Ruining Childhood—Before It Even Begins

Dear Mr. Dad. My 9-month old daughter is happy and healthy in every respect (her pediatrician concurs). But all our friends are talking about the things they do to help their children grow, develop, learn, and so on. Is any of that really necessary? Will our daughter be okay if we just let her develop on her own?

A: I have no idea how it started, but somewhere along the line, a lot of parents got the idea that happy, healthy babies weren’t enough and that normal intellectual and physical development were happening too slowly. Babies, it seems, had to be constantly entertained and educated. Low-tech toys were replaced by electronic ones that light up, make funny noises, count, say the names of letters, colors and shapes, or conjugate irregular Latin verbs. And instead of learning to crawl, walk, and run on their own, babies needed personal trainers. What ever happened to letting kids be kids?

The short answer to your question is that, assuming your daughter’s pediatrician is right and your baby is, indeed, healthy, she’ll achieve her developmental milestones, gasp, without outside intervention.

That said, physically playing with your baby is wonderful for her—and for you. At the very least, you’ll feel more confident and competent as a parent, and your daughter will learn that she can count on you to always be there for her. A strong relationship with mom and dad is, hands down, the best gift you can give your child.

So here are a few ideas for fun ways of interacting with your baby. They’ll also stimulate her brain and body—but that’s not the primary goal.

For major muscle groups:

  • Put some toys near her feet and encourage her to kick them.
  • Roll a ball far enough out of her reach so she has to crawl to get it.
  • Supervised stair climbing is great. But stay nearby and be extremely careful. This is a good time to start teaching your baby to come down stairs backward. But be prepared to demonstrate yourself and to physically turn your baby around a few dozen times a day.
  • Chasing games: you chase her; she chases you. Reward her with a big hug and—if she doesn’t protest—a little wrestling. Besides being fun, these kinds of games teach your baby a valuable lesson: when you go away, you always come back. Plus, kids who wrestle with dad grow up with more highly developed social skills than kids who don’t get as much physical play.

Hand-eye coordination:

  • Puzzles. The best for this age wooden, have a separate hole for each piece, and a peg for easy lifting.
  • Nesting, stacking, measuring, and pouring toys. Also things to crush, tear, or crinkle—the noisier the better.
  • Weave some string between baby’s fingers or tape two of her fingers together. Can she “free” herself?
  • Hand-clapping games.

Consequences. The idea that different actions produce different effects can’t be reinforced often enough.

  • Jack-in-the-boxes—especially the kind with four or five doors, each opened by a push, twist, poke, or some other action. Be cautious the first few times, though; some babies may be frightened.
  • Pots, pans, xylophones, or anything else the baby can bang on. She’ll learn that different things make different noises when smacked and that hitting something hard sounds different from hitting something soft.
  • Doors (and anything else with a hinge, including books)—provided you’re there to make sure no one gets pinched.

But remember: Your only agenda is to have fun.