Part of [Deep Frown] Don’t You Understand?
ahead, you can do it!” My one-year-old daughter was furrowing
her brows at the excited, gushing woman. A few seconds ago
she had been happily playing the drums set out next to a musical
instrument booth at the Old Songs Festival. Many passersby
had been smiling or commenting on the sight. But then this
woman, a complete stranger, had begun cooing and exclaiming
at such volumes, and so close to her face, that my daughter
had stopped what she was doing to look at the source of the
disturbance, one drumstick frozen in midair. At this point,
the woman changed tactics to coaxing her to hit the drum again,
as if she need moral support to have the courage to do what
we hadn’t been able to stop her from doing for the past half-hour.
My daughter’s glower, even when not accompanied, as it often
is, by a slow, solemn head shake, is unmistakable and not
to be trifled with. Assuming, that is, that you actually care
what she thinks.
A month or so ago, when she had just learned to make said
look, she began to use it on strangers who were making her
uncomfortable. She had also been experiencing that uptick
in stranger anxiety that generally comes with mobility, so
the universe of people who have received The Look at one point
or other is wide.
Sometimes, as with drum-cheerleader woman, the reason is clear.
My daughter has a pretty good sense for people who are primarily
interested in getting a baby fix. Often these are people who
are deeply (and yet impatiently) invested in getting her to
bestow them with some sign of favor. This includes people
who feel personally hurt that she won’t smile for a camera
that’s behind her while she trying to eat her dinner and people
who go in for the kiss or tickle with less checking to see
if it’s OK (with us or her) than they’d give a cat. People
acting like this almost invariably get one of her deepest
They also almost invariably ignore it. Not all of them. Some
come back to their senses, say something like “I see you’re
not in the mood to be social,” and step back. But an awful
lot act like the failure to grin at their anxious need for
affirmation means the doll is broken.
I’ve done it myself, especially in those cases where her reasons
are less clear to me, or the results less socially acceptable.
It is awkward for us as her parents when she frowns and shies
away from visiting grandparents or good family friends or
anyone who isn’t acting pushy. She could be reacting to something
obscure that struck her at that moment as unusual, odd, or
disquieting about the person or the situation, but since we
can’t know, it’s tempting to be dismissive. “She just learned
to make that face and she’s using it on everyone.” “Goofball,
what’s your problem? You know so-and-so.”
But after finding myself grousing about strangers who didn’t
seem to think she had a right to refuse their overtures, I
found myself rethinking my own reactions too. We expect our
kids to grow up and be able to set appropriate boundaries.
We want them to say no to drugs, to strangers with candy,
to inappropriate touch, to laughing at racist jokes, to chances
to join in bullying.
Setting good boundaries is not just a matter of saying the
word “no” when one item on a clearly defined checklist announces
itself, either. It involves constant gut-checks, reacting
to subtle cues that communicate the intent and mood of the
other person. This is a crucial skill for us social beings,
both for establishing positive relationships and avoiding
being taken advantage of. It’s so important that babies start
to learn it long before they can talk, imitating our facial
expressions and speech patterns and picking up on the general
emotion in the room.
And yet, when kids start trying to use these skills to set
their own social boundaries, many of us dismiss their right
to do it because we’re jonesing for a baby snuggle or miss
our 6-month-old who spread sweetness and light wherever she
went. We want our children to believe that saying no will
matter. At some later date.
Clearly we do have to overrule young kids for their own good
on a regular basis. And clearly their instincts are not always
right: It’s not necessarily more important to steer clear
of the loud, abrupt person than the insinuatingly sweet one.
But when it comes to other things babies are learning to do—walking,
talking, eating—we recognize that whenever feasible, it’s
important to let them try and do our best to help rather than
In that vein, and since I wouldn’t know exactly how to explain
or teach something as subconscious as reading a social situation,
I figure I’d better let my daughter start experimenting now,
before she also has to come up with polite words in place
of a scowl.
Check out Miriam’s new blog, The Big Questions: The Path to
Albany’s First Comprehensive Plan, at: http://metroland.typepad.com/the_big_questions/