Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

What I learned today with Carly Elizabeth – Nine weeks old


Bonding-Attunement, Parenting

In the quiet moments when Carly melts into my arms there is attunement, resonance, shared meaning, trust, respect, appreciation, curiosity, wonder, all moving, changing and so much more, embodied, nonverbal, silent. This silent, reciprocal attunement is the essence of bonded-attachment and that creates a safe-place for play.

While at the co-sponsored Attachment Parenting-Notre Dame conference I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Colwyn Trevarthen, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. The reason; his appreciation and research in mother-infant play. Colwyn worked with Jerome Bruner, Braselton and many other leaders in the field. He filmed and later videotaped how mothers and babies look, listen, touch, mimic, and tease, in a word, play together. Play, said Trevarthen, ‘is a metaphor for life.’

Playfulness signals, as Fred Donaldson often says, two things; you are lovable and safe. These two requirements are essential prerequisites for real learning to take place and that dynamic-reciprocal learning unfolds as play. ‘Play is learning whether a baby in arms or a theoretical physicist,’ something David Bohm, protégé of Einstein, shared in a conversation years ago.

Play is the third phase of what Joseph Chilton Pearce describes as the Cycle of Competence; first roughing in a new possibility, second, repetition to establish the neural pattern and third, variation. With trust, affection and their implied safety playfulness moves steadily and expansively as an exploration of variation and novelty, imagining, surprising, testing, safely risking, failing not as failure but as an integral part of learning itself, feedback and adaptation, all this, every second in the state of authentic play, not to be confused with culture’s win-lose competitive-comparisons we call games. (Wow, that was a long sentence.)

I also had the privilege of spending time with Darcia Narvaez, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, exploring her new book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality. I rarely use the word morality, usually associating it with the Ten Commandments. Morality is the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior, and is therefore implicitly judgmental. The behavior being judged is the real issue. Darcia argues and is supported by distinguished colleagues such as Allan Schore, Jaak Panksepp, the above mentioned Clwyn Trevarthen and others that moral, inherently good behavior is rooted in biology, not intellect, the judging part. This is a monumental shift in orientation foreshadowed fifty years earlier by James W. Prescott, Joseph Chilton Pearce and others. Darcia provides the research that proves beyond any doubt that social is indeed physical. If you want moral behavior, a moral society and culture the foundation must be laid in early childhood, beginning with playful interaction between mothers and infants and expanding that safe space throughout life.

Gabor Mate, MD, and I continued our conversation looking at culture and how early attuned attachment-bonds prevent addiction. Gabor noted during his presentation that drugs are not the cause of addiction. He was asked, why do some become addicted and others don’t? Failed or impaired early attachment expresses in some as addiction, in others as depression, Alzheimer’s, cancer, attention deficits (disassociation), eczema, arthritis, diabetes, suicide and more. All these result from the dis-ease implied in impaired early attachment-bonds. The key point is that all this suffering, pain, illness, addictions, violence, abuse, aggression, rape, depression, suicide and more are attachment-bonding issues. Attuned bonded-attachment is the foundation for how we behave and this is established very early by the sensory experiences implicit in the earliest relationships, not by the church, by government, school, athletic coach, grandma or any expression of the intellect. Intellect judges behavior and the behavior being judged is rooted in sensation, physical-emotional experiences beginning at conception.

Of course words have their place, but not with Carly Elizabeth, now nine weeks old. Everything she and I share is sensory. Does she feel safe in my arms? Am I responding appropriately to her cries and smiles? Is she startled by the sudden warm water in the tub? Is her trust in our shared experience deep enough to negate the fear of unfamiliar sights, sounds, sensations? When I whisper yes, yes, yes, and she responds with her best mimicked yes, do we laugh and smile deepening the trust and safety this play creates? Do we return to this playful state over and over again as she changes, adding more complex variation and novelty, expanding her feelings of competency and mine?

Krishnamurti noted; the future is now. The profound truth is that this silent, affectionate, sensitive attuned play or not, expressed mostly through touch and movement, not ideology, shapes the next generations approach to self and other, creative and egalitarian or selfish and defensive-aggressive.

Social is sensory. It is all so natural, so simple, so easy, that is unless judgment and censorship creeps in, most often at her expense, not mine. Innate intelligence, billions of years old and beyond, is not intellect judging. We might say NO! harshly in an emergency, usually because we adulterated adults are distracted, out of sync, mal-attuned. To let intellectual judgments guide the relationship implies a lifetime of conflict. Sensitive, quiet, ongoing, renewing attuned attached-bonding is what nature designed. This is what Carly Elizabeth taught me today.

Michael Mendizza
and Carly Elizabeth Nine Weeks Old