How stand-up comedy helps us understand children’s brain development

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Michael McIntyreI’ve been reading Michael McIntrye’s autobiography, Life and Laughter. For anyone unfamiliar with the comic landscape of contemporary Britain, Michael McIntyre is the country’s leading expert on goofy obsessiveness. He manages to shine a light into the private, excruciatingly painful moments of our ordinary lives, and to twist them in such a way that they suddenly seem laughable.

Here’s how he describes (pg. 247) making the Big Announcement that he wanted to be a stand up comedian. He was 21. He had realised his whole life revolved around making people laugh. A comedian was simply Who He Had To Be. So when he shares this deepest hope with his loved ones, how do they react?

Sister:   “Brilliant, Mike, that’s brilliant. You’re so funny. I’m so pleased for you.”

Mother:   “Oh my God, Michael, I’m so worried about you. That’s a very difficult thing to do. Your father said it was the hardest job in the world.”

Posh best friend:   “I’m funnier than you.”

Grandmother:  “Don’t be so bloody stupid. What kind of a job is that? You will starve if you do that. Whose turn is it at Scrabble?”

Love of his life, who hadn’t yet agreed even to be his girlfriend: “Please leave your name at the sound of beep. I’ll get back to you.”

It’s striking to realise how much of a role the spontaneous responses of other people play in helping us to create ourselves. People who love us can close us right down or open us right up, without ever meaning to. That’s one of the key messages that comes out of the study of human development: even our physiology is shaped by the way that other people treat us.

I found myself thinking about this theme of responsiveness recently, observing a young family in the middle of a crowded room. Dad was holding the baby, maybe 8 months old. Mum was standing close by, speaking to Grandma, who was alternating her conversational attention between the mum and a few other people standing in their group. It was late, maybe 8pm, so they were probably all a bit tired, including the baby.

As Mum started to turn her attention away from the adult conversation and back toward Dad and baby, the baby leaned out toward her. This act took a bit of bravery, because it meant she was shifting to a posture that was a bit unbalanced. In the course of it all, her arms flailed, and she batted at Mum’s face, ending up by hitting her on the nose. How did Mum respond? Her eyebrows knit with anger, she reached up, took the baby’s hand, and smacked it hard, saying “No! That’s bad. You’re bad!” The baby withdrew into Dad’s arms, but then Mum reached over and lifted the baby into her own. I guessed that’s what she’d been planning to do anyway, before the unexpected flash of conflict between them. Then she cuddled the baby, saying, “You’re tired, aren’t you?” She smoothed her hair and settled her into her chest.

It was a totally ordinary exchange, one that you see often on buses or in supermarkets or at playgroups. I found myself wondering what had happened in that mother’s history in order for her to read her 8-month-old baby’s actions as ‘bad’, especially as she also realised the baby was tired. I wondered how tired the mum herself was. I wondered if Dad agreed with the smacking response, or if this way of dealing with things was something that caused conflict between them.

I’m wondering now how I best write about this ordinary exchange in a way that doesn’t sound judgmental. How do I talk about this so that I sound curious? It is so easy to judge other people’s behaviour, and it’s what exasperates parents all the time: the judgment of other people. Lots of parents rent reading this blog, who have ever slapped their baby’s hand, are now likely to be trying to work through their own sense of whether or not they ‘should’ have done that. My description risks creating guilt or irritation in any reader. That’s not my aim. That would be a stupid aim – to create guilt and doubt. Parents suffer from those feelings enough. What parents need is more people who are curious about their experience.

Mother and Child 2That’s what babies need too: parents who are able to be curious about their child’s experience. Curiosity takes courage. It requires that we stay in a place of uncertainty, of openness, of not-yet-knowing the meaning of something. That’s not easy. Human brains are built for interpretation. They automatically search for the meaning of events. Brains want to come to quick conclusions so that they can decide What To Do.

Conclusions come especially rapidly when we are surprised. I reckon this mum was caught off guard in the midst of shifting her attention from Grandma to the baby. It can be hard to stay curious when you experience unexpected pain, which is probably what happened when the baby’s hand ended up striking the mum’s nose. So it is understandable that Mum’s brain might have quickly drawn a conclusion and acted on it: the baby was being naughty.

