not a baby


{Image is a photo of Brooke running on the beach in Newport, courtesy of Connerton Photography, all rights reserved} 

So I have a story that I really wanted to tell you guys this morning. It’s about a recent conversation that I had with Brooke about the fact that some people use words to communicate and others don’t. We talked about how some people, like Mama’s friends Amy and Barb, use words that come from their fingers and onto a keyboard rather than their mouths.

We talked about how, with our friends who don’t have access to words yet at all – whether verbal, typed, signed, or otherwise, we need to look at what they’re doing to understand what they’re saying because that’s the only way that they can tell us.

“Like Rhema,” I said. She uses her body to tell us what she needs us to know because she doesn’t talk, right?

In a moment of incredible connection, Brooke said, “Like a baby.”

I was at once thrilled that she has obviously taken in and processed the information we give her time and time again when she yelps in terror in response to a crying baby and we explain that since babies don’t have words, they cry to tell us what they need, yet terribly discomfited by the idea that she might, on any level, be taking in the societal idea that those who don’t talk are, other than not talking, “like babies.”

And so I danced along the tight rope’s edge, explaining that while that was a really great connection to have made, it’s really, really important that we remember that people are the age that they are. In words that I hoped she would understand, I explained that Rhema is ten. That whether or not she has words, she’s still ten, with all of the experience and accumulated life of any other ten-year old, even if that experience is different from most others.

There were so many other things that I wanted to say. That whether or not she is still working hard to decipher kindergarten level texts, she is a rising middle schooler.

That whether or not she loves Dora and Blue’s Clues and watches Elmo’s World and Yo Gabba Gabba rather than Austin and Ally or whatever other crap her peers might be into, she’s still an eleven year old girl.

That even her Mama fights the pull of infantilization with her because it’s … just … so … ingrained but that I do fight it at every turn because it’s such a dangerous game.

That a person is a person of his or her age, period.

That while it might be useful and necessary in narrowly defined circumstances and in even more narrowly defined ways to equate one’s level of so-called “functioning” to the typical level of the so-called functioning of a particular age group (ie, she reads at a kindergarten level or she tends to like shows that target typically developing toddlers) it’s totally inaccurate and destructive to condense a human being down to a set of behaviors, call it a mental age and thereby completely dismiss the fact that they are, well, ya know, people who have lived their lives to this point.

That grown-up people who may have the vocabulary of an average toddler are not toddlers trapped in grown-up bodies, but are grown-ups who have the apparent expressive vocabulary (see what I did there?) of typically developing toddlers.

But alas, none of that was to be said this go-round. She was done talking and even more done listening and if I know one thing after all these years it’s that there’s a point at which Brooke reaches her capacity for words and after which even more words become overwhelming and uncomfortable. So I ended with, ” … so we have to remember that Rhema’s not like a baby other than not talking, okay?”

Like so many other conversations, this one will happen in bits and pieces. We will add tiny scraps of fabric to the quilt over time, hopefully creating an understanding of what it all means and why it’s so important.

My daughter is cute as get out. Like her Mama, she’s a peanut, so she looks far younger than her eleven years. I often say that it serves her well in a lot of ways. There’s a far smaller disconnect between her appearance and her language than there might otherwise be. That can ease her way.

But so too, it’s a trap. Treating her as if she is the age on the side of the Cariboo box because it’s her favorite game negates everything else that she has experienced, everything else that she thinks and knows and has yet to show us in ways that we, with our limited power of perception, have thus far been able to understand.

I wanted to tell you all that and then talk about what it means and how really, really important I think it is, but apparently, in my sleep deprived stupor this morning, I turned off my alarm rather than snoozing it and when I woke up an hour later to a fully light morning I knew I was in trouble. That said, this is about what I can manage, so how about if we just go with this ..

“Mental age” isn’t really a thing.

Infantilization is dismissive, destructive and ultimately dehumanizing.

We owe it to our kids not just to make sure that we don’t buy into to, but that they don’t believe it about themselves.

In short, just because someone doesn’t talk, they aren’t a baby and even though my kid does a lot of things at a kindergarten level, she’s not a kindergartener.

She’s a beautifully unique eleven year old kid who loves Elmo.




12 thoughts on “not a baby

  1. way cool. its a special challenge (to me) when hormones and sexuality start to surface in a person whose toilet training or language skills or whatever makes me forget that this person is 11, or 13, or whatever.

  2. SOOOO perfect, this just touched me so much. Everyday I look at my sweet girl and I fight with myself about her and her development and this just brings me back to comfort and makes me remember to just stop, just stop she is her own person and is amazing and perfect. THANK YOU!!!!!

  3. Cool.

    It breaks my heart when other kids–and they’re only three and four years old–say that Baguette is a baby because she wears pull-ups and doesn’t talk.I always tell them that lots of people wear pull-ups, and Baguette does talk (just not like they do), and that people do different things at different speeds.

    It breaks Baguette’s heart, too. I can see it. And that breaks mine even more.

  4. Your observation is true in both directions, I have had the chance to observe some precocious/ early developing kids, and it is also damaging to them to ascribe them levels of understanding and responsibility for the apparent age they sometimes exhibit, than the age they actually are.

  5. Funny how in our cultural paradigm, “like a baby” is considered a bad thing. When I read Brooke’s words, I thought it was an accurate description. Then I read your reaction to it, and saw how most people would see it… as infantile, underdeveloped, all these negative things. But… babies are babies. They do things in their own way.

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