My daughter is learning to walk, which means she is learning to fall. It also means I have assumed a permanent 45-degree standing position, frantically clearing a path in front of her and cursing the air molecules that trip her up.
No matter what I do, though, she always ends up falling theatrically with a drunken-sailor teeter that ends with a resounding thud.
I was feeling sorry for her until I realized this is all an act. In fact, I think babies are masters of walking by the time they take their first steps, and they only keep up this stumbling baby facade for its comic effect.
Here's the truth, folks: Babies want to see that look of shock and horror on your face and they'll do anything to get it.
You know this is true if you've ever seen an infant pretend to cough and then look around the room to see which parent has perked up and is dialing the pediatrician. "Did that sound wet or dry to you, honey? Wet or dry!" the mother will cry to her husband while baby congratulates herself on a job well-done. You know she'll be high-fiving the other babies at the park tomorrow.
So to protect our children there is really only one viable parenting technique active disinterest.
I have become a master of this feigned indifference. My 1-year-old daughter, Nicole, fell on her face last night, but my husband and I kept our conversation going in stride. My father, on the other hand, leaped off the couch and reached for my daughter with panic on his face. "Sit down, Dad. She's OK," I said calmly.
And she was. No tears. No blood. Nothing.
You see, babies are like cartoons. They will just keep running as long as no one tells them they have run off a cliff and are now stepping through thin air. Whatever you do, do not bring this to their attention.
Of course there are limits to this. A friend of mine encouraged her son to clap every time he fell so he thought he had done something cute. This was funny at first but quickly turned sad when he was 5 and would really hurt himself and then pathetically try to clap. So keep the nonchalant attitude within reason.
Active disinterest also works when you want to discourage behavior. We all know that babies have an ingrained desire to pick up gross objects off the floor and put them in their mouths. A mother's instinct is to take the object away and say, "No, no, gross." Well, you might as well put a red target on the dirty bandage you've just removed from your baby's mouth and say, "OK, here's the game. I'm going to hide this, and if you find it and eat it, I will reward you with a look of shock like you've never seen! Go!"
That is how babies work.
Instead, employ active disinterest. If you don't mind that dirty bandage, she's not going to want it, either.
Here's another little trick: If you want your baby to eat peaches for dinner, make a big show about how she shouldn't have peaches and try to move them an arm's length away. She'll go for them every time. You can throw in a look of shock here just for dramatic effect.
Now I can hear many of you saying, "That is so backward. Shouldn't we cater to and protect our children?" No. I'm telling you perfect the art of shrugging your shoulders, and it will be smooth sailing.
Now there is some good news: This shock-seeking stage only lasts until about the time your child is 25 or starts his or her own family, whichever comes first. Then you can finally pull those horrified looks back out of your parenting tool kit, just like my father did.Trust me, your grandkids will love it.