What happens to you when you see a child smile? Look at this picture and ponder what it is that happens inside your mind and your body when you witness a child smile. Imagine a child that you love and have your own connection with, be it your own child or a nephew or niece or grandchild. How does it make you feel?
I’m amazed at the response it causes in me to see my baby girl smile at me. And lucky for me, she does it often. She does it first thing when she sees me after waking up. She does it when I come to pick her up from daycare. Sometimes when she’s in her crib and crying, she’ll pause her crying to smile at me as soon as I poke my head over the railing. Of course, it’s always a wonderful feeling to have someone smile when they recognize you – I feel good any time anyone I know sees me and smiles. But when it’s your three-month old child, well, something visceral and powerful happens inside me. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot.
First of all, I know that I smile back. Often, I’m already smiling, because just looking at my beautiful daughter tends to make me smile. But I notice that seeing her smile at me prompts a wider, truer smile from me. Sometimes I laugh and I usually talk to her. I say, “Hey there!” or “You’re so cute!” or “I love you so much!” But whatever it is, it’s punctuated with an exclamation point. Which is out of character for me. I’m not the sort of person who walks around interacting with people in an enthusiastic and cheerful manner. I’m not misanthropic per se, I’m just generally unimpressed with the world around me. But I seem to be constantly impressed with my baby girl, and none so much as when she smiles. When she smiles, I experience my own little sense of wonder and discovery. And I look forward to it – I was no less delighted when she smiled at me this morning than I was when she smiled at me yesterday morning; if anything, I was more delighted.
In addition to prompting my own smiles and enthusiastic response, seeing her smile makes me feel happy. This sounds obvious, but as I reflect on it, I’m not sure it really is that obvious. After all, don’t we learn to smile at times when we really aren’t happy? There are social interactions that require a smile regardless of how we’re feeling. There are also smiles that signify something other than happiness: a grimace of anxiety or an angry sarcastic grin. But I feel so glad when I see my beautiful girl smile. Is it because it makes me smile? Or am I smiling in response to how I feel? I’m not sure which comes first, the happiness or the smile. And I wonder, too, which comes first for my girl. Does she smile when she sees me because she feels happy to see me? Or does she smile because she is learning that this is how to evoke a response of happiness and care from me, which in turn insures that she will be cared for, which makes her feel happy? I’m not sure, but in the moment it hardly matters: we are happy to be with each other. It’s a delicate dance of emotional response and social coding, but every time it happens we both get better at it.
When she smiles, I respond with my own smile and I feel happy. But what else happens to me? I suppose the developmental explanation would be “bonding.” But it feels in my gut like some kind of connection is being forged, an understanding taking place between us. We’re agreeing that we’re together in this thing we’ve got going. We may not know what we’re doing one moment to the next, but that’s cool, because we’re both working on it and we trust each other and isn’t it wonderful to have each other smiling back and forth like this no matter what happens?
It’s a magical little moment – particularly when she coos and throws her hands up to her face as if trying to hide in a fit of bashfulness, her eyes pinched and her mouth wide open with glee. I suppose emotions are still pretty basic for a three-month-old and her feeling of contentment and safety don’t mean much more to her than that. I’ve had many years to develop nuances in my own emotional self, but it’s a pretty basic experience for me, too. I love seeing my little girl smile. I feel such warmth and joy to see it that it almost seems silly to process or analyze it. It’s just happiness and love, all in that one little facial expression. I have no illusions that it will always be like that, but if I can get that little flash just once a day… well, what else could the world possibly have to offer me?