We were in line at Target recently, and a woman behind us started gawking at my baby; he was in his stroller facing her and frankly minding his own business. After several uncomfortable seconds of her staring at him (not with smiles or kind words or any engagement, but just plain old weird glaring), my baby let out a yell and glared right back at her with indignation. Some parents would have been embarrassed. I was proud...
When I met up with a friend who my baby had only met once, and she tried to hold him, he cried. And I don’t blame him; she’s a stranger. Even family members who my baby doesn’t know well sometimes scare or upset him when they get in his face. They get offended; I don’t...
My baby often enough lets out a pterodactyl screech in the face of people he doesn't know — or simply doesn't like — when they try to engage with him.
"You have to socialize him better," I've heard my friends, neighbors and family members say.
No, actually, I don't.
My son is all smiles when he meets people he knows and likes. He will cruise around all afternoon in the arms of his uncle, whom he adores. He’ll settle in for a nap in the lap of his grandmother, who he knows will sing to him and be gentle and caring. And he’ll sit and watch his baby friend play for endless hours because he really enjoys her. My baby, just like adults, simply prefers certain humans to others. And that's perfectly fine; in fact, I think it's really important.
So many parents raise their kids to be "nice" — even to strangers. If the “nice lady” on the street says hi to the little kid, and the kid doesn’t say hi back, parents will often say something like, “Don’t be rude. Say hi to the nice lady.”
I’ve seen people laugh and commend babies who wave to strangers or who even go up to strangers and hug them or tug on their clothes. I am horrified by this behavior. Would you want your 10-year-old child to touch and embrace a person neither of you knows? What about your teenager? If your answer is no, then why would you want your baby to?
Teaching and reinforcing risky behavior when kids are young and impressionable can have a lasting impact on their socialization later. Of course I don’t want my baby to become a pariah, but I do want him to be discerning. If he has a bad feeling about someone who is trying to touch him, I don’t want to force him to touch that person — nor do I want to invalidate his feelings or make excuses for them. Yes, he's just a baby, but his feelings are valid. I respect them.
Plus, bodily autonomy is important, and I want to raise the kind of child and then adult who will respect his own boundaries and those of others. I don’t want to confuse him into thinking that he has to touch people when he doesn't want to — just because I forced him to hug a kid he didn't like or allowed him to get tickled by an uncle when he was uncomfortable. And on the flip side, I don't want him to think he can go ahead and touch others — whether they are strangers or not — who may be made uncomfortable by that touch.
There will be a time and a place, as my son gets older, when I can start talking to him about how to politely decline physical or any unwanted contact. But right now, as a baby, the only tools he has at his disposal are crying and smiling. He’s too young to politely tell the lady who's making him feel uncomfortable in the store to stop staring.
So for now, the screech that warns off strangers and offends people who think my son should like them — but who don’t really know him — is fine by me. It doesn’t mean my baby is rude or antisocial. It just means he's just learning how to navigate the world safely and with a strong sense of what or whom he likes, as well as what or whom he doesn’t, and he's not afraid to respond accordingly. We should all be as tuned-in to our inner needs — and as unafraid to express them.
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