I do not want to raise my daughter to believe that she is only worthy of praise when her experience of the world is palatable to others.
Last week, my nine-month-old daughter flew on a plane for the first time. We packed a ludicrous volume of snacks and toys into our carry-on bag, and it worked: Between freeze-dried raspberries, singing stuffed frogs, and several re-readings of The Monster at the End of This Book, she made it from Denver to Orlando with almost no tears. As we were getting ready to deplane, a woman sitting behind us leaned over and said, “What a good baby! She didn’t fuss at all!”
I am never sure how to respond when someone compliments my daughter—do I say “thank you,” since she can’t, even though the praise isn’t directed at me? But this particular kind of approval makes me especially uncomfortable. If my daughter is a “good” baby, doesn’t that mean there are also “bad” babies? In this case, presumably, babies who cry in public—like the little boy across the aisle from us, who wailed nonstop throughout the four-hour flight?
No one sitting near us offered any encouragement or support to that baby’s harried mother as she bounced him, played with him, and tried to soothe him. Although I was occupied with my own little one, I gave her the commiserating-mother look whenever she glanced my way: There but for the grace of a good mood and a dry diaper. At the end of the flight, I smiled at her and said “Awesome job. You made it.” The woman who complimented my daughter said nothing to the other mom.
The question of what to do with crying children in public places, particularly inescapable ones, is deeply contentious. Fortunately, we have access to the strong opinions of many, many childfree people on what we as parents should do under these circumstances (ha ha, just kidding, if you’re not offering to help please shut up). I don’t experience much public disapprobation, because my child is usually calm when there are other people around, but I resent being praised for her easygoing behavior almost as much as I imagine I would resent being scolded for allowing her to make noise around other people’s delicate eardrums.
Yes, my daughter is a great baby. She’s curious and funny and always learning new things. She can make an amazing mess using nothing more than her two hands and an avocado, and she’s the undisputed virtuoso player of the toy tambourine. She is my child, and there’s no one like her in all the world. But being quiet in public is not what makes her “good.” Nor is being loud and disruptive the equivalent of being “bad.” By praising babies (and thus, implicitly, their parents) for their low volume, we connect convenience to morality—as though, because throwing a tantrum on an airplane is unpleasant for those around you, that also means it’s wrong.
Babies who are upset cry. It’s the only way they can communicate their distress. If being quiet is “good” and fussing is “bad,” then either it’s only acceptable to have positive emotions, or negative emotions should be kept to yourself—neither of which are messages I want to give my daughter. If she’s unhappy, I want her to let me know so I can fix it. Part of the reason she’s so easygoing now is that we discovered her food allergies early on, but before we figured it out, she was up multiple times every night, crying from stomachaches and gas. If she had been a “good baby” then and kept her discomfort to herself, we might never have known that certain foods made her sick.
As a woman, and a highly emotional woman at that, I’ve spent my life apologizing for my own feelings when they’re anything other than cheerful and convenient. I do not want to raise my daughter to believe that she is only worthy of praise when her experience of the world is palatable to others. I want her to value honest communication over placating bystanders’ feelings. I want her to cry when she feels like crying and smile when she feels like smiling.
So I don’t praise her for being “good” when she’s calm in public. I do tell her “thank you” when she allows me to get chores and errands done without the added stress of a public meltdown, but I also thank her for fussing and letting me know when she’s tired, bored, or hungry. I know she’s young enough that she doesn’t really understand what I’m saying yet, but I’m establishing a habit for myself that I hope will last her whole childhood: In our family, we don’t assign moral value to emotions or to the act of expressing them.
I’m tired of being told I have a “good baby.” It’s a short, slippery slope from “good baby” to “good girl”—the nice one, the one who doesn’t make waves, the one who goes along to get along. I know I can’t protect my daughter from the pressure toward “goodness” forever, but I want to keep it at a distance for as long as I can. I’m not going to encourage her to feign happiness when she doesn’t really feel it. The world will do that soon enough. Instead, I’m going to do everything I can to help her be happy, but when she isn’t, I’m going to teach her that it’s not only OK to yell, it’s good.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).