Curiosity:  Why is it important in parent–child relationships

Curiosity why it matters in the parent-infant relationship

Curiosity is the hallmark of the infant mind.  Babies live in the moment; they are the ultimate mindfulness practitioners.

Of course, it makes sense that as parents we should be curious about our babies and our children. That we should wonder, rather than presume. To hold off on telling and listen more.  To watch and wait, rather than jump in and take over.  

Nice in theory?  Hard in practice.

Anxiety and It’s Demand for Certainty.

We all want certainty in our lives.  We like to think we know about how the world is.  Our minds like to see the world and others as fixed and unchanging.  This gives us a sense of control and reduces our anxiety.  Indeed, this is the nature of all human minds, not just yours or mine.

The same is true when it comes to how we see our babies and children. Of course, as parents we want – and need – to feel in-control and competent.  The truth about babies however is that they can stir up intense parental anxieties and can often make us feel very uncertain and lacking control.  “I don’t know what I am doing. Am I getting this right?” 

It is also hard for parents because babies often communicate in vague and hard-to-read-ways.  Babies don’t always necessarily know what they want or need either.  Miscommunications, mistakes and confusion are therefore inevitable. 

What is my baby communicating?  Babies can often be confusing.

Anxiety makes the human mind more inclined to split things into black and white / good and bad. It is reassuring and convenient to have the feeling of ‘knowing’ something.  Yet, babies are inherently confusing at times.  Their cues can be subtle and can change very quickly.  This can create a great deal of anxiety for parents.  What is my baby trying to communicate? 

It is also important to know that babies communicate by getting their parents to feel something.  When the parent senses that their baby is distressed, the parent has an empathic response which moves them to act.  No words are required in this exchange. For parents who are struggling with mental health difficulties or trauma however, this may be overwhelming at times.   

Mental Filters

When we are anxious, we want certainty, to help us feel safe. And of course we do, this is normal and understandable.  Anxiety reduces our ability to be curious.  Seeing anything in fixed ways means we can miss important information.  We are also very often unaware of our mental filters; we see the world through these filters but don’t see the unique ways that our filters influence what we see. 

The filter of good or bad is a very common one that parents use.  “I am a good parent – or I am a bad parent”.  This evaluation of oneself doesn’t accommodate good or bad days (or moments), and often doesn’t include the myriad of things beyond our control.  Self-compassion is often squeezed out when this mental filter is activated.

When we demand certainty, we also reduce the possibility of being pleasantly surprised. As parents if we are too anxious and fixed upon one aspect of the child’s experience (challenging behaviours, feeding volumes, time asleep), we can miss what is being communicated and become overly activated and less flexible.

Good Enough Parenting

Getting it “right” as a parent is impossible. Mis-reading cues is inevitable. Only our own responses are within our control.  The choice between whether we become overly self-critical and guilt ridden, or able to see the value in the experience and as a chance to get to know more about the baby.

Of course, all parents miss communications from their babies. This is not necessarily a disaster. Winnicott wrote about the importance of parent-infant mismatch to support infant resilience.  He coined the phrase “good enough parent”, meaning that perfection is unobtainable.  It also follows that tolerating imperfection – mess, uncertainty, difference – is an important capacity to be developed within the mind of the parent. 

De-coding your baby

It can be a good idea to work with other health professionals to learn about how to read your infant’s cues, this might be from maternal and child health nurses, parent educators, lactation and sleep consultants in the early years of parenting.  If you’re one of the lucky ones, you might even have family members who can help you ‘de-code’ your baby.  This is a skill you can practice and develop.  It is not necessarily an automatic ability.  Instead, this develops over time and in relationship and conversation with your baby.

Your unique baby

The field of infant mental health has shown that infant is NOT a blank slate or passive recipient.  The baby makes their own contribution the relationship with the parent.  They bring their own skills, preferences and temperament, as well as their own developing emotional life.

Parents must balance the need to know with the capacity to be curious (not-know)

When parents are able to remain open, flexible and adopt a stance of curiosity without judgement, it becomes easier to see and relate to the infant exactly as they are.  This is the foundations of acceptance.

Getting Help

If you would like support getting to know your baby or are struggling with anxiety or other issues in relationship with your baby, book a consultation at the Centre for Clinical Psychology. We have perinatal psychologists skilled in infant mental health and in the treatment of anxiety, depression and trauma.   

When working with parents we adopt a similar stance of wondering and attempt to support the parent to in turn to wonder about their baby.   

Call to book an appointment 03 9077 0122 or email, or BOOK ONLINE

Medicare rebates available with a referral from your GP.