Saturday, 19 January 2013

My Sponge Baby

My daughter is one, and she understands a lot of what is said to her. She may not be able to say much yet, but she can still understand what people are saying to her. I'm very conscious that she is sponge-like. She absorbs everything. Sights, sounds, behaviours, they all get absorbed and processed by her brain. She learns through observing and experiencing.

When she was a tiny baby, friends and family always used to comment on her appearance, as people always do with babies. Even when she was just a few weeks old this used to make me feel uneasy, but she was usually asleep and so the comments wouldn't have had any impact on her developing personality. But she's one now, and I worry that she will now be affected by the things people say about her. 

The comments strangers make now will shape her future perception of herself. She will be aware that she's big, and small (why can't strangers ever seem to agree on whether my child is a record breaking giant or a malnourished wisp of a girl?), and has eyes. The way people interact with her now will shape how she interacts in the future. Strangers always comment on her appearance and ask whether she is a good baby. From this, I worry that she is learning that looks are first and foremost, followed by blind obedience (which is usually what people mean when they ask if a child is good). 

Obviously I think she is beautiful, I really do. She is the picture of perfection, but I don’t want her to grow up thinking that this is the be all and end all of life. In truth, I hope she overtakes her Father and I. I hope she brushes her hair every day and doesn’t look close to retirement at the tender age of twenty seven (it’s ok for me to say that, I’m married to him). But I don’t want her to base her self-worth on her looks. I want her confidence to come from a much deeper place. I want her to be confident about who she is, not what she looks like. 

It’s not just the obsession with her big eyes that concerns me. It’s the cries of, “Oh, she’s so clever. You can just tell she’s going to be an absolute genius!” that I find disturbing, too. I don’t want Ebony to feel under any pressure to be clever, or be pretty or be into girly things. I want her to have the freedom to choose her own path in life. I worry about people placing expectations of intelligence on her for two reasons. 

Firstly I worry that being told she’s clever will mean she believes she is clever and is then less likely to work hard at academia in the future because she believes it to be a natural skill. Secondly I worry that if she ever struggles with academia, she won’t want to admit it for fear of letting us down because she has grown up believing we expect her to be the child prodigy of her generation. 

She turned one a couple of weeks ago, and I can honestly say I am ridiculously proud of everything she has ever done. Just the other day she made a tower of four wooden blocks, yes, four, and I almost exploded with pride. We spend a lot of time with babies her age, and they are all developing the same skills at around the same speed. Some may have walked first, and others may know more words, but essentially they are all able to do the same things. So, when I have spent the morning surrounded by babies who are all able to put the square shape through the square hole, I don’t really want Ebony to be over enthusiastically praised for doing this at home. She is exploring and playing, she doesn’t need to be praised for this. Just because she gets the shape through the hole doesn’t mean her actions are any more valid than they were ten minutes ago when she was trying to play the xylophone with a book; it’s all learning. 

I realise people don’t mean any harm when they say these things. They are just commenting on her eyes, or trying to interact with her by showing how impressed they are at how she plays, and so I don’t tell people not to say certain things, but I do try to counter what they say when I speak to Ebony.

It’s hard to not say good girl and well done, and sometimes I do find those words tumbling out of my mouth, but, on the most part, I think I am doing ok at retraining myself to think before I speak (a skill, you may know, I have not always had).


  1. I think this is a tricky one, and it's good to think about it, but you can also tie yourself up in knots for no good reason.

    The reason people comment on looks/size/goodness of babies is - honestly - they're babies. They don't do much. The world developed baby-related small talk so we didn't have to think of something original to say when faced with a small, non-talking, non-walking creature of whom their parent is inordinately proud.

    With my daughter, I just ensure to compliment her in a variety of ways, and mostly try to be specific - I think you look great in the outfit you chose today; the way you did your hair today looks gorgeous; you're really brave to have tried that big ride; I think it's really kind that you invited the other girl to come and play.

    I suppose I hope I'm teaching her that you earn compliments. I'm not praising her in an empty way, I'm praising the things she does and the choices she makes.

    The exception is telling her I love her. Because I tell her I love her just because she is. That the greatest thing she is her herself. I'm unstinting and tell her that ALL the time.

    I think it works - when I ask Flea what she likes about herself best, she will always say, "My whole self". The fact she's clever, or pretty, or well-behaved isn't what matters to her at this age - she values that she's HER. Which I think is lovely, and I hope she retains that for a long time yet.

  2. Personally, I don't think that you can ever praise a child too much as long as it is realistic and specific. I try to praise my children for the behaviours that I know will stand them in good stead as adults. So trying hard, perseverance, good manners, following the 'rules' of our family, kindness, happiness.

    As children get a bit older I think they need your attention more and more and praising the things that they do well gives them the attention that they need in a positive way. Otherwise as we have found if we ignore the good behaviour then my 3 year old starts doing things he knows that will get a reaction from us - doing the things we don't want him to do.

    In your example above I would say you should praise the playing the Xylophone with the book as much as putting the right shape in the whole. Wow, she found out that you can get that to make a noise by hitting it with a book.

    By saying specific things instead of just good girl and well done then you are teaching her to be proud of herself, building her confidence and self esteem which are things that are so important in life.

  3. Bless you, I can understand your predicament. Children are so very sensitive to what people say.. An example of this was my 10 year old dyslexic brother who would do A-level science for fun at home from the age of six (with support on the reading side of things), who was told once by his teacher (in front of his class) that he was stupid and has never touch A-level since. Children do take TLC, but they also need reassurance and confidence building.

    I think, personally, that it is important to praise a child's achievements but not to over-praise them, all things in healthy moderation after all.

    Still, even if what people say does have the opposite effect on a child then intended, children are still young and can still learn even into adulthood (even my brother has now motivated himself into University despite not having any GCSEs) so all things can be developed on and learnt from. InshaAllah.



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