Newborns bleat and struggle to lift their heads, acting on instinct. As my daughter approaches the age of one, however, her awareness of the world grows daily – as does her memory. Instinct seems to play a supporting role to active learning.
For a long time, books weren’t safe with her. She’d flail, or her lack of coordination would get the better of her, and books with real pages soon became books-to-buy-again – or books to store on a higher shelf, for the now. Board books were the only safe way to go, but even then, a baby’s desire to chew got the better of her – and the better of a book – more than once. Time passed. When she learned to turn board book pages, we were thrilled. When she learned to turn thinner paper pages, we were ecstatic. When she started responding to books in other ways, well, how much stronger an emotion could we feel?
In But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton, I routinely hold out one hand then the other as the book nears its conclusion, showing the weighing of the hippopotamus’ options: “Should she stay? Should she go?” Today, my daughter held out both hands when we arrived on that page.
In Creature ABC by Andrew Zuckerman, when we get to the page with a bear, which holds its paw up as if in greeting, she holds her hand up in response, the motionless wave. When reading a favorite from my childhood, What Was That? by Geda Bradley Mathews, my husband pats the bed when the bears hear “a bump, a thump, and a clump.” Our daughter does that, too – and it extends to other times when she hears it. In I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss, she thumps the bed when we get to the line, “Bump Bump Bump/I’m a camel with a hump.” She adapts, she learns, she applies her knowledge – and we watch in awe and wonder.
She’s learning so many things so fast, though – how to put a peg in a hole (a careful and precise skill), how to hug (two arms around my neck have never felt so warm and loving), how to reach higher bookshelves where we put books we hadn’t wanted her to touch (really? You have to have THOSE books?) – that there must not be room to keep everything. Or maybe she learns something, practices, and moves on. Two days later, she’s stopped waving at the bear. His wave is lonely, now, a bear eternally waving at a girl whose hand, instead of waving, quickly reaches to turn the page, racing against her mama’s hand. Creature ABC, about which she’d cry if we put the book away after one or two or three readings, will now be shoved aside by a small, thick-fingered impatient hand around the letter M (for mandrill). In Kevin Henkes’ Old Bear, the bear awakens from hibernation. “He yawned. He stretched.” She used to stretch, often when we got to the page, not the line, after we’d stretched at that line many times ourselves. Now, nothing. No fanfare, not even a reach. The camel with a hump might receive a half-hearted single thump on the bed – just when I got out our camera to document these small actions that both amuse and amaze us. Time waits for no videocamera.
As she outgrows the moments we want to savor, that we do savor, knowing that as soon as we notice and focus on these favorite motions, actions, and gestures, they’ll be replaced by new ones, so, too, does she outgrow behavior better left behind.
When playing with her hammer and peg set several weeks ago, a gift from a friend with two children of her own, my daughter simultaneously lifted her hand and flicked her wrist backward, initiating an unhappy meeting between the wooden hammer and her large, 90th-percentile baby head. As she had done in similar situations, she looked around, puzzled: who had done this to her? Why would someone hit her in the head? Why would someone want to hurt her? As her parents, why didn’t we keep violent strangers bearing hammers away from our most precious creation? Only after surveying her surroundings for the offending party did she burst into a heavy rain of tears.
She understands that thump, in various contexts, always means thump, but she doesn’t understand that a toy hammer to the head means hurt?
She’d begun biting, too. After her first six teeth came in, she took an exploratory nip or two but nothing too painful for her parents, with shoulders, noses, breasts, and chins merely in the line of slobber. Suddenly, however, the nips took on a feeling of purpose: with a surprised “ow!” I’d recoil, and she’d look up and smile. Even worse, she’d be nursing, look up at me stealthily, look down, and WOW! Babies’ teeth, fresh from their previous homes beneath the gumline and undulled by grinding away at solid foods, are sharp. They hurt. They hurt enough to start using the ASL symbol for hurt, which is holding out each index finger and repeatedly bumping the tips of those fingers together. I might have imagined using those same index fingers to poke and prod her in response, but I refrained.
After nips and bites and “ow” and “no” and “that hurts Mommy,” I decided a new approach was in order. I tried the Dr.-Sears-recommended method of drawing baby close when biting: breathing and biting, in that context, are mutually exclusive. Babies choose to breathe. I also tried not reacting. My internal voice shouted “Yow!” but my external voice said, “…” If she pulled away, I put myself out of harm’s way, knowing that a nip, not nourishment, would soon follow.
And you know what? I didn’t get bitten today. Not once.
If we read her The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, we could likewise practice the hand gesture from But Not the Hippopotamus, weighing each option in one hand, holding its heft as we decide for ourselves. With babies, though, this question is loaded: do we want them to stay where they are, sweet and curious and dependent? Do we want them to go ahead, sweet and curious and growing in independence, sometimes painfully so?
The answer, for me, is both. I want both the sweet innocence of her infanthood, when all she could do was melt into my arms, nurse at my breast, look at the books we chose for her, or rest in the crook of my husband’s arm under his adoring gaze, and the sweet exploration of impending toddler-hood, when she fills our arms with her early hugs and strikes out on her own, waving at book bears, pulling books onto herself, and looking in shock at the innocent bystanders who are not bearing weapons of any sort.
As she adds new activities to her list – walking will soon enough be one of them! – and waves off others that had once been her favorites, I understand that she’s laying the foundation for the choices that everyone makes in life. We learn skills, we move on. We keep those things we like best close to us and let much of the rest go. Is there a better way to keep them close than hugging? So far, her hugging hasn’t gone away, and I hope it stays that way. There’s nothing I like better.