Double act: Why talking to your baby is essential

Double act: Why talking to your baby is essential

Helen O’Callaghan says a viral video of a dad interacting with his baby shows how mirroring behaviour is key for a child’s development.

AN online video of a dad in full-fledged conversation with his toddler son has gone viral. 

Within days of posting it, ‘Dad has full Convo with his Baby’ had racked up 47m views on Facebook, was all over Twitter and the US-based father had 80,000 Instagram followers and counting.

While 19-month-old Kingston’s babble might sound like gibberish to viewers, it didn’t stop his Tennessee comedian, DJ Pryor, from having an in-depth over-and-back discussion with him about the season finale of Empire.

And it’s easy to see why it took social media by storm (‘absolutely precious’, ‘adorable’, ‘an absolute pick me upper’ are just some of the enthused responses): its heart-warming appeal lies in how completely engaged the dad is with his baby’s chatter.

Chilling together on the couch and watching TV, dad is tuned into and empathises with his son’s responses: ‘Exactly what I was thinking,’ he says. ‘Really! I thought the same thing!’

He looks at his son and waits for his ‘replies’. He mirrors his facial expressions and body language. 

It’s heart-meltingly funny. Conversing with his toddler, dad’s clearly having a ball and toddler Kingston just loves it.

“It’s gorgeous,” says Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting, The Quick and Easy Way to Connect with your Child. 

She describes the dad-baby interaction as a lovely example of serve-and-return. 

“Dad sends a cue to baby, it’s met and passed back. Like you’re talking to your baby and you say ‘oh, we’re going to go outside’. Baby says ‘ga ga goo goo’ and you say ‘you’re so right! Let’s put our coats on cos it might rain’.

You’re interpreting and reflecting back to baby, using eye contact and matching facial muscles and tone of voice. Baby doesn’t understand what you’re saying but s/he understands how you’re saying it.

Adding that there’s such musicality in the Tennessee dad’s speech, captured in his up-and-down lilting tone, Fortune says the way in which he gives the child space to respond gives meaning to the interaction. 

“It’s not about what the child is saying but what they’re communicating together. The child is connected with the dad and the dad manages to prolong that engagement for quite a long time and you have this lovely moment of meeting — it’s an example of shared joy.”

What the one minute and 23 second video teaches us is how much children will do with so little. 

“They don’t need the latest toys, gadgets or technology — at this age, the best plaything’s an available parent,” says Fortune, who explains at 19 months Kingston is very much in the ‘embodiment play’ stage.

Double act: Why talking to your baby is essential

“It’s messy, tactile, sensory play. You know what they’ve been playing at by looking at them — it’s all over them.”

It’s a stage when awareness of themselves in the world is kicking in. 

“They’re developing a sense of who they are — and of who and what the people and the world outside them are. It’s about containment: ‘I have a skin that contains me. This is where I end and people/the world outside me begin’. 

"It’s all about ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, so they’re more interested in the box than the toy because boxes have a clear inside and outside.”

At this age too, they’re having to understand their own emotional world and Fortune says they can only do this in relation to an available parent or caregiver. 

So when they’re crying, they don’t know why. And instead of shouting ‘stop crying’, the parent would reflect back to the child the meaning of their emotional state: ‘Oh you’re so tired because we’ve been walking around all day — come on in and we’ll go for a nap’.

The video also makes clear that babies learn through mirroring. 

“So the dad’s looking at the son’s face and he matches what he sees. And when the son flaps his arms, the dad puts his arms out to each side too. He makes sense of the child’s non-verbal gesture — ‘I know! What are they thinking!’ — and reflects it back to him.”

Fortune says Kingston is a child who’s understood by his dad (‘we think a lot alike,’ Pryor tells his toddler). 

“Dad is clearly enjoying [the interaction] — you can see it in his facial expressions and in his tone of voice. And if it’s fun for the parent, it’s certainly fun for the child.”

Fortune isn’t at all surprised at the online reaction. 

“There’s something so genuine and authentic about it. In a world where so much of what we see online is inauthentic, people really respond to something like this.”

Interviewed by CNN just after the video went viral, DJ Pryor said he’d made the home movie for when his child’s older – to make memories for him. 

Of course, by interacting so beautifully with his child, by meeting him where he’s at, he’s nurturing a precious parent-child bond. And that’s a legacy for life.

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