What Are We Winning Anyway?
I overheard a woman talking about a visit with relatives during which a 5 month old baby, lying on the floor with a toy, began crying. The woman’s son asked her to pick up the baby but she declined claiming, “If I pick him up then he wins.” She then went on to prove that she was correct because after being picked up the baby smiled, knowingly as she tells it, as though aware of it scoring a point on that round.
As I listened my forehead furrowed and my jaw dropped and it was all I could do to not respond, “What are you talking about!” Why was she already assuming an adversarial, competitive relationship with a five month old baby? It’s a baby for crying out loud!
I did know what she was talking about though. She was referring to operant conditioning- baby cries, gets picked up, baby learns that crying gets it picked up. Even still I wanted to shout, “SO WHAT!?” What else was he suppose to do, text her? ‘DIAPER WET PLZ CHANGE’, ‘FOOT STUCK IN JAMMIES HELP’. And so what, if heaven forbid, the kid just didn’t want to be alone on the floor anymore?
Had she gone on to say that after watching the baby she could see that he was frustrated because a toy had rolled out of his reach and if left alone he could work on solving the problem himself, I might have reacted differently. I admit I am woefully ignorant of how much a 5 month old is capable of as far as movement and coordination, but at least knowing that she had given thought to why the baby was crying, and not that it was just scheming about how to manipulate grown-ups, I would have been less offended by her attitude.
People tend to respond in similar ways to dogs. What part of our fabulous human brains have we shut off when we can look at an eight week old puppy, cowering against the back of its cage, the rumblings of a growl in its throat, and think it’s trying to dominate us? How someone can watch a dog trembling in fear at the bottom of a flight of stairs and then proceed to drag it up is beyond me. Or the arrogance of believing we should never allow these displays of emotion. And what emotions are they anyway? It’s fear. It’s uncertainty. It’s pain.
Rather than seeing the baby’s smile as an indication that it was aware that it had ‘won’ a round in a non-existent game, this woman could have smiled herself knowing that the simply act of picking up the baby provided him with comfort and relief. How difficult is it to pick up a baby anyway? How incorrect can it be to teach someone or something that the creatures its life depends on, understand them, respect their points of view and will care for them?
In this era of creating dominance hierarchies with practically every being we live with, I suspect that we’re the big losers.