The Essential Human Task Is Learning to Be With Others and Other Lessons From the Research of Daniel Stern

By Ellen Galinsky

When Daniel Stern died this November 12th, we lost one of the truly greats in child development research and theory.

Daniel Stern was a psychiatrist, an author and a researcher at what’s now the Weill Cornell Medical College and at the University of Geneva, however the key to his greatness was not in his credentials, but in his vision. He had an uncanny ability to detect when child development orthodoxy was off kilter and in need of revision, of seeking the truth and then of finding highly imaginative ways to investigate his theory. Impressively, he expressed his findings in words that often read like poetry.

An example of this was the accepted worldview in the 1970s — that infants were born without a sense of self — that their experiences at birth were “fused” with their mothers — and that their mission in growing up was to separate from their mothers, to become independent individuals.

That view didn’t seem right to Stern and he set out to test it. When I once asked him why he saw a different reality, he responded that he was a watcher of people, especially of babies. As is the case for many of us, this interest and passion had its roots in his childhood. He told me:

The real reason I got interested in children who can’t [yet] talk comes from when I was little. We had a Czech nursemaid and she spoke only Czech. I spent most of my time with her and I learned to understand Czech and much less English. When I was about 2, I got very sick and was in the hospital for five months or so. When I got to the hospital, people realized that I didn’t speak English. And in those days, the idea of having a nursemaid come to the hospital was out of the question.

Because he didn’t understand what was happening to him at the hospital, Stern became a watcher:

I became totally attuned to what people were doing, what happened to their faces. I would listen to them, but I would listen to the music and not the lyrics, because I didn’t understand the lyrics.

His interest in being a “watcher” affected his career path — from MD to neuroscience to child psychiatry — but ultimately, he found his way back to watching behavior by using a lightweight television camera (a microscope for looking at behavior, as he described it) to record the interaction between mothers and infants.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult to detect what is going on in infants, but Stern developed some ingenious methods. Using freeze frames and slow motion, he saw that these interactions were like natural choreography — a dance. The babies moved in striking synchrony with their mothers: the mother would move her arm, and the baby would move his or her arm to mirror the mother’s.

These split-second analyses seemed to contradict the “fusion model.” Stern began to suspect that if an infant “knows” that his arm is moving one way and his mother’s arm is not, then the infant’s experiences are not totally fused with those of the mother.

Stern also noticed infants reaching for things. The baby clearly wanted something, planned to get it, and then completed the action. If the baby missed the object, the baby would “correct” the action and reach for the object again. But if the mother went through the same process — reaching for something the baby wanted and missing it — the baby didn’t do anything to correct the situation. This was also a clue that infants “knew” in some fundamental way that they were different from their mothers.

The moment, years ago, when I viewed Stern’s films of that lyrical back-and-forth dance between mother and child, the way I literally saw adults and children connecting — in both my professional and my personal life — was transformed from black-and-white into brilliant color. To say that I was transformed is putting it mildly. These everyday moments between parent and child happen all around us all the time — from the playground to the park to the supermarket checkout line — but if you tune into them and realize how magical they are, I am sure that you will be transformed too: The child does something, the adult seemingly unconsciously mirrors the child’s action and vice versa. As the child grows, the dance becomes more and more elaborate. At first the adult more or less mimics the child, but over time, the interplay becomes complex: Movements and sounds become actions and words, then interactions and conversation. A relationship is born and nurtured. Parent and child are learning to be together.

Once Stern saw that babies seem to “know” they are different from others, he tested this idea in numerous ways, including with Siamese twins. They were five months old when Stern found out about them, and he had one week to observe them before the surgery to separate them:

I went there every day with my cameras. They didn’t look at each other, because their heads were too close.

They did, however, suck each other’s thumbs:

So I wondered, could they — being almost one organism — could they tell the difference as to whose thumb they were sucking?

And they could:

if the baby was sucking the other kid’s thumb and I took [his] hand away, the baby wouldn’t do anything with his arm, but he’d bring his head forward. So he already knew whose finger he was sucking. And that impressed me. I figured these guys are living together all the time, and already there’s a distinction between these two.

As I think back on the many contributions of Daniel Stern to child development research and practice, these words play over and over in my mind — we are born alone and an essential human task is learn to be with others. This is something we can help our children learn!