The other morning, as soon as she opened her eyes, Ziya turned over and started to tickle me. It was a baby kind of tickle, more of making the sound of it than the actions, and even then it was barely a tickle at all. Still, I had to curl up and do my best impression that I was being actually tickled by someone who knew how to do it. I didn’t even know that she could, and she couldn’t really, but who knew that one day she would.
It seemed so sudden, that move from tiny newborn to little person now reflecting back what I didn’t even know she was observing the whole time. They’ll wake up and suddenly you realise they are older, smarter, more independent and assertive, more ready to take charge of their interactions with you. Ziya’s first instinct to play, be funny and make me laugh that morning was more glorious than the rising sun and it made me smile for many days after. It also made me appreciate how careful and attentive I need to be about who I am and how I am in my interactions with her. I’ve come to realise that exactly what I give to her, she will give back to me.
Less glorious were two other moments that brought this home. One time, she was sitting in her chair having a meal, and like many babies when they get fed up, she started throwing food on the floor. I tapped her on the wrist, the kind of tap that seemingly all West Indians instinctively resort to when children are giving trouble. It didn’t hurt, in fact she thought I was making a joke, but it didn’t stop her from instantly tapping me back on my wrist and saying to me, “beat!”
Shocked, I looked at her, just over one year old, perfectly able to distill and articulate the essence and sentiment of my action. And, worse, to enact it back to me. I sat in front of her, suddenly seeing through her eyes all the things I say and do, and feeling overwhelmed at the power and responsibility I hold for what she learns. Most respectable Caribbean parents would have immediately hit her back and raised their voice to bark, “Don’t hit Mummy!”, thinking without irony that we were instilling respect, authority, discipline and obedience, and not fear, violence, hierarchy and hypocrisy. I decided that unless it was okay for Ziya to hit me, it wasn’t okay if I hit her. I couldn’t tell her not to hit me or other kids (as kids do) in words, I had to teach by example. This is going to sit all wrong with those who believe in licks as a method of teaching discipline, but I got the message. Ziya will reflect to me who I am to her. The challenge is really mine to learn how to love and teach her with that in mind.
As if I needed another reminder, during a hectic moment last night, while changing her dirty pamper and trying to keep her lying flat, I said to her, “just now Ziya!” in what I didn’t realise were harsh tones. Again, she didn’t miss a beat. “Just now!” she expertly imitated, with the exact rushed, gruffness I had just used. I could have cried. I didn’t even realise that was what she heard and experienced. I knew I certainly wouldn’t want her now or as an adult to use that tone with me, even if it was a hectic moment. I’d be hurt even if I knew she didn’t mean it. I’d think, we don’t have to talk to each other like this Ziya, whatever we have to say, we can say it nicely, even gently, to each other. Yet, here I was teaching her something else.
Being nice to Ziya is something I’m committed to. It’s something I think she deserves, after all she didn’t ask to be here and, like all of us, she has her fragilities and her feelings, and she just wants to be loved. It’s something I have to be conscious of though, through the scrambling to and from work, the hustling through errands and mealtimes, and through grinding, cumulative exhaustion. Yet, I find myself realising just how conscious I have to be again and again. Without being conscious of it herself, she’s telling – no, showing – me this lesson. I realise too, sometimes, that I may learn more from her than she from me. For both of us, it’s a precious opportunity.
These momentous trivialities make me think about all the Caribbean children who have had adults bawl them out or quarrel with them or put them down or just be casually, carelessly insensitive again and again and again for their whole lives. Imagine what they have observed about how they can be spoken to and treated, imagine what they may give back to those adults or to others they love someday. Even worse are the many children who get beaten my parents, teachers and others schooled in the old-style discipline that makes for a long Caribbean tradition of stories of running from a broom or pot-spoon. Maybe those children learned discipline and respect, but imagine what else they learned. And, when we look at the everyday violence in our families and communities, in our words and in our relations, we can see what else is reflected there.
As with all children, the challenge is to find a way to set boundaries and establish ground rules that will enable them to learn how to be healthy, cooperative, loving, non-violent, thoughtful and fair in their relations with others, accepting that like us they are not perfect, they do foolishness and they will make mistakes. The challenge for me, however, is to find a way to be the person I want Ziya to be because one day she might wake up and, like the tickling, I won’t even know when she learned what she knows or when grew up enough to be like that with me.