Ellen Galinsky
Ellen Galinsky
President and co-founder
Families and Work Institute (FWI)

Stepping Off the Visual Cliff

How do parents express encouragement?

Your child is scaling the top of a climbing wall for the first time. He’s harnessed and belayed, and there are thick pads below. But when he looks down at you for approval, what does he see?

In the experiment in this video, carried out by Joseph Campos, director of the University of California at Berkeley Infant Studies Center, infants are confronted with a contrived “visual cliff,” and a parent’s facial expressions dictated whether the child dared to venture off that “cliff.”

The experiment, one of 40 examined in Ellen Galinsky’s book and DVD Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, addresses the life skill of taking on challenges. “A childhood that had no stress in it would not prepare you for adulthood,” notes Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota, and one of the foremost authorities on children and stress. “If you never allow your child[ren] to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life—where a lot of it is managing more than you thought you could manage.” We want our children to learn to deal with stress, but as Gunnar says, we also want them to learn to take on challenges. Sometimes, we want to encourage them, but we may have reservations, as in the climbing example, above. And we convey our reservations not only by our words—but by our faces.

Video Courtesy of Ellen Galinsky and Mind in the Making

Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute, spent the past 11 years honing Mind in the Making, talking to child development experts across the country. In the process, she led the team who taped the DVD’s 40 important experiments in child development research—from the classics to the cutting edge—to create these videos LearnNow shows here. They’re each fascinating. And yield some unexpected wisdom.