Book review: The Baby in the Mirror: A Child's World from Birth to Three

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The Baby in the Mirror: A Child's World from Birth to Three by Charles Fernyhough Granta, 288pp, £12.99

EVER SINCE MY SON MAGNUS WAS born a year ago, I have struggled to find a book that can explain more than the mere quotidian aspects of his young life. Sure, you can pick up a reissued range of books by Miriam Stoppard, or – if you're truly desperate, by nanny Gina Ford – and read detailed expositions of everything from bottle-feeding to poo colours and what they signify.

Some of these books are fine as far as they go, but (unlike the later stages of human experience) none of us can remember what it was like to be a baby, and I have craved detailed knowledge of what is going on in Magnus's rapidly developing mind. Nowhere on the bookstore shelves marked "baby" that fatherhood brings intimate acquaintance with have I seen a work offering something a little bit deeper. Until now.

Charles Fernyhough is a developmental psychologist, novelist and father of a daughter, Athena. Here, he has deployed the skills learned and honed in all three jobs to produce a tender, beautifully written account that I now keep by my bedside to help me interpret Magnus's development. Fernyhough provides an accessible, jargon-free guide to the basis and development of language, consciousness and autonomy. His touchstone is Athena, at first the unwitting subject of the book but latterly a fascinated participant – and in a few years' time most probably an embarrassed teenager.

When, at the age of ten months, Magnus repeatedly looked behind him out of his highchair at his grandpa sitting reading the newspaper, I was amused at his need to keep checking that grandpa was there. However, grandpa soon got up and ambled through to the kitchen, stopping to tickle Magnus under the chin on his way. A few moments later Magnus again looked behind him, only to see an empty chair. Even though he had watched grandpa go past, he looked at me with an expression that seemed to say: "Why is grandpa not there now?"

Thanks to Fernyhough, I now know that what I observed was a significant milestone in a baby's development – recognition of a separate, independent reality beyond self. In the book, Athena remembers having seen a swan on a river the day after the actual sighting. "Things had started to split away from her own actions and perceptions, and that meant they could enter her thoughts in a new way. She could represent them in their absence, and call them to mind through the imagination. With her improved powers of memory, she could now think about things that weren't there." Magnus's swan was grandpa.

From his perspective as a developmental psychologist, Fernyhough is unafraid of taking on the orthodoxies of cognitive science. Thus, in his discussion of language acquisition, he introduces an intricate yet fundamental refinement of Noam Chomsky's theory of a universal grammar. From his observations of language acquisition around the world, Chomsky holds that we are born with the ability to talk. Fernyhough puts it more subtly: "Instead of a lump of infinitely malleable wonder-stuff, we were told that we had a Swiss army knife between our ears, ready to flip out the appropriate utensil for any cognitive, social or emotional task. Just as we wouldn't try to peel an apple with the corkscrew bit, making language needed no other intellectual faculty than a Language Acquisition Device and its subservient sub-modules. It did exactly what it said on the tin – and for other tasks there were other tins … But although these ideas quickly permeated popular culture, most of those who studied children's development realised that this form of nativism was too extreme. Instead of proposing innate knowledge, a more sensible balance seemed to propose innate structure: a brain designed for certain kinds of learning, a baby born with a predisposition to receive content, if not the content itself."

Towards the end of the book, Fernyhough relates that his wife suffered a miscarriage shortly after the family returned from a six-month sojourn in Australia. I read this just days after my own wife suffered a miscarriage. The confused grief that we were feeling – it wasn't yet a baby and yet it was a baby, as we kept telling Magnus and as the Fernyhoughs kept telling Athena – welled up again and I wept copiously and empathetically. Somehow, reading about their loss proved cathartic. I was able to say that our baby had died. Doctors, family and friends have told us that having a successful pregnancy is the best way of relieving the pain. The Fernyhoughs now have a baby boy, Isaac. A happy ending, then, to a book that takes the reader right to the heart of how we become human and how we deal with it.

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