Rocks In His Mouth

Continued from the last entry, One-Bit Language

I took the baby to MIT to kill the time before going to a birthday party, and decided to let him play in the dry riverbed by the computer science building. It seemed a perfect place for a baby to play … lots of different terrain to tootle around and stomp on, a bridge with clanging metal plates to run across, people coming by with dogs and hand-trucks to watch, and lonely female passerbies to flirt with. These last, especially, were only too thrilled to see a baby, and many of them stopped to admire him. But with all these things to do, he decided his big passion of the day was… putting rocks in his mouth.


It took me a while to figure it out. All these diversions, and what he wants most is to, um, suck on rocks. Not only that, he was showing them to the passerbys, with great glee. He’d give passing admirers a huge, open mouthed grin, and they would comment “he seems really pleased with himself about something.” I’d have to reply “yea, he’s showing off that he’s got rocks in his mouth.” I felt dumb. Where did he get the idea that people would admire his rocks? Not only was he defying me and worrying me, he was embarrassing me too! What was going on?

Auditing the Rocks

It freaked me out at first: what was I going to do? Follow him around and snatch every single rock away from him? It was a good replica of a dry riverbed, so there were a lot of rocks. He could run pretty fast too; if he wanted to run away and then pick up a rock, I couldn’t intercept it before it went down the trap. With all his new teeth, it was also pretty hard for me to fish out. Eventually I instituted the policy that I would audit the rocks before they went in, selecting out any that were larger or pointy, and leave him with only the small round gravel pieces — pieces that presumably wouldn’t be disastrous if swallowed. Once there were a certain critical mass of rocks in his mouth he wouldn’t put in any more, and eventually he spit them all out, or at least most of them. Obviously, I didn’t get to do an exact count to be sure all the ones that went in came out. But he didn’t choke. In any case, that made me feel secure enough to allow him to run away from me, because I had some assurance he wouldn’t pick up an un-audited big, pointy rock, and then fall, accidentally swallow it, and choke on it.

But why?

But why? He wasn’t eating the rocks, just holding them in his mouth, showing them to people, and then spitting them out again. It seemed quite pointless. Especially puzzling was the social component — why show off to people? He’d never done that before. The social aspect seemed to be his central delight in the whole exercise, but the cause of his joy was hard to fathom.

Keeping a Pact

The part of this ritual where the “No!” came in was key. Some history is relevant to my story: back when he was a much smaller baby, I was completely freaked out he might choke on the small things he picked up and put in his mouth, so I had taught him a rule he was now breaking. Back then I would find all sorts of things in his mouth: rocks (of course), cedar chips, paperclips, pen caps, screws, spheres of silica gel from a broken dessicant bag… it went on and on, and only got more alarming as it went. I’d sweep his mouth — mercifully toothless back then — regularly, but that seemed kind of rude after a while, since I was doing it so often. Then I discovered that if I stuck out my tongue at him he’d stick his tongue out too, and I’d get to look to see if there was anything in his mouth. That trick allowed me to sweep his mouth much less often, and I think he understood the benefits, because it became something of a game, a cute little ritual between us, to stick out our tongues at each other to show that our mouths were empty of alarming objects. This was all the way back from when he was a really little baby, so I think he felt compelled, almost hypnotized in the way babies are, into keeping his side of our little pact.

Breaking the Pact

Of course just now, when he started putting rocks into his mouth, I stuck out my tongue, i.e. my long-standing way of requesting that he show me what was in his mouth. But, of course, he shook his head “No!” like he had to every request I’d made in the previous week or two. This time I even felt a little hurt, because it was the single oldest little ritual between us — and one I was so very pleased to establish — and it was sad to lose my old connection with my little baby.

But for him, that was clearly the whole point. It was all about no longer being the hypnotized, obedient baby. Babies allow the things in their mouths to be controlled by mommy, but big boys get to put anything they want in their mouths whether mommy wants it or not. That was what he was showing off to the passerbys: being able to hold rocks in his mouth – in defiance of mommy – was a symbol of being no longer being a baby. And he was hugely proud of himself for that. It didn’t seem to matter that I still did have a considerable amount of control: I got to audit, if not dictate the content of his mouth — if I wanted gravel, I could get gravel: gravel was good enough for the symbolic gesture he wanted to make. But it was hugely important to him to make this gesture.

The Path

Of course, it was annoying. I really wished he’d get through this phase. I spent the whole afternoon trailing him closely just in case he choked, and worrying that he might hurt his teeth, and generally agonizing over it, which kept me from enjoying the beautiful spring day. And I was sad about the end of an era. On the other hand, I have to admit that I did’t think it a bad development overall. It is a strange relationship one has with babies, because one pokes at them in all sorts of strange and intrusive ways, and dictates every aspect of their lives: what they wear, what they eat, what they do…. to the point it is easy to forget that this really is another person and not a little dress-up doll with really good cuddles. It seems hard to imagine he is going to turn into a separate person someday… what is the path from here to there? I guess this is it: the path, and it winds its way through strange social displays of mouth gravel.

Auditing Independence

For the same reason I like cats better than dogs, I’m liking the new baby better than the old one, despite the annoyances: he’s developing a sense of dignity and of ownership of himself — losing the pliability and craven eagerness to please. Unfortunately, I can’t stop my intrusive poking at him, because there are still so many things he can’t do and can’t handle yet. So its a bit of a tightrope walk to show him I respect his new independence while insisting on the control I still need. Luckily, his “No’s!” seem to come with a bit of a wink and a nudge; with just enough of “Yes” still in them that I have a chance to audit his independence, to select and discard the actually dangerous pebbles.