“How do you take babies seriously?”
One misconception people sometimes have when they ask this question, is imagining that problem-solving is purely or primarily a conscious, explicit process. In fact, most of it is not conscious and explicit. A baby learning language must be creating that knowledge inexplicitly, because they have not yet learned language.
Instead of trying to train babies using Behaviourist conditioning, we are attuned to their signals, and we take their preferences seriously and assist them in meeting them. We empower them rather than disempoweraging them. Even newborn babies are learning something absolutely vital for their future – something so important and valuable that I cannot stress it enough: they are learning that they can have an effect on the world. Think about what that means.
Think about the difference between on the one hand knowing that you can solve problems, make improvements, get what you want, effect positive change in your life or in the world more generally, and on the other, feeling powerless, helpless, sadly resigned and cynical, pessimistic, can’t-do rather than can-do, unable to cause good things to happen, unable to solve problems, unable to improve your life, let alone make a positive difference in the world more generally. And that is just one of a vast number of things they are learning, all incredibly important!
And especially initially, without our active positive engagement with them, their ability to learn everything they could learn is extremely limited, not because their mind is limited (their minds are if anything less limited than ours are!), but because they have limited access to the world without us, because they cannot even crawl initially and they have not yet learnt explicit language.
What if, instead of acting as if we regard our babies as troublesome blobs, non-house-trained pets or otherwise non-human, we notice and engage with them as the full human beings they are? What if, instead of conveying to babies that problems are not soluble so you might as well give up now by trying to train babies out of expressing their wishes, we do the opposite, and meet their every expressed need to the very best of our ability? Then what our babies are learning is that problems are soluble and I can, through my own actions and expressing my wishes, solve them. What if our babies learn right from birth that they have agency? They are not helpless. And that we love them and are actively there for them and care about their wishes and interests and concerns? What if they learn that the world is a fascinating, friendly place and that other people are interesting, friendly and kind?
Babies are exploring the world partly via their relationship with their parents, so taking our babies seriously means being actively there for them. We are attuned to them. We are interacting with them all the time. They are learning explicit language, so we are talking to them constantly and reading to them. We converse with them in a high bandwidth way. That means we are paying close attention to what their eyes, their face, their body language, and even the tiniest micro expressions are saying, and we are simultaneously communicating both explicitly in spoken words, and inexplicitly through our own facial expressions and body language. The more meaningful language they hear simultaneously with seeing the same meaning being conveyed in our facial expressions and body language, the better! Without hearing the language they cannot learn it! And the more we connect the explicit language with inexplicit cues or clues, the more information we are giving them.
When our babies seem not to like something, we are using trial and error to solve the problem in a way that seems to delight them. When something seems to delight or interest them (which is easy to tell if you pay close attention!), we find ways to offer them more of it, and we think about what else they might like given that preference, and offer those things too.
They are learning about their surroundings so we are showing them things in their surroundings. They are learning about the world, so we are helping them explore the world and showing them how things work. There are so many possible creative, interesting and fun ways of facilitating the learning they so want to be doing.
Training our babies by ignoring them teaches them that they have no power to affect the world, and that it is futile to try to solve problems. That is not taking them seriously. Ignoring our babies’ preferences may successfully train them not to express their preferences, but at the cost of creating learnt helplessness. No wonder so many adults seem so pessimistic, resigned, powerless, helpless, dead. No wonder the light so quickly goes out of children’s eyes.
Forget about all the coercive stuff the so-called experts say you should be doing. Forget about training your baby to sleep through the night, or training your baby to have a set bedtime, or training your baby to sleep alone, or training your baby not to cry. Forget about weaning, potty training, and all the other things the experts say we need to be doing. Ignore the warnings that you will create a monster if you don’t do a whole lot of stressful and unpleasant (for you, let alone the poor baby on the sharp end!) training and coercing and moulding and shaping of your baby. All those concerns and warnings are utter rubbish. And harmful.
A baby is a full person, not a non-house-trained pet. When I read all the hideous advice about training babies using Behaviourist conditioning I can’t help wondering if the aim is to reduce the babies’ intelligence and creativity to that of a pet.
I promise you, your baby will not become an entitled monster if you take her seriously. I promise you that your baby will not still be wanting to breastfeed and sleep with you when she is a teenager. I promise you your baby will not have sleep problems if she never has an imposed bedtime, bedtime ritual or anything else parents typically impose on their babies. I promise you, your baby will not be wearing nappies for ever unless you potty train her. I promise you, your baby will not still be crying piercingly instead of talking when she is a teenager unless you train her out of crying. There is nothing at all you need to be doing to your baby that is independent of his own wishes and preferences. Relax about all that nonsense.
On the contrary, the more we have fun with our babies, play with them, explore their unique, fascinating personalities and interests, the more we enjoy being with them, and the more we meet our babies’ wishes and preferences, the more we are facilitating their learning and their ability to enjoy life, other people and the world. Relax. You’re ok. And so is your baby.
Enjoy every precious minute with your beloved babies.