“Have I ever done anything abusive to you?” I asked my daughter who had just affirmed that I had never smacked her (I didn’t think I had, but needed to check just in case maternal amnesia was causing mummy smugness).
After a bit of a pause, my self-image as gentle mummy was shattered. “Yes, you have,” she said with absolute conviction. “When I was little, if we went out, and I had a dirty face, you would spit on your hanky and wipe it.”
That’s hardly a childhood trauma is it? Heck, I can remember my Nana, all dressed up in her hat and gloves, dabbing at my own face with a bit of spit on her lacy hanky.
Mind you, I can also remember squirming at the time, and it got me thinking how easy it is to simply do things to small children and babies, without even considering how intrusive or disrespectful it might feel to them. Just for a moment, put yourself in your baby’s bootees: What if somebody was shovelling food into your mouth, for instance, then if they wiped the left overs off your face with as much sensitivity as they would mop up the high chair tray?
How must it feel to have your legs pulled up in the air and your pants peeled off without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thankyou’? Or, imagine being taken to visit a houseful of people you have never met before and being expected to smile as they hover over you with their beer breath and kisses or pass you around like a tiny parcel from one stranger to another.
Of course, we have to keep babies clean and fed and experiences such as meeting new people are inevitable unless we live in complete isolation, but we can be mindful how we do things to babies.
Respecting babies and little children is about empathy – seeing yourself in your child’s place: you would like to be introduced to visitors you hadn’t met before, wouldn’t you (a baby can’t be expected to take to a group of strangers in a flash, and introductions will give him time to adapt to new surroundings if you are visiting)? How do you feel about people getting ‘in your face’ when you are happily ‘chilling out’ (think how often people ‘interrupt’ and wave toys in baby’s faces, when they are quite happily amusing themselves)?
And you would certainly like to be asked – or at least given an explanation if you needed to get undressed, wouldn’t you?
If you do need to do something to your baby that isn’t ‘optional’ such as changing a nappy you can tell your little one what you are about to do, rather than just sneaking up on him, and if you want to do something with your baby that isn’t absolutely necessary, such as giving him a massage, ask his consent first.”
You might be thinking, what is the point of asking consent from a baby who can’t understand me, but even very young babies can give clear signals that they want to interact, would prefer to be given a break from play or a situation that is becoming stressful, perhaps because it is over-stimulating for your little one, or if she is tired or hungry.
By watching, waiting and wondering as you interact with your baby, and being respectful to her responses, you will discover her likes and preferences and how she likes to express these. You will be teaching her that she can influence her environment and helping her develop trust in you. You will also be giving her valuable messages that she has choices, that she is important and that she is heard. This is respect.