interest, don’t stifle it.

Dr. Virginia Demos, a marvelous integrator of clinical work and infant research, studied in depth these various exploratory activities and the parents’ responses. She noted that one frequent misunderstanding involved a variety of activities commonly engaged in by infants, such as banging, throwing, mouthing, biting, pulling, picking up, and dropping. Unless performed when the child is angry, these activities are almost always in the service of exploration and play, and they are fueled by interest and enjoyment. Nevertheless, they may result in damage, loud noise, or irritating messes. A parent may fail to perceive the child’s affective state of interest and the plans related to it, and instead focus exclusively on the consequences or potential consequences of the child’s behavior. From this perspective, the parent may see such behaviors as a hostile, destructive act by the child. This interpretation often leads to parental efforts to punish, scold, or restrict the child’s activities. Thus, what began for the child as a relatively benign, interesting activity, ends in a negative exchange with the caregiver. Because the child may not understand what specifically has provoked the parent’s responses — whether it was the affective state of interest; the banging, pulling, throwing; or the result of these actions — the consequences of this type of misunderstanding may be varied. The child may reproduce the action in an effort to sort out case-and-effect relationships. If I do this again, will I get the same rise out of mother? Or the child may gradually learn to curtail exploration and initiative because they tend to negative exchanges. Or the child may begin to view himself as hostile and destructive and therefore dangerous.

How to Maximize Interest:

As a parent you not only want to respond appropriately to individual situations, such as the ribbon pulling, you also want to convey the message that the more interest the child expresses in the world the better. This is the foundation of learning and of an agile mind.

1. Help your child learn how things work

You have the opportunity to turn each expression of interest into a greater lesson. Take the time to help your child discover what is hard or soft, tastes good or bad, sounds loud or quiet. Explore the world together. Remember, to a child everything is a mystery. The concept of cause and effect has to be learned. Pull on the tablecloth and the dishes fall on the floor — a simple enough idea for an adult — a wildly new idea for an infant. And one a baby cannot learn immediately. This lesson must be taught over and over, through experience. Luckily, you can (often) control whether it is learned through unfortunate disaster or example and explanation.

2. Encourage your child’s emerging interests

For a child, the cumulative effect of a day’s many intriguing experiences lays the foundation for future interests. So your best bet is to try to emphasize what seems to intrigue your child most, you strengthen those budding inclinations. For example, many little children love trucks and construction sites, motors, and machinery. These machines do big things. They have big effects. They make noise. They are interesting shapes and colors. They are magic. Other infants adore music; they respond to rhythm and love to be sung to. Notice your child’s favorite things and use them as learning tools. They also are very effective when you are trying to redirect or distract your child.

By tuning into what captivates your child’s attention, you are telling your child, “I get it. I see what you like and I think enough of it to share your interest and encourage it.” This validates the child’s interests and feelings, which in turn build a child’s self-esteem and confidence.

As Demos noted, children use a variety of techniques to involve parents, such as bringing them objects, pulling at their legs or arms, flopping in their laps, asking them questions, or smiling. Even a perfunctory response from the parent is sometimes sufficient to sustain the child’s interest or playfulness. But ignoring the child at such times, or reacting with irritation or prohibitions, tends to dampen or inhibit the child’s capacity to sustain the interest and enjoyment on his own. Undoubtedly there are a variety of reasons for this type of parental behavior—reasons ranging from temporary lapses due to fatigue or a preoccupation with other concerns, to more characterological factors. In the latter case, the parent might believe that child’s play is silly; or feel embarrassed at playing on a child’s level; or assume that as long as children do not cry or fuss and sound contented, a grownup need not get involved; or show an inability to value personal interests and enjoyments and the importance of sharing them. But, to the child, all communicate the same thing — that the child’s joy and interest-excitement and playful intentions have been perceived and understood, yet have not been accepted and supported. The lack of a positive response to expressions of interest-excitement and enjoyment may have all or some of the following meanings to the child: I am not interesting and enjoyable, it is not worthwhile to be interested and joyful; it is not worthwhile to be interested and joyful about this particular thing; I shouldn’t bother trying to engage mommy or daddy in my interests and joys. Any one of these meanings may partially attenuate the child’s positive affect and create a temporary barrier to further communication with the parent. According to Tomkins’ theory of affect, such a situation will evoke shame in the child. Moreover, depending on the child’s response to shame, other negative affects, such as distress or anger, are likely to be added to the sequence.

