Once you have a baby, all sorts of people talk to you about the experience. Stories, advice, and questions come from friends, family, and perfect strangers. In general, I love this aspect of parenthood. I love that children bring people together. I love being a part of the camaraderie of parenthood. Sure, I’ve been given my fair share of advice I don’t agree with and occasionally been met with disapproval of my parenting approach; but even those interactions I normally still enjoy. I see them as interesting learning opportunities.
There is one question, however, that still gets under my skin.
“Is she a good baby?”
I guess I should have seen it coming, but upon having my baby I (a) didn’t expect to be asked this so often and (b) didn’t realize how strongly I felt about what it implies.
What bothers me most about this question is the use of the word good. As if my baby is calculating whether to be good or bad. And what exactly constitutes a baby being “bad”? Not sleeping well? Crying? Normal baby things? Doing things that are inconvenient for me?
It hurts my heart to think of casting my baby with the shame of being “bad” from the very start of her life.
When my baby is crying endlessly because of tummy pain, she’s not choosing to be bad. In fact, she’s making a great choice by telling her parents what is going on! When she has trouble sleeping alone because she loves to be held and comforted, she’s not being bad; she’s being a healthy, attached child. When she’s irritable and exhausted from not having a restful nap, she’s not being bad; she’s trying to cope with tiredness (a sensation I still have trouble coping with after decades of experience!)
When we think of babies in terms of good and bad, what we’re really considering is if they’re doing what we want them to or not. But the thing is, babies don’t know what we want them to do. As we help our little ones navigate new sensations, emotions, and other experiences, we can teach them ways to cope with the rough experiences and eventually how to handle them in acceptable ways. When my little one is overtired, I help her figure out how to fall asleep to respond to her body’s needs. When she’s hungry, I feed her so she learns what satisfies that rumbly tummy feeling. Over time, with my guidance, she’ll learn how to meet some of these needs on her own.
When I label her difficulty to cope and frustration as “bad”, I lack empathy and grace for what she is going through (two important things I want to model so she herself will have them one day).
But is this really a big deal? I mean, she doesn’t really know what I’m saying…
Well, I think it is. First of all, babies often know a lot more than we think they do. They pick up on body language, tone of voice, and feelings very early on and build their receptive language quickly. Secondly, the language we use around our children influences our own perceptions of and actions toward them. When we think of our baby being fussy as bad, it makes it harder for us to be empathetic and responsive to the reason they are fussy. When we describe their sleeping as bad, it can subconsciously affect how we respond in the middle of the night.
I know this question is asked with well-meant intentions. The real heart of the question is ‘How are things going?’ ‘How’s life with this little one?‘ And I try to remember that when I hear it. I usually answer with a cheeky response like “Is there really such a thing as a bad baby? I personally don’t think so.”, but then answer what I truly believe they’re asking, how things are going.
I’m not saying the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t have a place when raising little ones. It is a concept that is important for children to understand, especially considering how concrete their experience of the world is at first. I’d just prefer for my baby to not be first exposed to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by using them to label her instinctive behaviors that she has little control or understanding of.
Have you been asked this question before? Are there any parenting questions that get under your skin? I’d love to hear in the comments below!