Yesterday I was reading an article by Malcolm Gladwell in his book What the Dog Saw, a compilation of really incredible articles on everything from how we respond when disaster strikes to the one that earned the book its title, addressing why dogs respond the way they do to people like Caesar Milan. The chapter I was reading is entitled “The New-Boy Network: What do Job Interviews Really Tell Us.” It was all about how we are able to draw conclusions about people based on a single meeting, or even a single moment.
Supposedly when meeting someone, the handshake is everything, and the article essentially said just that. The first moment you meet someone defines how your relationship will progress from there. It colors everything you think and feel about that person from then on, changing the way you perceive their behavior. As cited in the article, there are many psychological studies that have been conducted to prove that the first impression a person develops will play out over time. In one that was used in the article, people were shown the clip of just the initial handshake and greeting that occurred in an interview. Their assessment, based on only a few seconds of film, significantly matched how the interviewer assessed the interviewee, despite the vast difference in the amount of time spent with the person. It is proven time and time again that the first feeling we get from a person is the feeling that we carry with us.
I find this all fascinating, but it makes me wonder about our relationships with our families, specifically between parents and children. On the parental side, you can’t exactly get a first impression from a baby that is representative of who they will be as a person. I think it is rather generally accepted that a baby is just a baby for at least a few months with hardly a discernable personality beyond how well they sleep and how much they cry. But that isn’t a first impression anyway. The first impression a parent gets, when they first hold that new little being in their arms, is tiny, helpless, and innocent.
Is that why our parents have such a hard time letting us go when we grow up? They have established this impression of us as helpless and completely dependent on them for survival, and it has been proven that we do not easily change our first impressions. On top of that, we reinforced that opinion for a number of years afterwards when we really were dependent on them. But suddenly we don’t need them as much, and we aren’t helpless, so they have to go through the difficult process of overcoming those ingrained ideas that all started the moment they set eyes on us.
On the other side of things is the child. When we are born we have very limited cognitive ability as well as poor eyesight and obviously no experience with the world with which to put our new experiences into context. There is no way, then, that we can establish a first impression in the same way we do when we are older, but that doesn’t mean we don’t establish any. All kinds of books and TV shows featuring pregnant characters have lines like, “Oh she moved, she must like the sound of your voice!” or some other variation thereof. Babies especially respond to their mother’s voices while still in utero. After a baby is born, parents often play the sound of a heartbeat to soothe a newborn by giving them a familiar, comforting sound.
These things indicate that a baby, even before birth, is aware of its surroundings and assigns certain emotions to stimuli. This is not too different from what makes up a first impression. When we meet someone we see something about them or hear how they say something and interpret it, deciding whether we like or dislike it based on past experience and therefore assigning an emotion to it.
Say someone strongly shakes your hand and makes direct eye contact with you. To you this makes them seem confident and decisive, but it reminds you of a boss you once had that would publicly yell at you and your coworkers for minor offenses, so the handshake intimidates you. Now you have assigned the emotion of fear to this person so the next time they come up to you, you are primed to feel anxious.
A baby hears its mother’s voice and heartbeat from the time it first develops the ability to hear in the warmth and safety of its mother’s womb. When it is born, the baby sees, smells, and feels its mother for the first time, and when it hears her voice, it associates her with the security of the womb. So that was a really long way of getting to the point that the baby’s first impression of its mother is that of all-encompassing, 100% safety and security. The same kind of experience applies to the father, minus the in utero part, of course.
The words and actions of small children play out this impression, where their parents are the ultimate source of security and protection. I have even read stories of abused children who believed they deserved the treatment, because it makes more sense to a child that they deserve it than that their parents are imperfect and would actually try to hurt them. In one story (I unfortunately don’t remember where I saw it, but it may have been an episode of Oprah or Dr. Phil or something), a boy would not tell a police officer what went on at home until he was told that his dad gave permission. As soon as he heard that his dad said it was okay, he told them everything. That is the strength of a child’s impression of their parents as perfect, if not superhuman beings.
So between a parent and a child you have a parent who views the child as helpless and dependent, while the child views the parent as the perfect source of ultimate security. It’s no wonder then, that puberty is such a difficult time for everyone involved, when the children stop being so helpless and the parents stop seeming so perfect. It’s a time when everything that was true for years comes undone and must be reevaluated. A process that we are proven to be poor at.
Of course there are many other factors that go into the relationship between parents and children, but to me this seems to explain a lot about the struggles I have been having with my parents the past few years. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them!