3. Allow the child to fully express the signal for interest

Look at every signal of interest as an opportunity to build your child’s self-confidence and brain power. If adult scissors are tempting, you can gently take them away and replace them with children’s scissors or something else. Then show your 13-month old how to use the scissors. Take the time to offer a demonstration of how they work and how sharp they are. Let the child know you appreciate her interest in them but that you must protect her from the danger they pose. “See, you put a piece of paper into them and you can turn that piece of paper into four pieces of paper. How neat is that? But these scissors are too sharp and can hurt you, so I can’t let you have them; let’s try these scissors which are duller.” This reasoned approach helps the child learn about with scissors without suppressing the child’s signal of interest or scaring the child. (I think that the fear of barbers is the result of scissors as being portrayed as horribly dangerous in order to keep the child from playing with them. Then, when a barber comes at the child with scissors in hand and brings them close to the child’s head and face, it is terrifying.)

Virginia Demos shed light on the problem which arises if you simply remove the scissors or yell “No” — even if your main focus is on protecting the child from harm. This response fails to support the infant’s built-in urge to explore interesting objects. The opportunity to learn about scissors is lost, and no other interesting substitute is provided. The message to the infant is simply, “Stop.” But, asks Demos, “Stop what?” Stop being interested? Stop exploring new objects? Stop exploring scissors? If this type of prohibition occurs frequently enough, the infant may learn to inhibit her exploratory, learning, stimulus-seeking behaviors on her own and may become increasingly constricted and immobilized.

Why ‘No’ can be heard as a three letter word:

If you frequently step on your child’s expressions of interest by reprimanding her with a sharp ‘No!’ or a “Stop that!” you may make her feel shame and humiliation. That’s the natural reaction when you tell your infant that she is ‘wrong’ for being interested in this or that object. Abruptly breaking off a child’s expression of interest makes it painfully clear to the child that she can’t share feelings of interest with you without being scolded.

Also, a sharp “No!” or even simply, “Don’t touch that!” can be confusing for a baby. The world is a scary place to a child and she needs constant reassurance in order to feel secure and to bravely go where she has not gone before. If you abruptly stop her expression of interest, she may not know what to do next. “Okay, I’ll stop, but now what? What am I supposed to do?” she wonders. This shifts the signal for interest to one for distress; the child may start wailing and crying as soon as you take the scissors away. As a parent, you may think that your child’s immediate distress means she is upset because she can’t have what she wants. You may even say, “You spoiled little thing!” But that’s not what’s really going on. The shift to crying happens because the child feels acutely misunderstood and abandoned. Not only was her interest interrupted, which is no fun, but it was discounted as wrong. This undermines the formation of self-esteem and confidence. In short, ‘No,’ said too often and too quickly translates in a baby’s brain as B-A-D.

Why to maximize interest:

Clearly, signals of interest indicate that a child wants to learn about the outside world. But they also help a child learn about himself. When interest is stimulated, it shows a child what brings him pleasure, what captures his attention, what excites him.

  1. Encouraging interest helps your child become confident about exploring. It allows him to satisfy his biological needs for stimulation and tells him it’s okay to expand his world without feeling guilty.
  2. When you reward curiosity, you strengthen a child’s sense of control, competence and confidence. He begins to sense that he can manage “out there” in the world.
  3. Learning that there are limits is critical too. Seeing what’s allowed and what’s not allowed helps the child develop an understanding of boundaries. Your child will be reassured to find out that there are rules and that you can be counted on to teach her what they are. This will allow your child to learn how to self-regulate her impulses and desires so that she can follow the rules, fit in and gain your approval.

