When you're pregnant, people say vague things: "It's so hard!" and "It's so awesome!" and "You'll never sleep again!" The third one isn't true. Mostly. But nobody ever tells you about the mystery of child's knowledge--or lack thereof.
At first, what your child knows is survival: She knows how to drink, sleep, pee, poop, cry, and occupy your every thought. She knows how to get you to do a lot of things you don't want to do: wake up many times a night, stop showering, nurse round-the-clock, and give up your social life for an extended period of time--unless you count "chatting up other moms in the pediatrician's waiting room" to be social life. It's a good and clever system because if she weren't so lovely and fabulous and heart-stealing, you'd probably return her to the baby store.
As she grows, she reveals how wildly and rapidly her brain is growing: She learns how to roll over, sit, stand, walk, talk, eat, feed herself, tell you what she wants, entertain herself for short bursts of time. We didn't instruct Hadley how to do any of these things. We helped her, sure, but we never said, "Hadley, here's what you need to know to walk." She just figured it out. Tucked in her DNA was this knowledge, and it sprouted forth just when the time was right.
I assumed that this would be how most of her development would be. She would know things about herself and the world when it was time to know them. I would watch her unfold like a little flower that I just had to water regularly with love and attention. I was wrong.
Once kids get basic skills under their belts, they turn into wandering maniacs who seem totally ill-equipped to function in the world. (I say this with deep and abiding love for my daughter, who is the cutest and funniest little maniac I've ever met.)
I have a good friend who has three great kids--twin seven-year-olds and a five-year-old. Before I was a parent, she said to me, "Kids don't know anything unless you tell them." I thought, "Really? That can't be true. Surely they come with some set of functional knowledge." She was mostly right.
Case in point: Two-year-olds don't know that it's a bad idea--for their health and their social lives--to lick another person's face. Who would have guessed?
Hadley and I were playing pretend the other day, and she decided to be a dog. She crawled around the floor and then right up to me and slurped my cheek. I love her desperately and deeply, and I was disgusted. My first thought: "Ah! I have the kid who licks! She's going to be the outcast at pre-school! The licking kid! I HAVE THE LICKER!"
But I kept my cool. "You may not lick other people's faces," I said, thinking, "Given a billion years, I could not have guessed that I would have to make a rule about licking." She replied, "Can I lick their arms?"
It's a valid question, if you show up in the world with absolutely no knowledge of licking etiquette.
"No, no licking other people's arms or feet or anything. No licking at all."
"Can I lick dogs?"
"But dogs lick me."
"Yes, that's how they kiss."
"That's how I kiss, too."
"No, people kiss with their lips."
"But I am a dog."
"You are just pretending to be a dog."
"I can lick because I am pretending to be a dog."
"No, Hadley. No licking, even when you are pretending to be a dog."
"Do cats lick?"
[At this point, I was thinking, "Wrap it up, Hilary! Wrap it up! The longer this goes on, the more loopholes she's going to find!" Kids show up knowing how to find loopholes, even if they don't know that licking is gross. But because I was trying to be patient and instructive, and because I want Hadley to ask me questions about how the world works, I answered.]
"Cats mostly lick themselves."
The neon light that sometimes flashes above my head went off: ROOKIE! ROOKIE! ROOKIE!
She licked her own arm.
"Hadley, you may not lick yourself."
"But I am a cat."
"No, no licking. No licking you. No licking anyone else. People do not lick. Do you understand?"
"Why can't I lick?"
"Because it's yucky. And that's the rule."
So, readers, I did it: I pulled a variation of the "I'm the Mommy and I said so" card. Because the alternative was to talk about microbes and sickness and that cats only live about 15 years, which is probably related to their self-licking.
Our days are full of dozens such conversations, and I'm frequently amazed at how often I have to say the most ridiculous stuff, like it's totally normal:
"Please don't put boogers in your belly button."
"No, rocks won't get cold in the snow. Please leave them outside."
"Yes, you have to wear pants today." [Insert Hadley's objection that has something to do with legs being "too sick" for pants.] "Wearing pants will help your legs feel better."
"We don't put flowers in our mouths."
"You may look at yourself in the mirror, but please don't kiss the mirror." [A rule that applies only to mirrors at places other than our home, which is apparently very confusing and impossible to remember.]
"What are you eating?" [Random answer.] "We don't eat [whatever it is that she has found to eat in the nook of her car seat or from the couch cushion]. We only eat food from the kitchen or a restaurant."
So tell me, how exactly are two parents--a mere TWO PARENTS--supposed to cover all of the rules of life? We cannot cover all the things Hadley needs to know. Who would ever have thought to mention to "no licking" rule? It's a given, like gravity, old men in Speedos, and the chaos of the Whole Foods parking lot. It's part of the way the world works.
When Hadley was a baby, I was thinking big thoughts about teaching her to love, to have faith, to seek truth, to be honest. I still think about those things in the still, quiet hours (all eight of them a month)--when I'm not worried about whether she has boogers stashed in her belly button.