For me, at least in my 17-months of experience to date, the best part of being a parent is seeing your child do something that is a true expression of him or herself. Don’t get me wrong, I melt when my son blows me kisses as I leave for work, and runs down the hallway with his arms thrown open when I get home, but I know I am partly responsible for these behaviors because I enthusiastically reinforce them every time. Similarly, I am proud of my son’s grasp of sign language (stay tuned for my next post on that subject), but that was the result of patient instruction by (mostly) my husband and (to a lesser degree) myself. By contrast, the things my son does seemingly “out of the blue,” with no prompting by others, give me insights into his unique personality and make me eager to get to know him better as he grows up.
One such individual expression is my son’s dancing. Both my husband and I like to dance, in theory (we’ve been known to tear up the dance floor at weddings), but it’s not something we ever did at home. So we were completely caught off guard when, at around 6 months old, our son started bopping to the beat whenever there was music on. Sure, all babies bop, you’re probably thinking. Yes, they do. But our baby has become even more of a dancer as he’s grown up. He will literally throw a fit if he’s strapped into his high chair and one of his favorite songs comes on the radio – he must get up and dance. Same thing if we’re walking down the street and he hears music coming from a store or passing car – he wants to get out of his stroller and bust a move. And he’s got some moves. I mean, he started with bouncing and spinning, but now he does slides, hip waggles, the twist, and even a toddler twerk. I swear he didn’t learn that stuff from my husband or me. But I can’t get enough of it ….
Another thing that my son has done, spontaneously and consistently, since he was old enough to smile (about four months) is greet strangers. As we walk down the street, he will smile and wave at every single person we encounter, whether another mom with a stroller or a drunk homeless man. The same holds on the Metro, where my son systematically greets every person within eye-shot, often waiting patiently for them to look up from their smartphone to shoot them a smile and a casual wave. If they respond with a wave, my son giggles with delight, and will often offer a high-five or fist-bump.
Now, I consider myself a polite, even pleasant, person, but I do not like to interact with strangers, so generally maintain a “please don’t bother me” expression when in public. At first, I was annoyed that my son would reach out to people I’d rather pretend not to see. However, I am slowly coming to appreciate the way my son compels interaction. When I push him in his stroller, just about every person who passes us has a smile on their face – a reflection of my son’s beaming grin and enthusiastic wave. I can’t help but smile back. On the Metro, I cringe when my son fights for the attention of a large tattooed man wearing headphones, but have to laugh when a minute later that tough guy is playing peek-a-boo with my baby. It feels natural to wish the guy a good evening as we exit the train. In that moment, although each of us is wrapped up in our own busy worlds, we are brought together by the authentic outreach of a child.
My son craves connection. He is just beginning to explore his place in the world and every wave or smile from a stranger reaffirms his existence. I have plenty of self-affirmation, but in this age of digital communications, even I can benefit from such moments of genuine human connection.
I have come to love and celebrate my son’s outgoing nature. But like his spontaneous, unselfconscious dancing, I fear social stigma will slowly snuff it out of him as he grows up. I am resolved to do whatever I can to encourage my son to remain true to his early instincts to dance and to connect; they are among the things I cherish most about him.