The interest timeline:

All infants are interested in what they can see, hear and touch. Initially, they use their mouth and sense of taste to assess many objects they encounter. Then, as their vision and hearing becomes more acute and they can move around more easily, the variety of things that spark their interest increases. Your role is to help your child find ways to express her interests and to expose her to new interactions that may stimulate new interests. Granted, it can be a hit or miss situation sometimes, but that’s okay. For example, some children will enjoy being read to at six months, others may not get into it until they are nine months or older. Your child will let you know immediately if reading is an activity that evokes interest or not. If it’s not a hit, she’ll squirm, fuss and shift her attention to something else. That’s your signal to set it aside for the time being.

Other activities that evoke interest in infants include playing with stuffed animals, going for walks, being sung to or shaking a rattle. No activity is too trivial or too minor where interest in concerned. If it captures your child’s attention, whatever the age, go with it.

As your child grows, and her interests expand, your ability to tune into what stimulates her curiosity may feel like it comes and goes. Don’t worry, this can happen as children pass from one developmental stage to the next and their expanding interests surpass their ability to communicate them. Temporarily, such a misreading of the signals can lead to heightened frustration and distress—for your child, and for you. For example, Lois told me that she was having a terrible time keeping daughter Eva, usually such a happy child, from crying. It hadn’t been a problem before, but now at 16 months, Lois felt like something was terribly wrong. After observing the mom and child together over the course of a couple weeks, it became apparent that the baby was frustrated by not being able to talk yet. Eva could understand what was being said to her, and she struggled to talk back using sounds and almost-words. But she couldn’t yet say, “I want…” or “I need…” and the frustration was getting to her. When she became interested in something or had an opinion to express, she wasn’t able to get it across quickly enough. She became impatient and fussy. To help Eva during this transition, Lois made an extra effort to put words to her child’s signals and to narrate what was going on.

Sometimes parents may understand their child’s interest but misunderstand their current developmental capacities and their need to have the enthusiasm and accomplishments validated — thereby puncturing the balloon of good feeling. Demos described one such situation between a mother and her 15-month-old daughter. Mother and daughter were outside in their yard, with the child playing in the sandbox and the mother nearby in a chair. A neighbor boy had just thrown a ball to the girl in the sandbox. She picked up the ball and “threw” it back. As often happens at this age, the ball dropped about two inches in front of her. Nevertheless, she was delighted with her efforts, smiled broadly at the boy, and clapped her hands. The mother said, “You can’t clap yet; the ball didn’t go out of the sandbox. Try again.” The girl looked a little puzzled, but did try again, with much the same result and the same excitement and joy. The mother again insisted that the girl had not achieved “her” goal. By the third and fourth repetitions of this sequence, the child’s expression had become sober; she was no longer clapping. Indeed, she soon lost all interest in throwing the ball and turned to other objects in the sandbox. From the child’s point of view, joining the game of catch and “throwing” the ball back to the boy probably meant simply moving her arm and letting go of the ball, which was as close as she could come to imitating the boy’s action. Her joyful, excited response clearly indicated that, by her lights, she had succeeded. The mother’s refusal to accept her goal (i.e., to see her efforts as an achievement) and to share in her excitement and joy, instead holding out for a better throw, left the child feeling perplexed and unsupported. Not understanding how she had failed or how to succeed and please her mother, she gave up the task.

How to tune into your child’s interests:

One good way to understand just what interests your child is to use Floor Time. This puts you into the child’s world in a way that few other activities can do. If your child crawls off into the kitchen and starts playing with the pots and pans, crawl along with her and see just how fascinating it is when you’re at a kid’s eye level. You will begin to appreciate how large a part the smallest encounters with outside objects play in a child’s imagination. And you’ll get a sense of the tempo at which your child moves through the world. Allowing kids to maintain their own sense of time is important if you are to encourage exploration and help build self-confidence.

Quantity, not just quality, time is also important. When your time with your child is too event oriented, too structured or scheduled, you don’t allow your child to simply move through the day at a unforced pace, interacting with the environment in spontaneous ways. Spend time with your child as you do laundry, while you read, as you do errands or just hang out. In these ordinary circumstances, a child can express extraordinary interest, and you will have the time to observe and interact with your child in an easy, natural way.

