Faces and Feelings: How children learn to care

Our faces are amazing things. It has been discovered that when any child, even a tiny baby, sees another person’s face, they automatically begin to mirror the expression that they see on it. If you pull a face for your baby to see, for example making a big open mouth, they will often try to copy you. Or just laugh! It is all new to them and they look to your face for direction.

The reason for this is that even the youngest human beings are hard wired to tune into other people’s feelings. For example, if the babies Mum is sad, or their Dad looks worried. When your baby mirrors that look with their own face, a miraculous thing happens- their brain also starts to feel the feelings they are seeing in the face of the other person. It even works with people we do not know, for instance, they may observe people on the TV news or a drama they may inadvertently see. That is why it is not appropriate to expose young children to a lot of television viewing, as it can overload them emotionally.

The ability to read faces and understand facial expression in our own ‘hearts’ is what we call empathy. When we can share the feelings of people we care about, we can understand them and help them better. In fact, our faces are so connected to our feelings that when a person who has botox treatments, freezing some of the face muscles so they cannot move any more, they actually start to have less feelings as a result. We have trouble feeling emotions that our face cannot express. That is why a ‘stiff upper lip’ keeps someone from crying.

Empathy is born into babies. I have seen a toddler at Playgroup, upset at another child’s crying, take his Mother’s hand and lead her across to pat the upset child and make them feel better. Human beings are born caring.

However, this is just nature’s way of giving us a good start in being a co-operative social animal. It is not the whole story. We are wired to be complex beings. Young children are also quite selfish and need help learning how to get along with others. WE cannot really expect them to share or play together all that well until they are at least four.

If we are expressive with our faces when we talk to toddlers and pre-schoolers it helps them understand what we are saying.

An experienced Mum is often quiet theatrical with her face- being able to look angry saves us having to get angry. Amazingly, at age two when discipline starts to be effective, and needed, toddlers develop the visual part of their brain and can actually remember our face visually, calling it up in memory when we are not there. This is different to recognising our face when they see it, which all babies can do.

It had been found that when a child thinks of doing something they know is naughty- getting the fish out of the goldfish bowl to give it a cuddle, perhaps- they also get a mental picture of their Mum or Dad’s face looking very unhappy.

Gradually children learn to share, to care, and to love being around others. Our empathy for them and our caring and kindness sets the foundations for them being kind people too.

But it takes a year or two to really catch on!

An extract from Playgroup Ambassador Steve Biddulph. 

Sourced from Playgrouper, Copyright © Playgroup Victoria