Little did I know that all the hours of playing Peek-a-Boo with my children actually produced necessary neuronal growth in their brains so they can feel secure in this world! Peek-a-Boo teaches our child that we are a secure object. I thought we were just having fun!? That’s the cool thing about putting psychology research into practice, it can be fun. Research now shows that many time-honored traditions in parenting help create the trust and courage in kids necessary to conquer many of life’s challenges.
Around eight months of age, children develop the cognitive capability called object permanence. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term object permanence, that refers to the cognitive understanding that even when a secure object is out of sight, it doesn’t cease to exist. Even if we can’t see, hear, or touch someone or something, we can access the memory of its existence in our mind. Imagine how much psychological comfort this cognitive capacity we all develop brings, given healthy and normal development. Have you ever felt lonely and imagined calling someone you love and what they might say to comfort you? Have you ever run a race and imagined the people who support you waiting with smiling faces at the finish line—especially when you feel like stopping? Has it ever brought comfort and solace to remember the funny and loving memories of a relative who has died? Object permanence can be protective and inspire courage in moments when we feel alone, distressed, or stressed.
It is so fun to hide yourself from your child, just long enough to create some suspense, and then pop back into view. Careful, though, around eight months your child will begin to show the normal signs of secure attachment, called separation anxiety, and cry for your prompt return—especially if you take too long to peek back out! The game is not meant to be a psychological torture test, just helpful practice for building separation anxiety tolerance. Remember, before your child develops object permanence, you literally cease to exist. Who says parents aren’t master magicians?
The goal is to teach your child to self-soothe, be reassured that you are a permanent object in his/her life, and how to reach out and find you or someone they love for comfort.
Our family game was actually called, “Peek-a-Boo, I Love You.” As soon as I would reappear, I would reassure my child that I really was back with a big smile, open arms, eye-to-eye contact, say “I see you” and, what would eventually become one of their first phrases, “I love you!” I made sure to give the same verbal and non-verbal cues every time I would go away and come back once I started having other caregivers help in caring for my children. Consistency being an important key to unlocking the treasure trove of trust between parents and children!
Schore’s (2001) research stresses the importance of this parent/caregiver-child game in that a child gets to experience glimpses of loss, and practice emotional regulation to handle any stress associated with object loss until the attachment object returns. In other words, Peek-a-Boo helps us to teach our children the foundations of interpersonal trust. We are playing a game, but practicing and building the mental, physical, and emotional muscle to handle bigger separations, and other courage challenges, to come.
I also didn’t know that my own learning and memory were improved through motherhood—that was a shocker given how hormonally zoned-out and tired I have felt at times. According to Kinsley et al. (1999), increased neuronal connections occur in late pregnancy and in the early postpartum period reshaping the brain to handle the increasing demands of motherhood—now that I get! The benefits, it turns out, of attachment between mother and infant are not unidirectional; our infants ensure their own and their mother’s development and survival through a rich set of sensory, and primarily non-verbal, cues related to what I’ve written about previously on attunement (see my post about one of the first of life’s courage challenges
). Playing Peek-a-Boo can help you not only wire your child’s brain, but any infant-caregiver game that evokes love, trust, playfulness helps us improve our own dendritic brain connections and calms our limbic system, too!
Upcoming posts will include more trust-building games to play with your kids!
Kinsley, C., Madonia, L., Gifford, G., Tureski, K., Griffin, G., Lowry, C., Williams, J.,
Collins, J., McLearie, H., & Lambert, K.G. (1999). Motherhood improves
learning and memory. Nature, 402, 137.
Schore, A. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain