There are arguments that my five month old daughter understands everything I say – and to an extent, I believe this. I believe that the foundations I set now will help contribute to a later sense of well-being, stability, and fortitude in her, and that ingraining habits in myself will help me become a better parent.
I don’t believe that the words I say to her now do actually ‘count’: for example, I don’t want to label N (as a ‘clever girl’, or ‘bad swimmer’, or ‘thumb-sucker’, or whatever), but when a “clever girl!” slips out during swimming lessons, I don’t think that dooms us to a life of N trying and failing to live up to her ‘reputation’ and growing to hate me.
Nonetheless, I try now to model the behaviour that I want to see in myself when she is older. I am taking the chance to practise my parenting-of-child skills on my baby.
Yesterday I went out for lunch with a friend. N was quiet, sleeping for some of the meal and playing happily with her rattle for most of the rest. Instead of saying “what a good girl” and implying that quietness is good (when really it is just convenient for me), I told N what she had done (“you have been quiet while I ate my food”), thanked her (“I appreciate it”), and praised the underlying concept of behaviour that I would like to see in the future (“you have been very considerate”). I’m pretty certain I sound quite silly to anyone listening.
Evenings have been hard lately, as we try to break the sucking-to-sleep habit that N has formed. Sometimes she gets so angry at us that she is too upset to nurse as usual, and screams and screams and screams. At these times, we make sure everything is okay – too hot? Too cold? Hungry? Wet? Windy? – then just hold her and let her cry until she has finished. Unless, that is, the problem is that we are holding her and she wants some ‘N-time’.
I don’t want to teach N that loudness – shouting, screaming, whining – is ‘bad’ and must be avoided, at the expense of her never being able to express herself. Everyone gets frustrated, angry, upset, and although there are obviously times and places where screaming is not appropriate, I want for her to have spaces where releasing energy that way is safe.
Similarly, I don’t want to learn to say ‘no’ to reasonable requests. I’ve been practising this with adults, mostly: I am asked something (“can I have a drink?”) and instead of saying “no, I am busy,” I make an effort to say, “yes. I’ll just take my shoes off and turn the computer on, then I will get you a drink.” With N, this happens most often when I am just getting out the shower and she begins to cry from the bedroom. I often dry myself while shouting, “N, I’m just coming! I need to dry myself and put deodorant on before I come to you, or I will drip water all over the floor,” then continue commentating my drying routine before I walk into the room. This is for many reasons: to teach her how to prioritize, to feel acknowledged but to learn that she is not the centre of the universe, to learn that I am always there for her but do have my own needs.
These are skills which I am practising now, on my baby, so that they are ready when my toddler and child and teenager needs them.
There are many next steps, but one of them will be modelling how to cope with anger in spaces where screaming is not appropriate. That’s not such a big deal for a five month old (screaming is appropriate in all spaces!) but it means that I will have to show her that I am fallible and how I deal responsibly with making mistakes.
One last thing: a typical ‘practising parenting’ skill is not swearing around your baby. I am not doing this! The planned rule is ‘swearing is okay when it’s appropriate to the situation and under my roof’ – “shit” if you stub your toe on your bedroom door is fine; calling me a piece of shit when out in public is far from fine. But as with any rules, we will revisit it whenever necessary.