Our culture encourages parents to read children’s behaviour as naughty, and the response that is encouraged is discipline. We have a cultural belief that children need to be taught what is right and what is wrong. A short, sharp slap on the hand can seem like a good teaching technique, especially when it is quickly followed by a cuddle, which communicates the message that Mum still loves you, even if you have been ‘bad’.

Yet some of the latest neuroscientific insights are encouraging us to rethink traditional childcare approaches. ‘Quotidian trauma’ is the label now being given by scientists to everyday events that are alarming for children. In her own recent blog on this topic, Claudia Gold, a paediatrician in the USA, describes the scene of a father responding to his 2-year-old son’s temper tantrum upon leaving the playground, by slapping him across the face. Science is coming to understand that ‘ordinary alarm’, even in short bursts, has an effect on a child’s developing physiological systems and brain function.

I can hear a debate immediately popping up: “But slapping a child’s face is worse than slapping his hand!” I find myself wondering why we think that. Why does a face slap seem more invasive than a hand slap? And why do we think the parent’s slap is more significant than their facial expression? If I noticed that mother’s angry eyebrows from half way across the room, I am certain the baby noted them too. An angry parent is scary for a baby. Babies’ brains are built to read meaning in a parent’s face.

Mother and ChildThat’s why it is so important that we be curious about experience – both other people’s experiences and our own. Claudia Gold traces how that 2-year-old boy grew into a man, and then became a father himself, and how he now feels stressed and confused whenever his own toddler throws tantrums. She describes her attempts to help that father reflect on the ways in which his history of unresolved ‘everyday trauma,’ delivered by the hand of his father, has shaped the way his brain now reads his child’s actions. Claudia Gold thinks this process of tracking personal history is crucial, because if this father can become curious about himself, then he has a better chance of also being curious about his son. It is curiosity that brings inter-generational transmission of trauma to a stop.

Most importantly, Claudia Gold assures us that it is from that place of curiosity that healing becomes possible. Healing occurs once two people who have been in conflict re-attune to one another. It is only when emotional mismatches fail to be repaired that ‘quotidian trauma’ becomes a risk.

The work of Professor Ed Tronick, a developmental psychologist based at the University of Massachusetts, is even more reassuring to parents. His studies suggest that only about 30% of mismatches need to be repaired in order for a child’s development to proceed in a healthy direction. He now uses that ratio to talk about the concept of quotidian resilience’.

So we can take comfort from the fact that the mum I’ve just described cuddled her baby after she slapped his hand. This is a repair of sorts. It would have been much harder for the baby had Mum delivered an angry slap and then walked away. However, I’ll bet that mum would like to know about the science I’ve just been describing. I’ll bet she would like to have an opportunity to understand better how her own emotional state knits with her baby’s development. I’m even willing to bet that, with the kind of safe conversations that Claudia Gold uses as part of her practice as a paediatrician, she would be able to discover why it is her brain interpreted her young baby’s flailing arm as naughty misbehaviour in the first place.

I loved Michael McIntrye’s entertaining description of his family’s responses because he lets us see again the whole range of ways in which other people can help or hinder our emotional growth. If he had listened to the fears of his mother or his grandmother, he would not now be making millions of people laugh. Maybe he would never have won over Kitty, the long-desired girl of his dreams.

It was his sister, Lucy, who could walk with him along a path of risk. “Brilliant, Mike. You’re so funny. I’m so pleased for you.” It was she who got the pleasure of being the first ever person to share with him a visit to the Comedy Club.

The insights being yielded by neuroscience and developmental psychology are demonstrating that parents and professionals who are able, like Lucy, to be curious about children’s behaviour are also better at supporting children to take risks. And its all too easy to overlook the risks occurring all around us.

Babies’ risks include having your mum looking away from you, talking to Grandma. Toddlers’ risks include coping with the terrible disappointment that descends when you realise you can’t have the sweets that are your heart’s desire. Teenagers’ risks include having your peers laugh at you because you don’t have the money to buy the latest designer gear. Parents’ risks include the reality that sometimes you end up feeling guilty, because your brain decided that a good course of action was to slap your baby’s hand before you had any chance of stopping yourself.

Michael McIntyre ShowtimeResilience is the capacity to cope with the risks that life throws up on a daily basis. Thank goodness that, along with his goofy obsessiveness, Michael McIntrye developed enough resilience to keep risking the fear that no audience would ever find him funny.

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