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Monday, March 21, 2011

Babies Are Stupid: The Miracle of Life

Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment for anyone. I've been babysitting and nannying since I was around 11 years old (for other people's kids, not just my little brother), so I'd spent a good amount of time with kids of all ages for many years before I became a parent. I thought I had a good idea of what real parenthood would be like. I didn't even have a clue. There is nothing that can really prepare you for being the sole provider to a completely vulnerable and utterly incompetent newborn human. Of all the major adjustments I had to undergo in my process of becoming a decent mother, I think the most surprising was the realization that I was responsible for teaching this little blob of screaming flesh everything it had to learn. Everything. When I sat back and starting really thinking about it, I became overwhelmed at the things you have to teach a baby. Holding this fragile little life in my arms - knowing its survival, its successes and failures, its understanding of the world and life in its entirety, EVERYTHING - was in my hands, I realized, babies are really stupid.

I think it's safe to assume that most everyone knows you have to teach babies the basic things. Language, walking, how to pee and poop in a toilet, sarcasm, manners, basic hygiene like washing our bodies and brushing our teeth, how to drive a car, etc. Parents look forward to teaching their kids certain things, like throwing a ball, riding a bike, swimming. We spend hours every week teaching our preschoolers the alphabet, colors, and numbers, so they can learn to read and count and function in society. We know that becoming a parent also means becoming a life-long teacher, showing our kids how to do the things we learned from our own parents, like checking the oil in the car, cleaning out a refrigerator, doing laundry, mowing the lawn - things they'll need to know someday so they can have stable homes and lives, and eventually teach their own kids. Since I'm a relatively new mom, I haven't spent the years teaching my children all the things yet to come, but it's truly astounding how much I've already had to teach my kids. When you sit back and really think about the things kids must be taught, it's kind of astounding that our species has survived at all.

Most babies are born knowing how to eat - sucking is an inherent instinct. But get this - some babies don't even know how to do this. That's right. You could give birth to a screaming flesh-blob that can't even do this most basic life function. Breastfeeding isn't as natural as the general public would have you believe. There are multiple products out there that help babies learn how to latch on correctly (be it to a real or synthetic nipple), because this is a common enough issue that people can make money off it. Lactation consultants, breastfeeding product companies, and all the dozens of different bottle companies making their dozens of different style nipples, all with one purpose - teaching your little idiot how to eat. In nature, when things are born and they can't eat, they die. Natural selection would have it so things that are too stupid to know how to do this at birth don't survive long enough to reproduce. But not humans! We've defeated natural selection. Take that, Nature!

Once your baby has mastered eating, you face the next big educational obstacle: teaching them how to sleep. Some babies are born as really good sleepers. They already know the difference between day and night, and they have no problem sleeping for 9-12 hours overnight, right off the bat. But don't get your hopes up, because that won't be your baby. Brace yourself for having a baby like mine. My two year old didn't sleep for 6 consecutive hours until he was 14 months old. I spent countless hours reading half a dozen books from "sleep experts," teaching me how to teach my son how to sleep. We tried at least 4 different methods. My five month old daughter will only sleep in an infant bouncer seat, and rarely sleeps longer than 45 min at a stretch, even overnight. I'm dreading the day I have to start trying to train her to sleep flat on a bed, much less for longer than an hour.

So you've taught your baby how to eat and how to sleep, and now she's six months old, and ready to start eating solid foods. Back to square one on teaching her how to eat. Because eating solid food is also not an inherent skill, you have to buy a plethora of "learning" utensils, plates, and bowls, and teach your baby how to use each of these. Starting with a mush of "cereal" that is effectively just thickened formula or milk, you have to work a baby up to eating actual solids, teaching them how to chew and swallow without choking. You have to teach them how to drink from a cup, too. There's a whole series of "learning" cups on the market so you can teach them in stages, from bottle (or boob) all the way up to drinking out of a normal cup like a grown-up in a civilized society.

