One particularly cute game our little girl has discovered is trying on her mother’s shoes. In fact, she is so adept at selecting and stepping into shoes from her mother’s closet shoe rack that it prompted my own mother to wonder if there was something in the human female’s genetic code to predispose her to such behavior. We agreed that there probably isn’t; our genetics still haven’t caught up with processed fatty food and constant online data streaming, and women’s shoe fashion is a pretty recent cultural development. But what is in the human genetic code is the desire to copy behavior of those around us. And this is a natural, healthy method for young humans to learn the ways they engage the world. So our little one does exactly – and I mean exactly – what her mother does with shoes. She first selects a shoe from the rack, nearly always the left shoe, and she places it toe-first against the wall. Then she places her left hand against the wall to support herself and steps her left foot into the shoe. If she is being adventurous, she also lays out the right shoe and repeats this process, standing in her mother’s shoes, admiring (or should I say “admiring”) how beautiful she looks in these shoes and then enthusiastically rewarding herself with a congratulatory round of applause. Which, of course, we then mimic back to her.
Much like this new behavior of trying on shoes, she has taken to brushing her teeth and putting on lotion. She requires her own adult toothbrush – a child’s toothbrush has not been adequate and is loudly protested – and she happily swipes it across her gums and teeth. She grows excited every time she sees a bottle of lotion (or shampoo or bubble bath or any other similarly shaped bottle) and will immediately hold out her hands for a dollop, which she will attempt to spread over her forearms. Mostly, she just ends up smearing it over her wrist, but she knows the motions. We made the mistake of using Bath and Body Works’ delicious Vanilla Bean Noel a few weeks ago, and now she tries to eat every lotion we give her.
The newest, and perhaps most adorable and strange, behavior is a step up in her kissing ability. I have previously written about her ability to blow kisses, but now she has taken it to the next level. She knows that kissing another person is something that is done with her mouth on another person’s face, and she is well acquainted with the attendant language that goes with a kiss. She knows how to drag it out, making this sound as she touches her mouth to someone’s face for a few seconds and then dramatically disengages: “MmmmmmmmmmmmmmMMMMUAH!” However, she still hasn’t quite gotten the mechanics of puckering her lips, and so the kiss is open-mouthed and quite sloppy. This is still pretty cute, even when her slobber remains drying on my cheek for several minutes.
But yesterday she stepped up her game significantly. While holding her and kissing her cheek, she endeavored to kiss me back. But once on my cheek wasn’t enough, and so she actually grabbed my chin, turned my face to hers, and planted a huge slobbery kiss right on my mouth. I’m assuming (and desperately hoping, really) that she has learned this behavior from watching her mom and dad, who typically kiss each other on the mouth a few times a day, and always in the morning when we part to leave for work. During that moment – the goodbye kiss – she is almost always in my arms as I lean down to kiss her mother goodbye. It makes sense that our little one would eventually try this out. (It probably doesn’t need to be said explicitly, but I’ll proceed nonetheless: I’m glad she’s trying this out on her parents and I dread the day she decides to try this out with her playmates.)
To be truthful, it was a bit shocking to have my little girl give me a big, wet, open-mouthed kiss. It’s been a long time since anyone besides my spouse kissed me on the mouth, and I assume an intimacy to such an action specific to my relationship with romantic life partner. Of course, none of this context is available to my seventeen-month-old daughter, nor should it be. But for a moment, it was hard for me to separate myself from this context, and I felt the urge to discourage her from kissing me on the lips. Thankfully, my own child-like curiosity and interest in my little one’s development won out, and I was able to enjoy how adorable and delightful it was to have my girl explore a lovely action of affection. She’s been hugging for several months now, and how completely wonderful is it that my little girl can kiss me back now! But it called into my attention the strange ways we might discourage our children from mimicking adult behavior when we should encourage them. (It also makes me think of behavior we do encourage them to mimic that we should probably discourage, but that’s probably it’s own blog post.) What behaviors do children try out in the name of curiosity and development that we attempt to quell out of our inability to separate the actions’ social context? And at what point should parents attempt to explain the ramifications of such social context? I mean, if she starts smooching all her peers on the mouth right now, I could probably find a way to be okay with it, but eventually it will be necessary to explain to her that kissing random boys on the mouth is not the best idea.
Ultimately, I believe, all human behavior is learned. The genetic code doesn’t program actions into it; even an infant’s first attempt to breastfeed can be awkward and unsuccessful, though hunger is most definitely a part of the human genetic imperative. All of us learn to do what we do by watching others and then trying it out for ourselves, and the feedback we receive greatly influences how we feel about what we do. I could shame my little girl for kissing other boys on the mouth by discouraging this behavior, or I could simply celebrate with her the success of doing something new. I suspect this is how gender roles are communicated; we might celebrate the performance of “feminine” actions (such as trying on shoes) while discouraging the performance of “masculine” actions (like, I don’t know, scratching one’s crotch in public). It is instructive and freeing, not just for her as she develops, but for me also to simply celebrate and encourage creativity, curiosity, and exploration. How nice it was to get over my initial shock and just enjoy the fact that my little girl kissed me! There’s really nothing cuter and sweeter. And not only is it ridiculously enjoyable, it’s a developmental milestone. I mean, everybody wins.