Keeping Score In Babyville

By Marjorie Ingall

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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We Jews are a competitive people. We are high achievers. We have major expectations for our children. And we’re invariably convinced that every one of our kids is spectacular, brilliant, extraordinary. As my father, a psychiatrist, likes to say, “Jewish children are all either gifted or ‘special needs.’ There are no average Jewish children.”

Of course, we’re supposed to think our offspring are the bees’ knees. But some parents can’t seem to celebrate their children’s triumphs without comparing them to other kids’, then doing a sort of terrifying Hebraic version of the end- zone touchdown, screw-you chicken-dance favored by professional football players. And therein lies the problem.

“I can’t believe we’re going to have to baby-proof already,” the one-upping Jewish parent coos. “Ethan’s already started rolling over! Can you believe it? At that age, most kids are about as mobile as a smoked whitefish! Gosh, I remember how you were so lucky; you didn’t have to buy cabinet locks for months and months and months!” Or maybe: “Oh, your little Max is crawling? He’s how old? Eight months? Oh, how special! I remember when Jacob did that! He was 8 days old. He crawled away from the mohel.”

Sure, you can try really hard not to play this game. But even when you’re not playing, you’re playing. Because noticing that another parent is boasting or comparing your child unfavorably with hers, well, that just proves that you’re not above it. Hey, you noticed. If you have to tell yourself you’re not competitive, you’re competitive. It’s the child-rearing version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

I notice. In my real life (as opposed to the life I document in this column, which is more like the Matrix — a sort of simulacrum of reality in which baby vomit holds far more amusement value than it does in my actual world), I am wary of bragging about Josie. I go out of my way to dwell on her unboastworthy traits: the tantrums, the fact that she knows darn well she’s not supposed to pull the cat’s tail but looks me right in the eye and yanks until the cat screams like an extra in a Wes Craven movie, her continued tendency to eat crayons and the fact that she was among the last of her contemporaries to roll over, crawl and walk.

But Josie speaks for herself. Please excuse me while I get self-referential yet again. I realize I’m about to talk about not boasting while I simultaneously boast.

At 19 months, the kid sings all of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” All. Did you know that there are five little-known verses? (“Then the traveler in the dark thanks you for your tiny spark…”) Neither did I, but her babysitter Rita gave her a book with all the verses in it, and within a week she’d memorized them. She says “please,” “thank you,” “peas to meet you” and “ ’scuse me.” When she starts to whimper, she tells herself, “No whining!” (Then she continues to whine.) When you warn her not to stuff an entire cookie into her mouth, she agrees, “Not the whole thing! Tiny bites!” Then you say, “Or else what?” And she says, “Cough! Choke! Puke!” The odds are 50-50 that she then will stuff the entire cookie into her mouth.

She does entire narratives. “Baby Ilana! Happy birthday to you! Slide! Catch you! Steffie! Again! Cheerios! Bowls! Dump it out! Put it back! Boon!” (This translates, roughly, to “At Baby Ilana’s birthday party, there was a slide! I slid down and Cousin Stefanie said, ‘I’ll catch you!’ And I did it over and over! There were plastic bowls of Cheerios on the tables and I dumped them on the floor! And I got a balloon!”)

Okay, you hate me now.

I swear I have a column in the works about Josie pulling my hair, deliberately throwing yogurt on the floor, lying down in the middle of the sidewalk to scream and trying to push her friend Raphael down the slide (he had his back turned and was standing in the middle of the climbing structure at the time). In person, when people gasp at Josie’s monologue about going to the fair with Uncle Neal, I’m ready to go with an anecdote about some unseemly bit of behavior. Or I tell them that while Josie’s no longer as bald as Patrick Stewart, she’s still mistaken for a boy — even when she’s wearing a dress. It’s true.

See, it’s competitive, my need to seem not competitive. I’m not proud about it. I’d like to say it’s because I don’t want to tempt the ayin hara, the evil eye. But that’s not it. It’s that I don’t want people to be jealous, because, like Sally Field, I just want them to like me, really, really like me. It’s not about people liking Josie; everyone does, because she’s a flirt and a hugger, and she’ll dance and sing until you engage with her, like some terrifying yet compelling toddler Ethel Merman. It’s all about me. Let the hate mail commence!

Sooner or later, the other kids will learn the ABC song. Sooner or later, Josie’s going to figure out that crayons aren’t for eating. The late walkers eventually walk; the late talkers eventually talk. No one goes to prom with a pacifier in her mouth — unless it’s a rave prom. And yet the mishegas continues.

I don’t really feel competitive with other babies, despite the fact that Maisy is more coordinated and Raphael has a more sanguine temperament. Perhaps that’s because the thing that Josie excels at is something that tends to get lots of applause in our culture. We think “verbal” is “smart” — witness Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which says that even though there are many kinds of smarts, we tend to test only for the verbal and math kind — it’s unfair, but there it is. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m among those who equate “knows lots of words” with “has huge brain.” Which is delusional, for as we all know, Albert Einstein didn’t talk until he was 3.

I’m just trying to enjoy my smarty-pants kid. No bragging, no minimizing her fabulousness. Just being Zen. Though maybe I’ll get her one of those onesies that says, “My mom’s tattoos are better than your mom’s.”

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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