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What Part of [Deep Frown] Don’t You Understand?

 

‘Go 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 frowns.

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 take over.

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.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

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/

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