Monday, May 09, 2005

Wise Advice

If your friends and family are like most, you've probably been getting tons of advice from well-meaning folks about how to raise your baby. Some of the words of wisdom are obviously very practical, some make you wonder, and a few are downright and obviously wrong. It's especially amusing to see the kinds of advice that new parents get from other adults who have not yet experienced child-rearing! Sometimes the people who have the least amount of hands-on experience have the most to say, don't they?

I was bombarded with advice when my kids were tiny, too. Mom had lots of thoughts on how to do everything from sterilize bottles to change diapers properly. My friend Norene was a godsend: she spent most of our time together just listening. Her kids were older, and she only offered advice when I actually asked for it. Visits with her were an island of sanity in my new position as stay-at-home mom. My friend Gayle was fun to be with, too, but she generally had bits of that advice that I considered wrong for me and my family. Through it all, my dad just sort of watched and waited, just like he lives the rest of his life.

Dad is probably one of the wisest men that I've been privileged to know. He doesn't say much, but when he chooses to dole out bits of wisdom, you can count on it being not only smart but also IMPORTANT. He chooses his words carefully, and his ideas and thoughts and opinions matter a great deal to me and to others in his life. He's a wonderful resource.

Dad didn't offer much in the way of child-rearing advice when the baby was born. He enjoyed his new role as grandpa and was quietly supportive. I suspect that this is why, when he did choose to spontaneously share a bit of advice, I sat up and took notice. Not only did he have that foundation of trust that his words would be true, but he was so sparing with his advice that only what he considers most important slips through.

I do remember, though, when he visited around Christmas time in 1987. My first baby was about six months old and starting to show some remarkable personality. She was rapidly developing a mind of her own and displaying a great sense of humor (at least for an infant!). Dad offered his one and only piece of unsolicited child-rearing advice on that visit.

He told me to be careful not to laugh at the baby's antics unless they were acceptable under all circumstances and would be welcomed long after she grew out of infancy. Sure enough, we noticed right after that that the child would quickly and eagerly repeat any action that elicited laughter amongst the audience. I could see what Dad meant. Laugh at a baby's tricks, and they will repeat them over and over and over, ad nauseum. And what is funny the first time or two quickly loses its appeal after the thirty-third repetition. It might be funny in the kitchen, but not so amusing in the restaurant or at the grocery.

Children need to learn what is and is not good humor. This starts at a very early age, and is based on what kind of responses kids get to their actions. If the adults around them pay attention, laugh, smile, and clap, then the action goes on the list of things that "work." If the action is ignored or scolded, then the child quickly learns that it is not appreciated.

It's fine to laugh at baby's first attempts at jokes. I remember the oldest made her first real joke around that six month time. She could hold her own bottle by then, and one day gleefully stuck the bottle into her forehead instead of her mouth. We all had a good laugh.

But the day that she upended her bowl of cereal a few weeks later and put the bowl on her head and proclaimed, "hat!" we struggled through with straight faces. It was not an action we wanted her to make a habit of. It worked, too. She only wore her bowl a time or two before going on to more acceptable jokes.

Wise advice, well worth remembering. If you think that baby's action could cause problems in other settings or times, then don't encourage it now. What is funny when they are six or eight months old will lose its appeal if they are still repeating it when they are four years of age. And remember that we shape baby's sense of humor by our responses. If you want your child to appreciate gentle, non-harmful humor, then you have to consistently reward that and reject other forms of what some call funny. Don't laugh at others' misfortune, for example. Baby will have a very hard time discriminating when it is and is not OK to laugh when others have problems.

Humor is a wonderful social lubricant, and everyone does better in life if they have a healthy sense of humor. Get things off to a good start for your baby's development by being choosy about what kinds of humor you encourage. You (and your child!) will be very glad that you did in the long run.

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