On “Good” Babies, And The Other Kind

Our child is now ten months old (which I really can’t believe most days) and this past weekend all three of us (mama, ma, bae) went to visit my older sister. We took the train, and we had no idea how that might go with a baby, especially a mobile baby who is inching towards toddlerism.

It was fine.

On the way there, he was well rested and excited about getting out of the house. He loves going to new places, and since I’m a little bit of a homebody, he doesn’t always go out into the world quite as much as he would like. At least in this stage in his development, he’s an extrovert, and he can become bored and frustrated at home.

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So we got on the train and he laughed as be discovered things about it. He touched the fabric on the seats, looked out the windows, climbed back and forth in our laps, nursed, napped, and LOVED the cafe car (what kid wouldn’t love a moving restaurant? I mean THEY don’t know the food is crap and overpriced), and nursed again. He was a little frustrated that he couldn’t crawl around, but only a little and he didn’t make a stink about it.

And we got a constant stream of compliments from our fellow passengers.

“What a good baby!”
“I can’t believe how well behaved he is!”
“He’s being really good!”

When other adults compliment your child, especially in a way that seems to also compliment your parenting, it gives you a kind of glow. By the time we got off the train, we were feeling smug as hell. Our child was just inherently wonderful, and everyone could tell, and we were great parents doing great parenting.

“Oh he’s so good!” Someone would say.
“Yeah, he’s loving this.” We would beam back at them.

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But the way home was another matter.

Our train home left at 7:20am, which meant leaving my sister’s apartment at 5:30 to get there on public transit in time for pre-boarding. Which meant waking up at 4:15. On top of that, he was having some trouble sleeping with the unfamiliar surroundings. So we boarded the train with a confused, overtired baby, who was thoroughly sick of being moved around the world. Even with all that, though, when we boarded he enjoyed making faces at the straight couple across the aisle from us. The woman smiled back at him, and shared that they had spent the weekend away from their seven month old daughter, and were on their way back to her. “How did he do on the ride here?” she asked, and of course we beamed at her and told her of our great success riding a train with a baby.

But we wouldn’t get a single compliment during the journey home.

As a parent, I can say that his behavior was only a little bit “worse.” But the fineness of that line didn’t matter to anyone else. He cried several times. He screamed during diaper changes. When he couldn’t get other passengers to interact with him, he tried raising his voice, as if maybe they just couldn’t quite hear him. But he napped really really well, and still enjoyed the cafe car, and bobbed his head to the sound of the train. However, the reactions he inspired from other passengers were totally different. Instead of gushing compliments, I overhead one man tell a fellow traveler that he was moving seats to avoid he “whiny baby.” In the cafe car, as he was merrily eating bits of soft pretzel, a family with an older child looked over in disgust at the mangled bits of pretzel he dropped on the table top.

We had become the annoying people with the baby.

It did not feel good. I was not glowing.

I’m not breaking any new ground here, but all of this left me thinking about the way we talk about “good kids” and “bad kids” as a culture. Good kids appear to be kids that adults do not have to interact with when they don’t want to, kids that are quiet, and especially kids that are not complaining. Adults who are vocally horrified by the phrase “children should be seen and not heard” still don’t hesitate to label quiet children as “good” and turn up their noses when children are loud. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I’m immune to this kind of thought myself. Have I ever congratulated my kid on being “good” when he refrained from fussing (and this made my life easier)? Probably.

But it still bothers me. Especially when we are talking about very young children, often when we talk about quietness what we’re really talking about is a lack of communication. Babies communicate by making sounds. Those sounds can sound like coos, like cries, like shrieks, or like whining, but they are often loud and they can be very grating. A baby does not have a way to tell you something is wrong quietly and unobtrusively. Whether they are hungry, tired, bored, or wet, the result is the same: they get loud.

I am now going to talk about baby poop. One day, no doubt, my child will hate me for having shared this, but it’s illustrative of a point.

Now that he is mobile and playing all the time, our baby rarely tells us when his diaper is full. He’ll just poop and keep right on playing. This is a huge problem, because it means that sometimes I don’t find out that he has pooped until it has dried to his skin, which leads to a pretty awful diaper change experience for all involved, and diaper rash. Now, I still don’t think he’s a bad baby for being too busy with his blocks to give me a heads up, and it’s my job as his parent to check his diaper often because I know there could be “stealth poo” at any time. But there’s no denying that it’s a case where a little more communication would be useful!

And yet, according to the conventions of goodness and badness in children, he’s doing the best thing he can do by keeping quiet and not bothering me.

I hate that.

I want my child to communicate with me. I want my child to know that be can always come to me with whatever is going on with him. I want him to know that he can communicate even when it is inconvenient for other adults. I want him to know that I am confident enough to handle the disapproving looks and lack of praise.

He was a good baby on both train rides, because he was sharing how he felt with his parents in the only way he knew how. It’s just that on one of those train rides he was more content, and on one of them he was more stressed, and that has to be ok.

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