The other day, my fifteen month old son expressed a need that has become a rite of passage for babies of his generation. That need was to have a phone that was kept nearby on the table, left there by someone who was visiting us. I’m referring to this as a need because from the perspective of my young one, it certainly wasn’t a mere whim or want – in his eyes it was an absolute compulsion. He had to have the phone.

My son reached out his arm from over my shoulder, I felt his body tense up and he yelled out for the object in a way that was unmistakable baby – expressive, loud and proud with enough frustration mixed in, to get his point across very clearly. Now, this post is not a rant against screen time for littles of his age. What stayed with me about the experience was that the person (I’ll be discrete and not call him out directly as family, friend or foe but it might be easy to guess as one group is often more vocal than the others) proceeded to glance at his phone, look at my son and I with narrowed eyes, and say in a tone that was somewhere between taunting and disapproving: “he needs to learn that that’s not for him”.

He didn’t move his phone an inch but let it be exactly where it was, as a lesson for my baby or maybe more aptly, for me. Of course, my son kept his little hand outreached expectantly and only got louder until I removed him from the vicinity of the phone and offered him one of his toys to play with instead. His distress gradually dissipated once he was immersed in a new game with me and the toy, however mine did not. In fact it turned to outrage because nothing about the sentiment had any sense or compassion or love to it.

”He needs to learn”

I can read between the lines and I’m calling bullshit. That right there is code for so much more than the fact that my son wanted a phone and, ironically it’s got nothing to do with the healthy learning of a young child. In my baby’s fifteen short months on the planet it’s a catchphrase I’ve already become sick of, having heard it too many times (often from the same people) for the various needs my baby has naturally expressed. And sometimes, it’s not even about my baby but code for telling me that I’m too responsive/ loving to him.

So here’s what I have to say to the anonymous person who inappropriately stuck his oar in one too many times with his utterly misplaced and obsolete ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ mentality:

You need to learn that you have no bloody right to decide what my child ‘needs to learn’. I’m not even sure what that phrase means to you and your kind. To me, it means he needs to be curious about the world around him – to explore and master new aptitudes which include emotional intelligence as much as fine and gross motor skills. You may have the latter but you severely lack the former to a degree that’s alarming for an adult with a fully developed brain.

You need to learn that no matter how much you try and talk down or belittle the way I’m choosing to mother and raise my child, you’ll never be able to change the way I respond to and express my love for him. Nothing you say will convince me that I need to ‘teach’ him life lessons by being distant or withholding my love from him.

You need to learn that as much as you may not like or even be aware of it, babies and children learn by imitating people around them. In this case you should also learn some consistency in your thought process because if I remember correctly, it was only minutes before the phone incident that you had been marveling at my son’s dexterity with a fork, when he’d skillfully eaten pasta for dinner. Guess how he learned how to use a fork? It was from watching others use one. In his mind, there’s no difference between wanting something like a phone and wanting to learn how a fork or spoon works. It’s all learning for him. He’s figuring out the world without labels or value judgements because those are attached to everyday objects by adults. He’s simply learning.

You need to learn that that he wanted your phone, was indicative not of his bad manners or lack of learning but more of the world we live in. Many adults (including me) around my son and those his age, now live with their phones and IPads perpetually attached to them as extensions of themselves. I won’t attribute value to whether this is good or bad but I will ask you this: Is it surprising that my son wanted to have mastery of something that’s become as common place at most dinner tables as a plate or a fork?

Your sort has often smugly turned to me and said, “that’s right, he’s just a baby and doesn’t know what’s good for him. It’s up to us to teach him right from wrong”. You’re absolutely right that he doesn’t yet know there are some things that are safe to be played with and others that could hurt him. Obviously, I’m not about to let my baby play with anything that’s remotely dangerous for him – you know that and I know that. But that’s not what we’re really talking about here. What we’re really talking about here is value judgement.

You make value judgements about things that you deem too valuable to you to honour a small child’s curiosity in a safe and limited way. Okay, so maybe two minutes with your phone may have proved too costly in case he toddled off with it and hid it or threw it somewhere. I can understand and appreciate this. Mums are used to looking at fractured images on a smashed screen, it’s one of our countless skills and comes with the territory. I can empathize that you wanted an intact screen on your IPhone.

What royally pissed me off, was that you neither moved your offending phone and nor did you try some healthy distraction. In other words, you were unable to show compassion in your response to a baby. Instead you snidely took it upon yourself to try and punish curiosity. It wasn’t your place, it wasn’t appropriate and it wasn’t okay.

You need to learn that your attitude is yours to keep but your resulting behavior is thoroughly offensive and disturbing. I take it you know little about the brain development of  babies/ toddlers because if you did, you’d know that at that age, even if it’s the kitchen knife, your choices are to either remove the object from the environment or remove the child. Children who are but a few months over the age of one do not have the reasoning capability to understand that your phone isn’t for them. That you decided to show my child something he’s not yet developmentally capable of seeing shows your stupidity, not his or mine.

Another remark that was made recently suggested teaching my son patience by not letting him leave his highchair until all the grown-ups were finished with their meal. What.The. Fuck?!

You need to learn that you can’t teach a small child to be patient by controlling and restricting his right to move around because you’ve grown impatient with his vocalizations of boredom. Do you actually think that would lessen his yelling? Again, your two choices include either distraction (which in the highchair situation usually works for one minute) or changing his environment so he can play unrestricted. Oh wait, those aren’t your choices, they’re mine. You only have one choice – it’s to shut the f’ up, smile politely and finish your meal. Thanks for visiting, see you again soon!

When my son is older, perhaps if you’ve learned enough, you can teach him virtues like patience and tolerance by waiting patiently in a line at a checkout or, not giving someone the finger if they were driving too slowly for your liking. Because it’s true ‘he needs to learn’ that stuff. But apparently, so do you. Because despite being an adult you seem to lack the very discipline and lessons in self-regulation that you’re trying so hard to impart to my child.

You need to learn that the impression you leave is that of an arrogant bully who given half a chance will disguise controlling behaviours (perhaps even to yourself) as those that teach about right and wrong.

You need to learn that you treat others (especially younger humans) like second class citizens because to you the phrase ‘he needs to learn’ is actually is about feeling superior and controlling actions through fear and punishment and not about providing gentle guidance to those you supposedly love.

Thanks to you and others like you, what I have learned is this:

I will teach my child to be compassionate instead of cruel.

I will teach my child self-regulation by modelling it myself.

I will teach my child that while society is largely based on certain rules that are to be followed, no rules are to be followed blindly.

I will proudly teach my child to break rules if they oppress another or strip someone of their dignity and respect. The same goes for rules that appear to be there for the convenience of one person over the curiosity of another.

And I will definitely teach my child that it is healthy and normal for babies and young children to be enticed by objects in their environment. This includes phones. It is up to us as the adults to make that environment, safe, nurturing and suitable and not up to the baby ‘to learn’ how to do so.

Of course my son needs to learn certain lessons in his life and I aim to teach him well.

He needs to learn.

But not from people like you.