Ever since I became pregnant, I have received, read and collected articles, books and advice on how to raise a smart baby. It starts with books on brain development, advice on nutrition, on singing and playing music “to the belly” and then to the baby… advice on talking and language exposure…Ever since the baby was born, we keep receiving “educational toys” and baby Mozart CDs. And talking to other moms, I realise that I am not the only one undergoing this pressure. In this highly competitive society, the competition sure starts early.
And I have to say, we buy into the system too.
Although I usually try not to be a pushy mommy, or the “my baby is better/smarter/cuter than your baby” type of parent, I was surprised at the phrase that keeps popping out of my mouth regularly these days watching my daughter or talking about her (to anyone really): “She is so smart!” Yes she is, but this is probably not that important.
Don’t get me wrong. I DO believe that my daughter is a very smart, inquisitive and ingenious little creature who learns new skills at the speed of lightning, especially when it involves something forbidden such as opening the bathroom (sliding) door, opening drawers and cupboards, switching off a Facetime conversation with grandma (wow- funny red dot!), etc. And I do believe that being smart is better than the opposite.
And being the intellectual snob I am, I am certainly not going to say that smart is overrated. Smart can certainly be helpful in life (to get into a good school and get a good job, for instance), and I am definitely going to continue to foster a stimulating environment for her intellectual development and feed her curiosity as much as I can.
Besides, there are hundreds of possible ways (scientific and/or even slightly “magical”) to foster intelligence and cognition – supported by statistics and correlation with higher IQs or success in adulthood. Let me count our quite favourable score: long-term breastfeeding (+++), exposure to different languages in a bilingual household and multicultural environment (+++), no or very little TV (++), singing (+), reading stories and books (+), good nutrition (+), lots of sensory toys (meaning tissue boxes stuffed with random scraps of fabric and rattle-bottles filled with things like lentils or dry pasta) (+), etc… This already makes me feel better about my responsible parenting.
However, if I try to put into words what I really want for my daughter, I realise that it is something both more elusive and more difficult to achieve. I want her to be happy.
If we admit that this capacity to happiness is not an innate trait (not entirely certain apparently) and that I can influence her future happiness or chances at happiness as a parent, how do I go about it? how to raise a happy baby ? Here suddenly, advice is not so forthcoming, as the going is immediately more complex and there are little or no guarantees. I have been thinking about this hard and read up on some of it, and I have come up with a few suggestions of my own:
1. Give her a lot of love and a feeling of security – show her that there is love and respect at home – not just for her, but also between her parents, show affection to your partner in front of the baby, smile and laugh together, cuddle and play and take your time. This will teach her to show affection, relate to others, express her emotions and have the capacity to trust both others and herself.
2. Let her play freely and teach her resilience – don’t try to control everything, let her do things by herself, so that she learns that sometimes you just have to try several times, and to develop a sense of self-worth. I know I will have trouble with this one, but I will try to stick by the rule: don’t do for baby what she can do for herself… including feeding, dressing, etc… We are attempting to start very slowly on this with Baby led weaning for example.
3. Praise effort, not “intelligence” – there has been quite a lot of literature on this one recently including a really illuminating TedTalk on the Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X0mgOOSpLU; hopefully, she will learn that learning is fun and that is the beginning of a lifelong and internal motivation for personal growth. In my case, it also means teach her to enjoy books and reading.
4. Teach her to give, by example – something I have seen in my friends who live in more traditional societies and that is confirmed by study after study after study about life satisfaction – to be truly happy, you can’t live in isolation and keep to yourself. Real happiness involves giving back – to the community, to the ones that need help, to family… Giving money and things, giving presents to loved ones, giving to charity, sure, but most of all, giving your time, attention and effort – voluntary work and engagement in the community – perhaps teaching, participating in a “clean your neighbourhood” saturday action… These are the things that give your life meaning.
5. Relax, get a life outside of being a mom and try to be happy yourself – even with an imperfect body, a long to do list, mess at home and not so perfect life – if you are happy, and positive, chances are that she will learn how to smile and enjoy life from observing you.