Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good baby. Bad baby.

The words we use matter.  They, and the way in which they are interpreted by others, affect people. With our words, we create an atmosphere where certain things are valued over others. It may not be our intention to do so, but it happens every day.  

As such, I have been really annoyed lately by the use of the phrases "good baby" and "bad / naughty baby", by others and by myself. Babies cannot be good or bad; they have needs, and they express the desire for those needs to be met through the only way they know how, such as crying and fussing, among other cues.  It is our job as parents to be able to respond to their cues, or anticipate their needs, and provide for them.  Obviously, we are not going to get it right all the time (don't I know it!). But it does not make a baby bad if they continue crying until their needs are met.

Often people will say something like, "Is Gus a good sleeper?"  They get surprised if I say, "Yes, he is.  He wakes up a 2 or 3 times during the night because he has a tiny tummy and needs some food or isn't used to being by himself and needs to make sure we are nearby.  But I attend to his needs, he goes back to sleep, and all are happy."  This doesn't fit into the questioner's definition of good.  So I usually just say, "Yes, thanks, we are all happy" and continue on with the conversation.

To most of us (i.e. me before Gus was born and I started thinking about these things more in depth), a good baby is one that fits in well with the way adults live our lives. Babies become good when they don't cry too much, sleep through the night, and have a generally happy temperament. This doesn't leave room for all the variety of feelings and emotions that we as adults are allowed to express. It doesn't allow children to have their own personalities. A baby that needs a lot of physical closeness with a parent isn't bad; it may be inconvenient to accommodate the child's needs in our adult-centric world, but that is not the child's fault.  I read a phrase a few months ago (not sue where, maybe at Raising My Boychick?): the radical idea that children are people. This really struck me, that babies are not just blobs waiting to become, they are real people with a personality and a full range of emotions, needs, and desires. It seems stupid that I had never realised that before, but it has really affected the way I relate to Gus.  He is not just a set of behaviours to be molded the way I want; he is a person that is trying to communicate his needs to me. (I just started reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, and he talks a lot about this as well.)

All of that leads me back to the beginning: if I don't think that Gus is expressing bad behaviours, but rather needs to be met, then I don't want to use words that are coded with moral undertones. I don't want him to grow up thinking he is a bad person for expressing his emotions (i.e. crying). Right now, the words I use probably don't have a lasting impact on him, but start as you mean to go on, they say. So I am trying to cut out the use of the words good and bad.  For instance, when he is finally falling asleep in the middle of the night, I try not to say good boy. If he doesn't know the difference between night and day, it is my job to teach him that.  I am not very adept at this yet, but with time, I think I will improve.  What do you think?


  1. Amen to that.

    Spilt Milk talks about the full personhood of children a lot, including in the post "The Radical Notion that Children are people" at
    ; maybe that's one of the places where you saw that phrasing?

    Anyway, I also realized when Noah was little that I DID NOT LIKE the 'good boy!' habit ... let alone any notion of him 'being bad.' I think our culture tends to A) bring gender in where it is or should be irrelevant and b) moralize and/or evaluate as positive/negative things that are not moral issues and/or really just neutral realities. So when I want to tell Noah that he is good and valuable, I say "You are such a good person" or "You are so kind / generous / so much fun / whatever." I think we can talk about a child being particularly 'easy' or 'difficult' on a particular day more accurately than we can talk about that child being 'good' or 'bad.' We tend to talk about Noah being 'on the verge all day' on his more challenging days, which (importantly) are days when not only we but also he feels very stressed out and at wits' end (or he wouldn't be acting flipped out in the first place).

    People are certainly less likely to refer to an adult (or even his or her behavior) as "good" or "bad." Those are big words! Who seriously says "my boss was being bad today?"

  2. Molly--yes, Spilt Milk probably was the place I saw that, thanks! And thank you for the examples of words we can use to talk about children; definitely useful for someone (me!) who has never been conscious about this type of thing before.

  3. I get the question all the time and it drives me crazy. I always say "yes he is amazing". Then they say "oh so he is sleeping through the night?" lol I will spare you my ranting cause you have heard it before. Music to my ears Amy, thanks for sharing.

  4. I had a long conversation the other day with the speech therapist about giving ownership to the kiddos about their successes by the language we use to praise them. For example "you are such a smart boy" is a nice thing to say, however it doesn't capture any effort put in on the child's part, rather it comments on a quality the child may possess. On the other hand, "wow, you worked really hard on that." or "Even though that wasn't easy, I love how you kept trying." gives the child feedback on the positive behaviors they do have control over.

    Your little one isn't quite there yet, but it is facinating how we impart our values on children by the words we use when speaking to them. I love that you are mindful of this so early on!