A conversation between

By Bruce Duncan Perry, M.D., Ph.D.


Helen Benham
Scholastic Corporate Vice President
Founder, Early Childhood Division

HELEN BENHAM: I am with Dr. Bruce Perry, Chief of Psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, Texas, and we're here to talk about "the meaning in words." How do words come to have meaning?

BRUCE PERRY: Words are merely sounds until they become associated with an object or an action or a feeling. And the way sounds come to have meaning is through repetitive exposure to spoken language in context of a relationship. An infant who heard spoken words only from a radio would never really come to understand language. But the infant with a caregiver who will say, "Here, see the dog, this is a doggy," or open up a book and say, "Find the ball, find the ball," soon learns that a unique combination of sounds signify the dog or the ball. As soon as the infant makes the connection between the object and the sounds, then those sounds become a word. That's how meaning comes to words, by making the association between the sound and the object. And of course, later in life, we make the further association between the sounds, the physical representation of the object (for example, a photo or a drawing) and the written word. In the beginnings of our lives, however, sounds become words through repetitive opportunities of experiencing the parent, teacher, or caregiver making the connection between the sound and an object, or the sound and a behavior, or the sound and a feeling. That's why it's so important that we spend time with our young children and infants teaching them language. We can't teach them language by putting them in front of a video or a TV. But we can teach children language by reading to them, talking with them, singing to them.

HELEN BENHAM: You often refer to the "somatosensory bath" as being the core of all human interactions. What exactly is this "bath," and how do people experience it in different ways?

BRUCE PERRY: When in utero, we are literally bathed completely in the mother's environment. Every sight, sound, touch, scent, and vibration — every sensation is coming from that mother's world, a bath of sensations. After birth, this "bath" changes. Yet, all of the infant's senses are bathed in a continuous set of sensations, most of which derive from the primary caregivers. And nothing is more soothing, reassuring, or pleasurable than when the infant is bathed by the mother's touch, gaze, scent, and taste — the baby is calm, full, warm, and happy. As we get older, this somatosensory bath takes different forms: the hug, the smile, and the handshake. When someone gazes at you, when somebody puts his or her arm around you, when you dance, or touch, there is a connection back to our original somatosensory bath. These actions serve as shortcuts to the feelings of our original somatosensory bath. Touch is a wonderful way to communicate. Eye contact. A smile. As you get older, because you've been able to absorb and internalize and essentially create a memory of how wonderful it was to be in that bath, later on a good smile can actually tap into a tiny bit of that and you literally evoke the feelings from that time, and you feel pleasure when someone smiles at you.

HELEN BENHAM: You believe that language is born in relationship — specifically in nonverbal, social, and emotional communication. How does this work?

BRUCE PERRY: Well, the core of language is communication. Language exists to help people communicate, and again, the primary mode of human communication is nonverbal. And this nonverbal communication starts from birth, if not before. The infant communicates a sense of distress or hunger or cold or fear by fussing and, ultimately, crying. The caregiver will respond with attention, touch, cooing, rocking — which communicates to the infant, "I'm here and present. You're safe. I'll care for you." Without words, there is communication, back and forth, child to mother to child. It is out of this matrix, this relational matrix, that spoken language has derived.

HELEN BENHAM: Can you give a dramatic instance of when words might become detached from their meaning?

BRUCE PERRY: The important part about human communication is that it is this wonderful, complex combination of nonverbal cues and verbal language, and when those are synchronous, it can be incredibly powerful. But when someone is using words that don't match the action or don't match the emotion that's being conveyed, it's confusing. Everyone has had that feeling that "this just doesn't fit or there's more to that story." I work with many abusive parents and one of the things I'll hear them say all the time is "I love my baby; I love my child." And this is sometimes within hours of them putting a cigarette butt out on the child, or leaving the child for 48 hours with no food, or beating the child senseless. And clearly, the meaning of the word "love" for someone who would do that to their child is different than the meaning of the word "love" for most parents.

HELEN BENHAM: What does it mean to those parents?

BRUCE PERRY: It means different things, but it's what many of these parents experienced when they were growing up — that is, an absence of true, loving attention. No one ever held them, rocked them, or responded to them. No one ever gave them love. The actions or behaviors — those things that are what "love" really is — were rare in their lives. And then they heard the word "love" in context of possession: "I love this food. I love my shoes. I love this television show." And, in many ways, unfortunately, they feel very much that that word conveys possession, as in, "That's my child. I love that child." As opposed to "That's my child. I will do anything for my child not to be hurt."

