Mona Charen | Babies can Understand Math
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Babies can Understand Math

A new study reveals that babies, some as young as 5 months old, have an innate understanding of math, reports the New York Times.

Well, that puts most babies ahead of me.

Now you don’t ask a 5-month-old how much two plus two equals. But there are ways of figuring out that they understand addition and subtraction. (No one is yet suggesting that babies know algebra.) The researchers placed several Mickey Mouse dolls in front of the babies and then let the children see another doll being placed next to the visible ones but behind a screen. When the screen was removed, the babies stared longer (indicating surprise at the unexpected) if the total number of dolls differed from what they had previously seen. Get it? If not, I may not have ex­plained it very well, or you may not stack up to your infant in braininess.

This research adds to our knowledge about the innate abilities of young babies, once thought to be insensate eating, sleeping and pooping machines. It has long been accepted in scientific circles that lin­guist (and loony leftist) Noam Chomsky was right about babies’ innate ability to learn language. Chomsky said babies don’t just imitate adults, they make sense of lan­guage according to rules. A fascinating footnote to Chomsky’s thesis was added recently. In studying children raised by deaf parents, scientists discovered that these children begin to sign babble at exactly the same age as hearing babies begin to make babble noises. But it won’t come as news to any parent that children are born with innate knowl­edge and abilities. There is, for example, the innate knowledge babies have that the stereo is one thing Mom and Dad do not want him to play with. Research by harried parents has also revealed that babies know VCRs are fun to destroy, as are remote controls and telephones. In fact, there is a theory, yet to be tested in double-blind studies, that babies are actually motivated to crawl precisely to get at the VCR. A few months later, the impetus to begin walking comes from an innate desire to open the refrigerator and the oven.

Our son Jonathan has just begun to walk. And he doesn’t just open the refrig­erator, he tries to climb the shelves. He can grab two apples and take bites out of them in the time it takes me to find the milk. Or he’ll go for the condiments on the door and have three on the floor in two seconds flat. My husband and I take almost diabolical pleasure therefore in those wonderful gad­gets they make to defeat the plans of tod­dlers. After we had installed the Velcro lock on the refrigerator, we smiled with glee when our son couldn’t open the door. But then our smiles faded. “Gee,” we said, “we’ve outsmarted a 10 month old.”

But of course, people don’t have (or adopt) children to make their lives more orderly or their homes more beautiful. We do it for the humor. Babies’ first steps are always bathed in sentiment later. And I will admit that I was so proud of Jonathan when he took six steps in a row (age 10 and a half months) that my face went red and my eyes welled. But after that the spectacle became hilarious. At first, kids just propel themselves forward until gravity takes them down. Jonathan would thrust both hands over his head and run, squealing all the way. (So much for the old saw about having to walk before you run.) But the fun really begins when they start compensating and attempting to main­tain their balance. For the first few days, this technique took Jonathan in large circles, like a banking airplane. Now, he steps forward in a mincing move­ment, toes first, eyes shining with pleasure at his accomplishment. No sooner had he mastered balance than we set him back a bit by buying shoes for him. His first forays in his baby Nikes resembled an adult attempting to walk on dry land wearing swimming flippers.

I’m sure the researchers are right that babies know how to add and subtract But what is beyond counting is how much they add to your life.

First Published August 27th 1992


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