Baby gaga

Staring at a blank canvas is both daunting and inspiring at the same time. I imagine this is how many parents feel when looking at their babies just after birth. Perfectly innocent, malleable, and dependent on your every move.

So I’m puzzled when I see so many parents paint without giving thought to the works they’re creating.

Here’s an early example. Babies acquire language from the sounds they hear and context they perceive. No matter which of the various theories you believe, the way adults speak helps kids learn pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary.

Why, then, do parents babble back to their babies? Goo goo, ga ga, fawning sounds and exaggerated tones. These hinder, rather than help child development. We learn best when our abilities are stretched constantly, and when we can test many hypotheses rapidly. Babies do this experimentation when babbling, but rely on us to actually spend time interpreting and correcting them (as detailed here).

The babble-back mindset carries on into later stages of growth in a more subtle way. Parents and teachers dumb down their ideas and words, presuming kids won’t be able to understand. And when kids ask questions, it’s much easier to blow them off with a quick answer than to go into detail on a topic, only provoking more questions.

As adults, it’s our responsibility to raise children who love learning, grow constantly, and are never deprived of their potential. Yet we do just that, every time we try to fit kids into our image of what a child should be — innocent and incapable.

Sometimes, this image of our kids can even have long-term psychological effects. When we assign them levels in school, we implicitly assume they can only achieve within their appointed level, breaking that confidence that leads to expanding beyond current abilities.

Worse still, these presumptions can lead to unintentionally destructive value messages. Lisa Bloom noted last week that when adults meet young girls, they default to commenting on how pretty the girls are, outfits, hair, makeup, and the like. She reminds us that, if we always jump to beauty, girls learn that’s the most important thing for them to focus on.

So let this be a reminder: to talk to babies like normal people, to empower kids to reach out and explore beyond their capabilities, to answer their questions, and to be intentional about the values we imply with our choices of words. Just because the canvas is a child doesn’t mean we should finger paint.