I think one of the great examples of the two different meanings of the word "love" is demonstrated in the story about Solomon's solution to the two mothers who claimed the same infant as their own. One mother's child had died and she wanted a child. The other mother had her infant taken by the other mother. No one except the mothers really knew whose baby this was. When presented to Solomon, he said, "Cut the child in half and give half to each woman." The true mother who loved the child was willing to give up the child so that the child would live. One mother wanted to possess a baby; the true mother loved the baby. That's a great example of the difference between the word "love" as possession and the word "love" in its truest meaning.

HELEN BENHAM: What do we as adults do unknowingly to confuse the meaning in words for our children, and how can we do a better job?

BRUCE PERRY: One of the major problems is when adults have a disconnection between what they say and what they do. Children pay attention and learn from what we do much more than from what we say. So, if we perform an action and then we use words that don't match the action, children get confused about language. Furthermore, they get confused about not only the specific use of those words, but they also generalize. They learn that words used by Mom or Dad really don't mean what they say. A classic example is if two kids are sort of fighting back and forth, and one hits the other and the parent goes over and hits the child on the rump and says, "Don't hit!" That really doesn't mean "don't hit" to the child; it means "don't hit until you get older — or bigger."

HELEN BENHAM: What about when children use words that are disrespectful, obscene, or negative in some way? What should the adult's response be to that?

BRUCE PERRY: Children, as they're learning language, begin to see the power in different words. Not all words have the same power. What they find is that there are certain words that will get an adult's attention. For young children, these are typically body-function words. As we get older, sexualized words become more popular. Or, there are some children, who when they get frustrated or overwhelmed, and don't feel they're getting the attention of their parents, will say, "I wish I were dead." They usually don't really wish they were dead. But they know that as soon as they say that, everybody stops, everybody looks and pays attention. They learn, "Wow, that's a powerful phrase." So children use words and word play to literally experiment, to find out what the meaning of the word really is. What is a word that is not powerful? Does "please" really work? Does "thank you" really work? What if I say a racial epithet? That's a powerful word. Profanity and other shocking words get the attention of the adults, and when children get the attention of adults with a few words, children learn the power in specific words. But as children experiment with profanity or other inappropriate words, such as slurs, we need to stop and instruct them. We need to help them understand more about that word. And often we need to explain why Grandpa or Dad or Mom used that word — and why they shouldn't use that word. It is a major challenge to many adults to think more clearly about how they use language. You can be assured that if you use certain words, your children will as well. Part of our task, then, when teaching language is helping children understand the appropriate context for some words and the power to harm in some words, and importantly, the power to heal that language can have. If we give children our attention, and think about what comes out of our mouths, we can help children learn the responsible use of language.

HELEN BENHAM: Since many children spend so much of their time out of the home in the care of other adults, and assuming the meaning of words requires an authentic emotion, what are the ramifications in terms of children getting enough of what they need in a group setting?

BRUCE PERRY: Well the most important ramification is that anywhere you send your child — any adults you trust your child to — really should understand children. They should understand that children learn language by being spoken with and not by just hearing sounds. Children require attention, children require nurturing, and children require relational interactions with attentive caregivers. If the caregivers are well informed, if they are solid, caring people, if they like children, if they're going to spend time with the child in a healthy way, you can feel much more confident your child is benefiting from enrichment experiences that will help her learn. On the other hand, if there are dozens of other kids, and one overwhelmed adult who has a limited understanding of child development, then this is not the optimal way for your child to spend the day. We really have to be vigilant about the adults spending time with our children. We have to make sure that these individuals understand how to communicate with kids; that they understand how important speaking with a child is; and that they know how important nurturing a child's social and emotional development is.

HELEN BENHAM: What effect does our e-mail- and voicemail-driven world have on our need for the nonverbal communication?

BRUCE PERRY: I think that all of these efficient and, in general, positive forms of communication really don't have the crucial element of human contact. If these are the only methods of communication that someone relies on, over time there will be tremendous problems, particularly in any team, in any group, or any business setting that requires a sense of unity or social cohesion in order to work. So without the human contact that is absolutely essential for effective motivational communication — for effective social, emotional communication — you're just going to have words on paper without the social or emotional power that words can carry.

