Respecting Your Baby’s Personhood

DSC_0144Oh the things I wish I would have known when Peanut was a baby. By now, the list is long. Having seen how certain behaviors as a baby morph into others as a toddler, I’m able to encourage ones that make life easier for me and discourage ones that make life more difficult. This is in no means saying that Twig will be a perfect toddler, likely we’ll have entirely different issues, but it’s a start.

One of the things I wish I could have done different is respecting her personhood. As a society, we have a weirdly skewed view on babies. We label them with such adult motives, such as manipulation, but don’t recognize them as the tiny humans they are. Why is it not only okay, but considered to be normal, to take a toy from the child who took the toy while saying don’t take toys? Or to hit the child for hitting while trying to send the message not to hit? It’s beyond me.

When I was reading The Discipline Book by Dr Sears (a personal favorite at the moment), there was a little side box that really hit a note with me. It says:

Respecting Little Grabbers

Your toddler has a jar of olives, and you have visions there will soon be a mess to clean up. You hastily snatch the jar from her clutches. And within a millisecond you have set off a protest tantrum. You’ve saved yourself from a mess to clean up on the floor, but now you have an emotional mess to care for.

Grabbing a prized object from a child for whatever reason is not socially appropriate: It violates the personhood of the child. And it’s not good discipline–you’re teaching your child the very thing you tell her not to do. “Don’t grab,” you say, as you grab back what was grabbed. Snatching the jar away from her is bound to anger her, as well as reinforce the grabbing mentality.

There is a better way. For a young toddler, make eye contact and divert her attention to something else she’d like. For an older toddler, tell her you’ll have to open the jar so she can have an olive, and point to where you want her to put it. This is simply an exercise in politeness and respect, and “adult-in-charge” approach. Children need adults to communicate and model behavior adults expect.

When my child throws a tantrum about me taking something away, it’s really less about wanting to play with it and more about the fact I took it from her. I’ve disregarded her personhood. Giving her a choice, or at least a warning, removes this obstacle all together.

When we need to pick up, I ask my baby for the toy. I started this as soon as she was old enough to hold a toy. Now over six months down the road, she happily hands me whatever it is that she is holding if I sing “away” (we started that because our music class) to her and show her where to put it. In music our music class she’ll happily put her instrument in the box. At home she’ll hand me the glass jar she was about to whack on the tile floor. She’ll even spit a wrapper she’s chewing out of her mouth and hand it to me. No screaming fits where I’m digging in her mouth while she’s trying to run away and/or swallow whatever gross thing she’s found like we had with sister. She won’t be the child tantruming over putting her instrument away. She’s even moved on to helping me pick up a room. If I point to a block, she’ll walk over and pick it up, then walk to the box to put it in.

It’s even become a fun game for her. One of her favorite games (and a way to make quick friends with her) is to give an object back and forth with her.

It extends beyond putting objects away too. Since she was very small, I would give her a verbal warning when I was about to pick her up (or more often when I was about to put her down, since that was what upset her). It morphed into my asking her if I could pick her up. About 90% of the time, she gleefully lifts her arms and bounces when I ask. But I still ask, even if I know it’s what she wants. 5% of the time, she’d rather do whatever she was doing or go get picked up by someone else, which of course is fine. The last 5% of the time though, she’s doing something she shouldn’t be. Maybe she’s pulling on cords or smashing the cat, but whatever it is, I’ve likely told her “Not for Meredith” a couple of times (another nice tip from that book), which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and we’ve landed on the latter. So when I know she’s going to protest being picked up, but I still have to pick her up, I give her warning. Something along the lines of “Alright, then I’m going to pick you up.” Yes, she still protests at times, but I’ve done my best to respect her in the process of taking away the fun of hiding behind daddy’s desk.

Sure, all of this may not matter five years from now. Maybe it won’t even make things easier in a year. For now though, it’s working. It’s helping give Twig the forewarning she needs to not get upset when things don’t go her way. It’s helping me communicate with my child instead of getting frustrated with her. And my hope is that it will matter. Maybe respecting her personhood in the way I would an adult’s will help her respect herself when she is an adult. Who knows though. Guess that’s the gamble of parenthood.

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