Professor Colwyn Trevarthen: Relationships

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Colwyn Trevarthen, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychology and Psychobiology in the University of Edinburgh, talks about forming relationships with very young children.


Well the child has a very, very strong instinct to find other people, because they are the only thing in the world that can confirm their belonging and their need to be part of a community. They have to be a community with people, so they can form a private world. We all have an attachment to the house we live in, or the room we sleep in, or the objects that we possess, and babies can be like that too, but really they can’t have companionship with an object, it’s limited, very limited, and they know that. [sl. Minnecott] talked about have a blanket as a substitute for the mother; it’s not, because you can’t have a conversation with a blanket really. You can have a conversation with yourself, using the blanket to support the idea, but that’s not quite the same.

So babies are looking for companionship, they are looking for somebody. And I would like to make the point that the baby’s looking, or curiosity is more important than any parents desire to teach the baby, or anybody’s desire to teach the baby; the baby is not a pupil, it is not just an ignorant human being that needs to be taught knowledge. But to be part of a human community which is sharing knowledge and understanding you don’t have to have a teacher, you just have to have company, good company, and that company can be of any age. And that is something that I would like to emphasise, that certainly by the time the baby is three or four months old siblings, older siblings can be very good companions, and play with the child happily. And I think that by the time the baby is six months old they can get along fine with a group of other kids of different ages, they don’t have to be all the same age, and they don’t have to be all babies, and they don’t have to have adult supervision all the time.

And I think that the proper environment for children to develop their relationships, and their sense of belonging, and knowing, and understanding, and their preparation for learning about the world is a community, like a village square with children running around and babies being handed from one lady to the next, and having all sorts of contacts. I agree with Bruce Perry who says that what the human brain is looking for is relationships, or engagements, and it’s not with just one person, so there is a qualification for an attachment; babies do, especially when they are distressed, want the care and concern of somebody who they know well, and who is affectionate, so they do have a strong attachment to their mother who looks after them. But the companionship, having fun, they like to have that with their mother too, but they can have it easily with lots of other people, including their fathers actually.

I think this companionship, looking for a companion, includes being sensitive to funny companions, jokey companions, and other young children and toddlers are very attractive to babies because they are so comical in their behaviour, and they interact with the baby. And babies change people’s behaviour; they change children’s behaviour, they change elder siblings behaviour who are teenagers, they change the behaviour of mothers, and grandmothers and grandfathers. And they change children’s behaviour in a different way; they make children show off more, be more silly, and they love that. I think sometimes babies can look at it very superior and say, why are you such a stupid silly person, because things can be too strange for them. But no, the companionship is very, very rich, and it’s got all sorts of possibility, and I think they like the playfulness of other young children, and I think it’s good for them to be with young children.

I think if you are wondering what kind of companion a practitioner should be, I think the ideal companion of any kind – and it can be a practitioner or not – is a familiar person who really treats the baby with playful human respect.

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