HELEN BENHAM: Digging deeper, what do you think the long-term developmental effects of virtual experiences are on our young children who are living on that line between fantasy and reality?

BRUCE PERRY: I really think that because the human brain has this tremendous capacity to adapt and modify itself to the environmental circumstances, there are going to be inevitable differences in the way children process and think about the world around them. If you grow up in this electronic world, I'm convinced that areas and capacities in your brain will organize and adapt differently compared to someone raised without modern media. Brain organization in someone raised in a pre-literate, verbal culture is different than the brain organization of someone who is raised in a literate, verbal culture. Brain organization of somebody raised in an environment that is filled with hours and hours of exposure to television and communications through telephones and computers is going to have a different brain organization than someone who was in a purely classical verbal domain. With that said, I don't know exactly what the impact will be. I do think that if this world becomes filled with person-to-machine relationships, one of the potential shortcomings is that there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for social learning and complex social-emotional interactions because of the number of hours that are spent away from other human beings.

HELEN BENHAM: Do you make a judgment then about the explosion of electronic toys for very young children, and computer software, and, of course, television? Do you think these are bad influences?

BRUCE PERRY: I think that computers, television, radio, and all of our modern forms of communication have tremendously powerful and positive potential. I also think, however, they have tremendously powerful and negative potential as well. It depends upon when in life you're exposed to these things, how much time you're exposed to them, and the attenuating or alternative opportunities you have for real human relationships. If you take a young child, and carve 30 percent out of his day and allocate it for non-human interaction, what you're doing is cutting off a certain percentage of time that the child might have for social-emotional development at the cost of developing some unknown capacity for a certain kind of abstraction associated with electronic communications, whether it's through a computer or watching television or whatever. That capability will develop at the cost of social and emotional development. So, television, computer games, and e-mail — all of these new forms of communication, all of these incredible opportunities for stimulating our brains and taking information and efficiently transmitting it, are tremendous opportunities for us. But they need to be used in sensible ways only at the right times in life. The older you are, the more likely it is that these will be aids to communication, as opposed to impediments to the development of communication capabilities. Even in adult life, they need to be used in the right context and never to the exclusion of face-to-face human communication.

HELEN BENHAM: Scholastic is launching the Clifford television series in the fall on PBS. Do you have any advice for us as a company in our development of this program?

BRUCE PERRY: Make it relational. Shows like this can be tremendously positive because they can model for children. They can show children a host of things that the they will experience in their own lives. Children can learn about loss, sharing, and thinking. You can communicate tremendous things using a show like this. However, one of the things that you might resist is making this show like so many other shows for children in that it uses fewer words and more images. If you have a relational show that has lots of words and lots of conversation, children will watch it. But you must make the show have compelling conversation, a compelling story, and characters that children like. If you do these things, children will tolerate and enjoy longer scenes, true conversation, and more complex ideas.

HELEN BENHAM: You've talked a lot about the importance of the match between the words and the emotional content, the nonverbal communication. Will you summarize why that's important, and also address the reality that some adults simply don't have that ability to be expressive verbally?

BRUCE PERRY: Well, different people have a different capacity for the richness and the complexity of their nonverbal communication. Some people just feel very constrained. They're much more reserved. They're not very emotive. But as long as that's their consistent style, as long as their words have always matched the affect they present, there is internal consistency. So a child may have two parents who have very different styles of communication. For example, in a family where the reserved Norwegian marries the expressive Italian, you will find major differences between the communication styles of each parent. When the reserved parent says, "I love you" to the child, it will be said a certain way, with a certain context, with a certain eye contact, with a certain kind of touch. And the other parent will exhibit a different level of touch, a different level of intensity, and a different level of expressed emotion. But because they're both internally consistent, that will be fine for the child.

HELEN BENHAM: Thank you so much, Dr. Perry. We're sorry you can't be here in person at our National Early Childhood Advisory Board meeting, but we're thankful that you were able to share your insights on the meaning in words.

BRUCE PERRY: Thank you for the opportunity.

 *This document was originally presented at Scholastic's National Early Childhood Advisory Board meeting on Friday, May 19, 2000, in New York City.

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Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (www.ChildTrauma.org). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.