When I started out as a new mom with my son, I didn't realize any of this wasn't just instinct. It was a real struggle for me to learn how to teach all of this and have the patience to do it correctly. But I knew being a parent wouldn't be easy, so I didn't mind (too much), spending hours upon hours every day, working with my son so he could learn to sleep in a bed or swallow some mush. But as the months passed, I stumbled upon some other weird things that babies don't know how to do and, consequently, have to be taught. I'll share a few of the ones that really stand out in my mind (mostly because I had to learn how to teach each of these - not an easy feat by itself, let alone then translating it into toddler to teach my son).

How to wear shoes. Ant learned how to walk around 9 months. He got really good at it, really quickly, so he wanted to try it outside. I had a pair of shoes for him, so I put them on. He turned into a cat in slippers, froze, started crying, then fell over. I went through three pairs of shoes before I found some that were soft-soled enough for him to learn to stand in them, then we had to gradually move to harder soles, and eventually to actual shoes.

How to wear clothes. At first, babies just wear clothes because you put them in them. But then they start to have opinions about their bodies, and, sometimes, they don't want to wear clothes. You also have to teach them how to take off their clothes. Then you have to teach them when it's appropriate to take off their clothes, and when it is absolutely not appropriate. We're still working with Ant on wearing shoes during Church and pants in Walmart (though sometimes I get the feeling I'm in the minority trying to teach this one).

Holding hands. This one was really surprising to me. We spent an entire day at SeaWorld, fighting over walking and holding hands vs being carried against his will. I had to continually negotiate with him: "you can walk by yourself, IF you hold my hand. Otherwise, I have to carry you." We'd take two steps holding hands, and he'd dramatically hurl himself onto the ground in a fit of rage, while the people behind us had to stumble around to keep from tripping over us. It took about 4 hours, but eventually, he learned how to do it without a rage-attack.

Regulating emotions. We're still working on this one (I think most people have to work on this one their entire lives), but it's much more pronounced with a toddler. First, you have to teach them the names for emotions. Then you have to be consistent, every single day, with how to handle each emotion. We use "time out" solely as a means to control emotions - frustration and anger, mostly - that get out of hand. Babies and children don't know how to "self-soothe." Learning that is a central key to many of life's secrets, including sleeping and functioning in a normal society.

Not getting yourself killed. This is another one of those life-long struggles for most of us. It starts with things like not rolling off a tall bed and landing on your head, or not running into the street and getting run over, or not just walking off the tall platforms on playgrounds. Surprisingly, babies have absolutely no survival instinct when it comes to things like this. Squirrels are terrified of loud trucks barreling down on them. But human babies? They'll just sit there and be smooshed.

The list goes on and on. Learning how to sit upright, then sitting in a high chair, stroller, booster seat, shopping cart, etc. How to open things - all things - doors, cabinets, lids, bins. How to go up stairs. How to stay upright in water (including the bathtub). How to turn lights on and off (at one point, we taught Ant that he could turn lights on and off by stomping his foot on the ground while we secretly hit the switch whenever he did it - that led to a world of disappointment when we weren't ready and standing at the light switch when he decided the lights should be on one day). How to stand still and wait for mom or dad (which is closely related to "how to not get run over by that big, loud truck barreling down on you).

The real miracle of life isn't the evolution of humankind, the way we're conceived, our gestation process, and the fact that we're born into this world as little replicas of our parents. No, the real miracle of life is that our parents are patient enough to teach us how to do absolutely everything so that we can eventually grow up to be somewhat functional humans, spawn our own babies, and start the cycle all over again. It's truly a miracle that, as a species, we have tricked ourselves into thinking it's normal to dedicate at least 18 years of our own life to teaching children what it took our own parents 18+ years to teach us - and that we're entirely okay with this process. If our parents abandoned us as infants, the way many other species do, we would most certainly no longer be on the top of the food chain. We're far, far too stupid for that.

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