Context teaches babies a lot. “All gone” is consistently said at the end of a meal. “Uh-oh” after something is dropped. “Bye-bye,” “look!” and “night night” are all said in the same sorts of contexts.
Babies are also incredibly good at determining intentionality. That means they can tell the difference between when Dad looks at Baby and says, “There’s your bottle!” and when Dad looks at Baby but is really saying to Mom, “There’s your cell phone.”
In one of my favorite studies (interpreted as a harbinger of empathy), a researcher drops her pen. Sometimes she drops in a very intentional way (the control). The babies sit and stare (or continue playing with something else). Sometimes the researcher drops her pen (seemingly unintentionally—I think she says something like, “oops!”) and struggles to reach for it. Babies as young as nine months will crawl over pillows to pick up the pen and hand it to the researcher.*
* I actually tried this with Chiara. And it never worked until the one day when I wasn’t trying to do anything; I just accidently dropped the remote. Chiara was about fifteen months old and she crossed the room to hand it to me.
So babies learn language through inference, repetition, and acclimation to certain sounds, although exactly how is still anyone’s guess. The Neural Theory of Language (proposed by Jerry Feldman and George Lakoff, both of UC Berkeley) has some really cool answers to this question. But we’ll save that for another day.
Back to the boys. The boys do not understand intentionality. They do not react to mood. In other words, on the very few occasions when they have been the object of someone’s wrath (read: Chiara’s wrath), they do not react appropriately. They are not startled; they do not cry. If anything, Michael will laugh, which incites our little Type A Angel even more. Five/six months is the point when babies should react to anger with fear. Our babies really haven’t witnessed any anger other than their older sister’s temper, so it’s hard to say that they are delayed when they simply haven’t been exposed to it.
On the surface, it sounds great that our little boys have been raised in such a happy family that they have never witnessed screaming and fits of rage; and it is. I, too, am happy that we can provide such a peaceful environment for them. But it also means that our even-keeled home life gives us, the parents, few opportunities to determine just what the boys can infer from their surroundings. Reacting to anger with fear (as sad as it sounds to think of scared little babies) also means that the babies have interpreted and reacted to an emotion they have witnessed.
Partly because of their early exposure in the NICU to incessant noise, the boys do not get startled. Sudden noises do not startle them or surprise them or scare them. Again, this is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it makes them calm little Zen babies. And it makes them generally quiet. On the minus side, it means they do not attend to an audio change to their environment. This is really freaky to see. For example, if you stand right behind them and clap your hands loudly, the twins will not turn to see what the sound is until after about five or six loud claps. (If they can see your hands, they attend immediately).
We know that they can hear; that’s not the problem. We know they can hear because we have to tiptoe around when we’ve put them down to sleep. Further proof is that they turn their heads in the direction of music when it starts to play, and my favorite, once when I had put them down for their naps and went into an adjacent room to talk to Caitlin, the boys pounded on the shared wall between the rooms when they heard our voices. Plus, they’ve had hearing tests. It’s not their ears; it’s their brains. Their brains don’t say, “Hey! What was that? See what it was!”
I suppose you could say that if you boil it down to its most crucial elements, intelligence starts with noticing things. You can’t learn about things if you do not first acknowledge their existence. In this respect, the boys are like quiet, fat, simpletons. It’s a concern, but I’m not sure yet what to do about it. Drop books on the floor behind their backs? Pick fights with Matt? Yell at them?