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Come Play With Me: Lessons For (and from) My Baby

As a student, I earned spending money by tutoring rather than babysitting. As a teacher, I ventured into high school rather than elementary classrooms. After church on Sundays, I join lively conversations with my congregation’s teenagers, but end tongue-tied after a few minutes’ talk with the toddlers. Though I’ve certainly never sought to avoid the company of young children, circumstance and inclination have generally put me in that of older ones instead.

Not, therefore, having many preconceived notions to go by, every day with my baby son is a wardrobe-door to unimagined worlds and wonders, and I the joy-shocked visitant who’s somehow tumbled inside.

From his first week, what snatched my breath away was his personhood. Before one lives with an infant, sharing all his waking and sleeping moments, babyhood can seem like a preliminary stage of personhood; a baby, though fully a person, appears a person in potencia, a miniature human who will gradually develop all the human capabilities but now is limited to the actions and reactions common to the young of any creature. But in mere days from my son’s birth, I knew this is not so. His personhood was like his fingers, ears, and feet: tiny—yet fully formed.

Truly, as I have passed the hours of six months’ days with him, sharing our lives to an extent that no one but mother and infant can, I’ve marveled at how his baby presence can pulse with pure personhood in a way that no adult’s does. As we grow older, we clothe our persons in all the things we do and think, in quirks, hobbies, vocations, habits, places, pasts. A baby’s person is more mysterious, more elemental; he interacts simply through being, and wakes us up to the mystery of every human soul—that from its first hours outside the womb, this flesh-and-blood pulses with fears, joys, and longings that transcend its merely physical needs, and keep it tethered to a world beyond that of food, shelter, and the stuff of earth.

And so, in these days with my baby son, I have become a student once again, learning what persons are and how they become, as I learn who my son is and study his becoming. In the last month or so, his little life has expanded so quickly. His days, once spent in languid nursing and sleeping, are now a bustle of exploration, discovery, and recognition. He crawls into every cranny of the house, specially finding for me any that are dangerous or dirty; he signals his favorite toys, postures, foods by hastening to them in evident excitement; not content to hold the wonders of this world-outside-the-womb in his chubby hands, he attempts to stuff them all in his mouth, too; and best of all, at the smallest provocation, he breaks into that most innocently, achingly joyous of all sounds, a baby’s laugh.

Amidst the flurry of these developments emerge patterns which, sooner or later, I catch on to. Here’s a recent one: If I set him on the rug, plop an armful of toys before him, and scurry towards some other chore, my baby boy is not content to amuse himself with his allotted trinkets. Without so much as a glance at them, he fixes his blue eyes on me, throws himself to all fours, and, lurching his whole baby-weight forward by pivoting on his right elbow (his signature crawl), books it my direction. At six months old, he already has deduced that if those toys were truly worth his attention, they would absorb mine too. Since they do not—since I appear engrossed in other things—he determines to learn what those really worthy objects are.

Indeed, my baby, tiny person that he is, learns as all persons do: by imitation and participation. He watches what I do and, in his six-month-old fashion, wants to imitate it—but to imitate it with me; he desires not parroting, but participating. If I am sweeping the room, he wants to chase the broom; if I am cooking dinner, he wants to play with wooden spoons and chunks of carrot; and if I sit on the rug and play with his rattles and baubles, then and only then will he grab and toss and laugh at them with me.

This pattern, when I first noticed it, stirred my wonder in its confirmation that what classical education has taught about the nature of learning really is nature. As Plato might have it, humans don’t learn how to learn; they are born knowing it. Like breathing, crying, eating, blinking, it is one of the things we do, and do in a particular way. Imitation, participation, discipleship, love, propel our wills and educate our impulses. We naturally seek what is worthy, and we look for it by looking to who or what we love.

Eagerly, then, I’ve started to think of each of our days together as “living lessons,” like Charlotte Mason’s “living books”—days full of activities, whether ordinary or extraordinary, which, being done together, can give occasion to learn motor skills and habits and facts and, more subtly, ideals and loves. As I do my chores, I pick out objects associated with them that will fit in baby hands. As I push the stroller, I stop beside fragrant flowers that can waft past baby nose, or pick up lichen-dusted twigs to hold up to baby eyes. As family members play their instruments, I bob up and down while holding him to stir rhythm in his baby body.

And of course, there is still play time. Duly chastened that I had even tried the “dump and run” method of letting my baby learn to play with his toys, I’ve spent more time on the rug with him, trying to show him (as I figure out for myself!) all the ways that a rattle can be shaken and tossed and caught, all the sounds that a stuffed puppy can be made to make, all the shapes stacked blocks can form. After we’ve played together a while, I can walk away and see him continuing to play with the toys in some of the same ways we’ve played together. But his eyes still shine brightest when he knows I am present, all present, with him.

What I’ve affirmed for years about education now means more to me than it ever did: the teacher must take care to live the way she hopes her students themselves will live, and must give her students only what she herself hopes to receive.

As I invite my son into my life, making it his living lesson, a gracious remonstrance stops me short when I realize that I do not want him to learn what I am about to do—be it to check my phone when walking down a sun-bathed lane, or speak harshly to him when his cries fray my nerves.

And as I kneel down to play with him, I realize bemusedly that I’d better take care to provide toys that I enjoy as much as he. There are baby toys that, by virtue of beautiful material or appealing colors or fine craftsmanship, delight adults as much as children. There are baby books that, by virtue of satisfying rhyme or alluring illustration, captivate me as much as him. C.S. Lewis commented that “a children’s story that is only enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story”; the stories we tell children, the playthings we give them, the games we teach them, should, like the rings on a tree, form the innermost layers of true pleasure that is sustained and added to in each stage of life, but not outgrown.

Babies are persons; they learn as we do; for what we share is the image of God, Who Himself taught us by entering our world, participating with us, showing us by His own activity and enjoyment among the things of earth what is good to taste and love and do.

As we have been taught, so let us teach.

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