I’ve often heard people, especially elders, mainly overprotective grandparents and sometimes parents, say “He’s a baby. It’s too early for him to understand” when someone wants to tell a baby to do or not do something. Maybe till around 6 months, that is somewhat true. Beyond that, not really.
Honestly, I’ve felt that people underestimate the intelligence of babies quite a lot. True that they might not understand every single thing that you tell them. But they do understand a lot. I know this for a fact because I’ve seen how Vedu and a few other babies have been at that age. Even at 8 or 9 months, when she was crawling around the house, eager to explore the whole place, eager to see what all she could reach and catch hold of, she could clearly understand when we asked her not to touch something or not to do something. Some babies like my niece listen to us, mostly at least, while some others like Vedu take it as a challenge. For that reason I used to, and still do ignore and pretend to not see some harmlessly naughty things she does only to show me, because the more I say “No”, the more she becomes interested in doing it.
That does not mean that we should not tell them right from wrong. I have seen Vedu wait for me with a mischievous look in her eyes and a sly grin near something she is not supposed to touch. If she gets the feeling that doing it outright could have grave consequences (no biscuits and music for a day), she would try to find a way around the explicit instructions and still do it. Trying to irritate me by doing something like that is a game for her only because she knows for sure it is wrong to do that. The “why” of it might take time for her to understand and in some cases she will have to learn it the hard way. But if we wait for them to grow up enough to understand every word and then obey, there is never a time like that. It will be like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted – in short, it’s of no use because the kid is already used to doing things his way. You keep telling them what is wrong and why from the time they are little and some day they will start doing it.
It is not just about listening and understanding in fact. Babies, I feel, are far more superior to adults in noticing emotional changes in people they are close to. At the peak of my clinical depression and even in sudden breakdowns as recently as last week, Vedu has been quick to realize I wasn’t doing well. In all those instances where we have been alone with each other, she has wasted no time in doing whatever she could to calm me down – patting me on my head and back, kissing me on my cheeks and saying “Mmmuuaah” so forcefully that I understand how much she means it, tilting her head to one side and calling me “Ammeee” with a smile, hugging me tight. You have no idea how much that has helped. It’s almost like she realizes that I am incapable of being the grown-up, at least for some time, and so she has to fill my shoes and be the mature adult. For at least that much time, she is more or less my mom. In a way, she understands what grown-ups hardly ever do – that words don’t always help, that loving gestures and sometimes a hug are all that someone like me needs. She doesn’t try to do anything that means, “Why can’t you just stop crying and be happy?” She lets me vent out and makes me get back on track in her own way.
Not just that, there have been multiple occasions when I had to give a lot of attention to others and could not give undivided attention to her. It was when she was just 6-7 months that one of my closest friends went through a major personal tragedy and had to be given constant attention for quite some time, to keep him from going into extreme depression and do something to himself. I used to play with her while talking to him on the phone, and at times I would be too focused on keeping him engaged and would just sit by when she engaged herself, giving me a reassuring smile every now and then.
Even in the few days when I was totally involved in getting rescue and relief requests to my friends and other groups of volunteers as part of the Kerala floods, she was visibly bored; but for a kid of 1.5 years, she hardly complained. All she would do at times was ask to be held. It was almost as if she understood the gravity of the situation when I kept telling her how bad it was back in Kerala and how it was our duty to help them, especially being the lucky ones who haven’t lost anything. Once in a while, I would hug her tight and tell her how proud I was of her for being so understanding and cooperative. And she would have the happiest smile on her face as if she understood that too. In fact, I really think that she did.
And after all this, we put on airs and tell others “Don’t be such a baby!” We don’t realize that we are in fact giving them a compliment. Because babies are much, much more intelligent and smarter than we are.
Also published on Medium.