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What doesn’t kill my baby

Brooke used to have a painful head-butting habit. She’d be happily playing, then all of a sudden, she’d slam her head into my cheek…or the floor, or a toy, or anything else in range. She was just learning to use her neck, but she still cried and whimpered whenever she connected with anything solid. I cried too, when my nose or chin was in the line of fire.

We hated it every time we heard that *crack* and her shriek of pain. Our baby was hurting! We considered finding a helmet, or holding her at arm’s length, or even padding the house with bubble wrap, but they all seemed a bit overboard, even for us. Besides, she gradually strengthened her neck and stopped flailing quite so much. Life finds a way.

Brooke has decades of years of learning and life lessons ahead of her, most far harder than this one. She’ll handle most of them on her own, via trial and error. Others, she’ll learn from her friends, or from what she sees us do as role models. She may absorb a handful of things we tell her, but they’ll be few and far between.

I know we can’t change those ratios, and I’m ok with that. We still have some impact on the trial and error, though, especially while she’s still young and we control her environment. It sounds crazy, but we really could have plastered the house in bubble wrap, or popped a junior Pee Wee Football helmet on her head, and she would have avoided those painful bruises. On the other hand, she wouldn’t have learned that head butting hurts. She might still be doing it today.

I believe in the trial and error thing. I want her to make little mistakes and learn from them. Human beings are antifragile; failing and falling down usually make us stronger over the long term. It’s how the real world works. There’s plenty of ink spilled on this over the years, from Dangerism and Nurture Shock to the hygiene hypothesis and arresting a mom for letting her kid play unsupervised.

The problem is, Brooke is our baby! We hate it when she hurts. Right now, we instinctively reach out and catch her when she’s about to fall over. In a few years, we may not let her gorge herself on candy to the point of a stomachache. We may force her to study so she doesn’t get bad grades. We may even warn her if she dates the wrong boy or girl. (I expect she’ll ignore us.)

All of those pain points are life lessons. We can prevent the pain, or she can learn the lesson, but not both. So what do we do? How do we rationally let her make mistakes and get hurt when our emotions are screaming Don’t let her make herself sick! Don’t let that boy break her heart! She’ll regret it! You’ll regret it!

Honestly, I don’t know. Kahneman himself says it’s a hard problem. His advice is to identify when you’re acting from instinct or emotion, slow down, and give your conscious brain a chance to weigh in. Not easy. I can do it, but I still wonder if there are any shortcuts.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe we don’t have enough impact on Brooke’s development for any of this to matter. We may not be around for most of her learning moments, and even when we are, we may not be very good at intervening. Maybe this is all just an ego-driven illusion, and I should sit back and enjoy the ride. When she’s older, I know she’ll pay way more attention to her friends and the wider world than us…but for the moment, I think we still have some impact, even if just a little.

Brooke stopped head butting things a few months ago. She sits up on her own now, and she usually stays put, but every now and then she leans back too far and falls over. Sometimes we catch her. Sometimes we don’t, and she falls and bumps her head. There’s still no rhyme or reason to our choices, and we definitely don’t have any hard-won wisdom or master plan yet. If you know of any, I’m all ears!


35 thoughts on “What doesn’t kill my baby

  1. For me, it’s all about when they need to learn the lesson and how fast they’re going to learn it. If Ev needs 5 head bonks at 8months to learn “bonks = pain” and 1 head bonk to learn that same lesson at age 1, then I’d rather prevent bonks now and let him figure that one out later. The caveat should be that while catching him is fine, we shouldn’t prevent him from doing stuff that is otherwise beneficial to him now, purely out of risk aversion. /2c

  2. I had to stop myself from catching falling Casey when I realized she was catching herself… plus my jerky reaction just ended up with me punching her. :|

  3. It’s all fun and games until they start walking around and climbing on things. A few days ago, Abigail fell off a table, 3.5 ft off the ground, full weight directly onto the back of her head.

    I wasn’t happy to let her learn that one on her own.

    (she seems to be OK)

  4. Might be a little biased, since I participated in Ryan’s learning, as his father. We tried a lot of unconditional love and benign neglect. Coulda/shoulda done better, but he turned out OK. even in spite of our best efforts. Heh, heh. My favorite book for parents:

    Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World.

    “Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.”

    Lots of fun ahead,

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