Are Babies Little Devils?
The secret motivations of your baby's heart
From birth I was taught that I was evil, knitted together in my mother’s womb with a sinful nature that drove me to oppose every thing right and good. My job, then, was to seek to fight that nature. I still recite, from memory, Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?” Our Sunday School teacher explained to a classroom of 10 year olds that we were all wicked—desperately wicked. “Why do you think babies cry for no reason?” she said. We had no answers.
Despite the fact that I’ve strayed from the Fundamentalist faith I was taught, the belief that I must fight my baser nature, inherited from Adam and Eve, informs everything I do. It’s hard for me to shake the image of my life as a battle against the evil inside. And now that I have children, I find myself fighting this belief even more. While I often find myself staring with fear into the eyes of my toddler as she screams for a cookie, I don’t believe that she is operating from baser instincts. Self-interest, yes. But evil? I’ve seen her comfort strangers on the playground. I’ve seen her cry when I banged my knee. Even more remarkable, I overheard her tell her baby brother that she might share a cookie with him when he got bigger.
Every parent has these little stories—anecdotes of altruism and good. We cling to them in the darker moments, after our child slugs their friend over a Spider-man whistle. Maybe there is hope? Maybe our kid won’t be a serial killer? Did Ted Bundy ever share his cookie?
As parents we are all amateur moralists. Whether we’ve read Kant or C.S. Lewis, our moral judgment informs how we approach the behavior of our children. How do we interpret their motives when they can’t communicate them to us? And when they can communicate, how do we place our trust in them? How we see our children is as fundamental to our approach to parenting as the sperm was to the egg.
But when it comes to unlocking the secrets of our babies hearts, we aren’t alone. Researchers at the Yale Infant Cognition Center are trying to answer those questions by examining the morals of infants. The results are surprising and (not surprisingly) inconclusive. In an article published in Smithsonian Magazine, writer Abigail Tucker, describes the research revealing that babies as young as 3 months old may in fact be capable of making moral judgments. Tucker writes, “The last few years produced a spate of related studies hinting that, far from being born a ‘perfect idiot,’ as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, or a selfish brute, as Thomas Hobbes feared, a child arrives in the world provisioned with rich, broadly pro-social tendencies and seems predisposed to care about other people. Children can tell, to an extent, what is good and bad, and often act in an altruistic fashion.”
The studies that Yale Infant Cognition Center uses to unearth these altruistic tendencies are not without their critics. While reading the article, I was concerned about the assumption that children at 6-10 months (the ages used for some of the studies) are truly blank slates. In the first six months of life, babies absorb a vast amount of information and form attachments. Also, a recent study done by a team of researchers at Emory University School of Medicine found that memories of traumatic events could be passed through our DNA. So, even the very premise that the Yale Infant Cognition Center operates from—babies are born free of impressions about the world—could be misleading.
And yet, it is heartening to see that at least the children in the study sought to do what we as society have defined as “good”—helping others even at a personal cost to themselves. In a separate article in The New Republic, Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University and author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, warns us not to interpret those moral sign posts as anything other than evolution. He writes, “We have an enhanced morality but it is the product of culture, not biology. Indeed, there might be little difference in the moral life of a human baby and a chimpanzee; we are creatures of Charles Darwin, not C.S. Lewis.” In sum, a child’s morality is no more than a desire to survive.
But Bloom’s reasoning isn’t without its flaws. He argues away God by refuting evidence for a divinely inspired intrinsic moral code. In fact, his arguments, which whittle down infant morality to baser desires of survival, prove the moral assumptions I was raised on: We’re born selfish. As any Fundamentalist or Catholic can tell you, faith tells us God isn’t born in the hearts of humans, evil is. Our lives, then, are spent in an epic battle fighting the sin nature inherited from Adam and Eve, choosing good and God, over our baser desires. Did Bloom just prove that we’re all sinners? Hardly. Bloom’s arguments instead highlight the evolutionary goals of altruism. And survival isn’t evil.
So where does this leave us? Are our children predisposed to good or evil? And how will we raise them? To find their inner good or fight their personal demons?
I don’t know. Even Bloom cautions us that we are far from completely understanding the motivations of morality. The field of study is, well, in its infancy. And like all aspects of parenting: There are no easy answers.
The Kabbalah teaches that God put his light into vessels and the vessels burst sending shards of light into the universe. Kabbalists believe that it is our job to go through the world and collect these shards of Divine Light by doing good deeds. I find comfort in this allegory of bits of broken light in a dark world, whether the light is in us, or around us, our job is to find and preserve the sacred even while we keep searching for the answers.
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