Before Rahma was born, we decided not to give her screen time until she was over two years old and even then it would be very limited. We also decided we were not going to encourage her to hold, handle or use our phones or other hand-held electronic devices. After she was born, I extended that to include a “no battery-operated toys” rule (that’s the catchiest thing I could come up with) as electronic toys with flashing lights do absolutely nothing for a baby’s cognitive development. No, I’m not Amish and yes, I’ve done plenty of research. No, I’m not judging your choices, but yes, I will implement these lifestyle choices as best I can all the time. Yes, we might be considered hippies, but we don’t make her wear hemp and chew tree bark.
It’s difficult. I won’t pretend. I imagine it might be easier to put her down in front of the brightly-coloured television to be mesmerised for ten or fifteen minutes so I can have some downtime. Someone said to me if I could leave her to play with a plastic Fisherprice NoiseMaker 5000 – now with added noise and flashing lights -I would get a bit more of a break. I knew that before I made this decision, but, after discussing it with the Bearded One, I did it anyway. Instead of pressing buttons and staring at flashing lights, she hands me her toys and expects me to read the same books over and over again, until I want to murder The Very Hungry Caterpillar as soon as he pops out of his stupid fat egg on that leaf on that fateful Sunday morning; him and his obesity propaganda. Who eats through all that food and turns into a beautiful butterfly? No one. When you eat through all that food you become fat and get heart disease, gout, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. You don’t make a cocoon, stay inside for more than three weeks and become a beautiful butterfly. You stay inside because you can’t move for the flesh and then have to have your foot amputated.
I do get inundated with questions about it. But what does she do all day? Instead of watching high-pitched puppets singing songs, dancing around on fake grass, surrounded by plastic flowers, she plays, watches me knit, write, crochet, cook and if she’s really lucky, I might even tidy up sometimes. Isn’t she bored? Don’t you think she’s missing out since you won’t let her have the toys other children have? Sometimes she is bored yes, but not because I don’t turn on the television. We make our own entertainment: today (two months ago) we lined up her stacking buckets and put different toys in each one. At 16 months, (I started writing this post two months ago in case you didn’t see it the first time) upon seeing Dino in the largest bucket she quite determinedly said, “Splash,” and “Bath,” completely unprompted. Amongst her regular toys, she has bits of random knitted squares and rectangles, discarded from my knitting escapades, and a few weeks ago I caught her doing different things with the same scrap: first she put it on her head and said, “Hat;” then she lay it on the floor, like a prayer mat, lay her head on it and said, “Pray.” I do believe she is developing an imagination. MashaAllah.
A lady at my local playgroup was disgusted that she was speaking, (she met us when Rahma was a year old) so much so that she had to point it out. “But she’s speaking! Already?! Has she started speaking already?!” (Translated from the Urdu and without the accent it does lose something, but the sentiment is there). She said it like using language was akin to doing a poo in the middle of the floor and eating it. I had no responses for her, I was taken aback. I’d never really thought about Rahma speaking ‘too early’; when she opened her mouth at 9 months and said her first coherent word, I just thought she was responding to all the face time (get it?) we were giving her as a baby, making eye-contact, speaking to her using actual words instead of baby-talk. Yes, language acquisition in babies is debated – is babble and gesticulating words if the baby does not know it is meaning? Is parroting considered language since the baby does not know what she is saying? Is it truly language if the user doesn’t ascribe meaning to it? There is much to be said about language acquisition in babies and toddlers, and that’s a discussion for another day, but let me assure you, they’re cleverer than we give them credit for. You remember the velociraptors in Jurassic Park? How they learn to open the doors?
There’s a downside to all this of course. Alongside all of the questions about her ability to stay entertained without flashing lights and noise, and the fact that she doesn’t spontaneously combust without a smartphone or tablet in her hand, there’s the worry that she’ll never walk. Yes, all that cognitive development came at a price: she couldn’t walk and talk at the same time could she? Initially I was worried about all the enquiries; after all, she’s now 18 months old, shouldn’t she be walking? Being told by old Asian auntie-types that her legs were weak and needed maalish (massaging) with oil, or that she was kamzor (weak) because I wasn’t feeding her enough – baby-led weaning was not feeding, put her in front of the television, let her play, distract her, then stuff food in her mouth, it’s the only way- only increased my anxiety about her lack of movement on two legs. When people realise I baby wear too, that only adds fuel to their advice about what I should do to get her walking: she’ll never walk if you keep wrapping her up in those things. You’ve made her lazy giving her the message you will carry her all the time. Yes, she was shuffling quite expertly on her bottom, but other children are walking at this age – a refrain I heard quite a lot when she hit 12 months.
After losing sleep over it for many weeks, I discussed it with the Small One. The general message was that she had decided shuffling on her bum meant she was upright anyway and therefore didn’t feel the need to seek that uprightedness that crawling babies sought. Furthermore, if she spoke and walked too wouldn’t that make the other babies feel bad? I didn’t think the other babies would be bothered to be honest, but she was adamant. So that’s now to be my go-to response when confronted with horrified looks about her lack of walking, I’ll be letting people know that my considerate child, to spare the feelings of others, has decided walking later is best, especially since she prefers to talk. Then I’ll sit back and watch them as they look at me like I’m mental, and probably back away slowly.
I do get a lot of comments downplaying what Rahma does in terms of language (she’s using words from three different languages at the moment – four if you count Urdu as separate to Punjabi), telling me it’s because she is a girl, girls are quicker at that sort of thing, girls talk earlier. I disagree. Her language development might have something to do with her gender, but ultimately it’s because of interaction with other humans. I know this downplaying is due to insecurities, and let me be clear: I am no more saying parents are bad people for using screens, than I am saying women are bad mothers for giving their babies formula. It is a lifestyle choice and this is the lifestyle choice we have made.
Downplaying the achievements of others, especially babies, makes me sad. We should be celebrating all they can do at this age, even if we have to fake enthusiasm as we’ve seen them pick up a block and make a tower 70 million times. I don’t really like it when we get attention from others, family, or strangers; but when people discover her language, we always get comments, most lovely and positive, but some of them are just insults wrapped up in flowery paper with a neat little bow to finish them off. It’s so good she’s talking, but I bet you’re sick of it now. She talks? But what about walking? Well, she might not be walking, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with her mouth. She’s got a lot to say for herself hasn’t she? Yes, she has. And if she wasn’t so polite, she’d tell you to go away and leave us alone.
I’m not boasting or bragging, and I really don’t think her development in terms of language puts her ahead of the curve – who decides what the curve is anyway? I just think she’s developing at a rate that right for her, doing things because we’ve given her the opportunity to do so. One of these opportunities happens to be no screen-time and no battery-operated toys. I can’t see this changing anytime soon, because, despite being difficult sometimes (I’ve toyed with the plan of locking myself in the toilet once or twice) I see the benefits of it in the chatty, imaginative little girl before me. Only the other day, she realised that “Mama nappy change,” and “toilet” and the sanitary towel I was holding in my hand were all connected. Just to clarify, “Mama nappy change,” is what she thinks I’m doing when I go to the toilet, wash and pull up my pants. As an added bonus, she loves to pull sanitary towels out of my bag and announce “Mama nappy change,” triumphantly, whenever she finds one. I can see this being hilarious in a public setting.
So, when she puts her hand to her ear to simulate a phone, don’t feel sorry for her; when she wears small boxes like hats or uses my handbag as a trolley, don’t think she’s missing out on the bright lights of Fisherprice and his newest NoiseMaker 5000. She isn’t. She’s just a regular baby, doing regular baby things. With batteries not included.