Crawling Over a Cliff?

By Amy McCampbell

Last year, the Sears Tower (or, as it’s known by its new name, the Willis Tower) unveiled a glass balcony on its 103rd floor. Visitors get to creep about four feet out from the building…and 1,353 feet high above the city of Chicago.

Some of us on the Mind in the Making team were talking about and just how much it reminded us of an experiment we filmed, UC Berkeley Professor Joe Campos’ Visual Cliff. In it, a baby is placed on a large box that’s covered by a piece of clear plexi-glass. Halfway across, there’s what looks like a drop, though it’s clearly safe to cross thanks to the sturdy platform. On the opposite side of the platform is the baby’s mom, either making a smiling face (signaling to the baby that it’s okay to cross), or a fearful face (which tells the baby to stay put).

You can watch the experiment here.

The experiment is so powerful… you can really see the babies reading their parents to try to figure out what to do.

If you’re around kids, you see this phenomenon all the time. A child falls, and then looks up to an adult to see how they’re supposed to react. Calm adult, calm(er) child. Hysterical adult… well, you can imagine.

Professor Campos’ experiment is with babies, but I frequently have these experiences with my four-year-old daughter. Just yesterday, we were at the beach where the waves were pretty rough, so all she could do was play along the surf. She started off being hesitant to go near the churning water, but eventually felt confident enough to creep closer – but not before she looked back to get a read from me about what she could and couldn’t do. The nervous mother in me wanted her to stay on the dry sand, but I knew that it was a wonderful and safe (her dad and I were right there if anything should happen) way to enjoy the ocean, so I made my face reflect a sense of security.

She’s getting older and her forays into independence come more and more frequently. And since I want to protect her, it’s indeed a stressful time for me. But I have to let her try new things… and as long as she keeps looking back to get my approval, I’ll be okay.

Now, I just wonder who there is to look to on top of the Sears Tower to let you know it’s safe!

Share your stories us about how your child decodes your ‘emotional readout.’

Amy McCampbell is a producer at New Screen Concepts.