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MAN & CHILD: Knowing me, knowing you

Published: 
Saturday, January 23, 2016

“How do you know when Daddy is angry?” I asked my daughter Jinaki, who is four months short of three years.

“Because he takes my rings and puts them in the closet,” she replied.

This was indeed one of the disciplinary measures I take when Jinaki doesn’t stop whatever disruptive behaviour I’m dealing with.

“How else do you know when I’m angry?”

“When you say ‘Jinaki, do we leave things on the floor?’” she said, this time mimicking my tone when I tell her this. And this was indeed my main peeve with her, before she stopped doing it.

I was really asking this question to see if Jinaki would identify expressions such as an angry face or raised voice. But she focused on my actions instead. Even so, her answers were more evidence of something I’d never read about in parenting books or considered for myself: that, although as parents we know our children better than anyone else, they also become experts on us.

For example, I have a habit of steupsing and, every time I do it, Jinaki asks me why I steupsed and I have to explain my reason, whether it’s a bad drive or an egg that is too soft-boiled. This latter happened last week when I was making an egg sandwich for her, and since then every time I have shelled an egg she tells me: “Daddy, you forgot to steups.” In her book Scientific Parenting (co-written  with Justin Joscho) child development expert Nicole Latourneau notes that “children see beyond simple cause and effect—Mom shouts, Mom is upset; Mom spanks me, Mom is angry—and pick up on behavioural quirks so subtle (that) psychiatric assessments (are needed) to unearth them.”

Moreover, children react to these quirks. It has been well-established that babies whose mothers suffer from depression display reactive behaviour that has nothing to do with how well the mother attends to their basic needs. 

The mother’s depressed state communicates itself to the baby. Similarly, infants and toddlers seem well-attuned to tension between parents, and are often stressed by it.

None of this means that the children will suffer any permanent or even long-lasting effects from this. Such factors certainly don’t help a child to become well-balanced but, at the next extreme, happy parents also communicate their well-being to their children. Latourneau identifies parental sensitivity as “arguably the most important skill in a parent’s repertoire.” This is defined as “A pattern of behaviour that pleases the infant, increases its comfort and attentiveness and reduces its distress.”

But the child also fosters parental sensitivity—the “cute baby” effects is a well-established albeit unfair trait of human nature: nice babies get more attention than ugly ones (which perhaps is why nature has programmed mothers to think their children cute even though, statistically, their child is probably plain). A child’s behaviour is designed to get optimum care from the parents, so it is quite logical that they would become experts in our behaviour, whether we behave well or badly toward them.

How they see us is how they see the world, at least for their childhood years.

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