Learning to Laugh: A Portrait of Risk and Resilience in Early Childhood

Winter 2010

Source: Harvard Educational Review, 80( 4), (Winter 2010): 444-463
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the author describes his work with Goddess, a sixteen-month-old child who has never laughed. The author was assigned to work in her classroom as part of his clinical internship during his graduate studies in mental health counseling and human development.
The author explores the ways in which Goddess 's relationships with her mother and teachers help her learn to laugh.

Goddess was raised by a mother struggling with depression and addiction. Goddess never expressed the typical emotions of childhood, nor did the manifestation of them ever serve to meet her needs. Goddess rarely enjoyed the moments of pleasure necessary to develop positive emotions like laughter.
The author claims that if one is raised by a depressed or absent caregiver, never seeing a smile, one does not know how to manufacture or recognize laughter

Furthermore, growing up in a world that often failed to respond to her cries, Goddess also never fully developed her tears.

Unfortunately, the necessary barriers which Goddess created to protect herself also began to isolate her from opportunities to develop new knowledge, skills, and expectations.
Goddess failed to learn many of the skills necessary to communicate to the outside world as well as generate positive responses from it.
The author claims that across his experiences as an educator, he has observed that the children hardest to like almost always receive the worst treatment from peers and adults.
Unfortunately, for many maltreated children who never come to expect much from the world, this attitude is often an important determinant of their future life outcomes.
However, Goddess's silence can also be understood as a resilient act of selfpreservation inside the environment to which she is responding.
Silence is an efficient response to experiences of maltreatment.
If a caregiver is absent in her response, crying does not serve to have one's needs met.

Rather than seeing Goddess's silence as a sign of brokenness, the author has changed his perspective which allowed him to recognize in her someone who was fighting to live. The author eventually came to understand his role as being to support Goddess's own inherent strengths.
As the author began to see more clearly the possibilities in Goddess, she and those around her began to see them more clearly as well.

As Goddess became more trusting, she also became more outwardly focused and less temperamental and shared more positive affect.
Soon, she received more positive attention from her teachers and peers.
Furthermore, Goddess's mother began to see her in a different light. Her mother began to feel a greater sense of efficacy, and gain energy from Goddess's love and affection.

In conclusion, the mutual transformation that occurred between Goddess and the important relationships in her life has inspired and sustained a support network for her, thereby greatly improving her future prospects.

Updated: Jul. 03, 2012