What to do when you must interrupt interest:

An important part of maximizing your child’s interests is learning how to manage situations where you must interrupt the expression of interest — which frequently leads to distress and anger. For example, you are standing at the deli counter in the grocery store waiting to be served. Your child is fascinated by everything that is going on — the slicing machines, the other people, the strange looking objects in the deli case. But once you are served, you have to finish up your shopping. As you turn to wheel your child down the next aisle, he lets out a wail that could be heard in the next county. He wants to stay right there and keep looking at all the activity. You need to keep moving. In such a situation, you might:

  • recognize the distress and validate it: “Hey sweetie, you really liked watching all that didn’t you?” You might even wheel him back to the counter and say, “Look there’s the butcher. And there’s that delicious turkey you like. I know it’s upsetting to have to move on, but let’ see what’s next.”
  • You then want to help your child learn to overcome his distress by finding something else to focus on. You may offer distraction by singing a song, offering him a toy or a favorite transitional object (his blanket or Teddy), telling him that you are off to see just what there is to explore down the next aisle, or going through an elaborate good-bye ritual as you leave the butcher.
  • By validating the interest and allowing expression of the distress and then moving on to other activities you help your child develop tension regulation and the capacity to delay gratification. You also gently make it clear that sometimes he is not the center of the world. Sometimes other people or events will prevail. Your child will feel better about that startling fact if you handle necessary interruptions of interest in ways that helps your child remain calm, such as providing distractions.

Early Education:

Within this context of exploratory patterns and behaviors, one might ask: how important and how effective are early educational programs (e.g., Head Start)? The answer is that such programs are very important and potentially very effective. However, the more important issue arises even earlier in the child’s life: do the parents understand the signal of interest? Understanding the interest affect means appreciating that the baby’s curiosity, tendency to explore, examine, play, and “get into things” are all learning opportunities and activities. Of course, some limit-setting is necessary, and one can be creative in protecting the child from dangerous items without squashing their curiosity and enthusiasm. But one does not want to constrict these explorations or see them as “misbehaviors.” One wants to allow the child as much opportunity to think and say and explore as freely as possible. Even with words (see the Chapter “Beyond Signals”), one can encourage the verbal expression of feelings. If the child begins using what you might consider “bad” words, use this as a learning experience. Reach for a dictionary, talk with the child about the meaning of the word, whether or not it offends people, if it should be used in public, and so on. The trick is to encourage, not constrict, all these learning opportunities as early as possible. This stance promotes real “early education”!

The continuum:

Interest, like the other signals, is not a rigid state. It can be expressed as everything from mild curiosity to enthusiasm and excitement. When Grandma brings baby a new toy car, he may stare at it in an off-handed way, putting it down, picking it back up, not sure of what he thinks. But after a while he may decide that it is a pretty wonderful and begin waving it around, over his head. His interest has increased to excitement. This is getting good, he thinks. Then, if he accidentally hits a button that activates a siren, that’s surprising at first and then may be even more exciting.

Interest can decrease, as well as increase. Sometimes, children express initial interest in something, but then it fades. If the toy car, on closer inspection, doesn’t capture his fancy, there isn’t much you can do to change his mind, no matter how hard you try. If you insist repeatedly your child find the car interesting when he does not, you may provoke anger: His tears or writhing around in your arms are his way of signaling, “Aren’t you listening to me? I don’t want to play with that thing.” In such a situation, it’s better to put the toy aside and substitute another more engaging one or to look around and see what it is that’s occupying his interest. Perhaps Grandma herself is more intriguing. Let them interact and don’t worry about the toy.

For kids boredom is almost unbearable; they crave interesting interaction and grow distressed when they don’t have it. That’s why in restaurants or at the mall children can become so fussy and disruptive. They need a lot of toys or puzzles or other distractions in those situations to satisfy their natural, built-in, healthy curiosity and stimulus-seeking tendencies.

To recap: If you are able to help your child understand and gravitate to what interests him, you and your baby both reap great benefits now and in the future. Kids who know what they are interested in and get parental support for those interests have an easier time establishing a life’s work that they enjoy. And hopefully that will make you feel pretty happy too.