My 8-month-old loves to play the drop-a-toy-and-watch-mom-pick-it-up game on repeat while sitting in her highchair. I tell her “no,” but she giggles and drops it again. Is she too young to understand that I want her to stop? I’m not sure if disciplining her will be effective at this point.
A: It may feel as if she’s bothering you on purpose, but in fact she is working very hard. Look! She can think of something and make it happen! Drop a toy, get it back—over and over again!
Psychologists call this empowerment “a sense of agency,” and it is a crucial foundation of learning about—and surviving—anything and everything.
Part of a sense of agency is being able to name things in the world, and this is a golden opportunity for you to “bathe the baby in the spoken world,” describing all the things that adults take for granted: color, size, shape; use or lack of usefulness; good to eat or not to be put in the mouth; down, up, in, out.
When you really can’t stand saying, “down boom,” and bending over one more time, you could give her a way to continue her “work” more or less on her own.
Put her on the floor with a container (a basket, a hat, a plastic bowl) and several safe smaller items, such as rolled up socks, clothes-pins without clamps and plastic measuring spoons. Then demonstrate “in” and “out.” She’s likely to be thrilled and sit there for a long time, putting things in, taking them out and examining them. Between tending to your own tasks, you can talk about what’s fascinating her at that moment.
You’re working hard, too. You’re seeing the world from her point of view and naming it. Over time, this tells her that she can trust you to help her, teach her and keep her safe as her world becomes bigger and trickier to manipulate. It also helps her learn that, in fact, you are the boss of her. It’s an important way a grown-up can create status in the eyes—and love in the heart—of a very young child.
—Laura Nathanson, MD, pediatrician and author of The Portable Pediatrician: A Practicing Pediatrician’s Guide to Your Child’s Growth, Development, Health and Behavior, from Birth to Age Five