When one thinks about newborn babies, a repertoire of their many abilities doesn’t scream out at you.
For example, put them behind the wheel of a fast-moving car and they are pretty useless. I’m talking automatic transmission. Don’t even think about a stick shift.
Bank robbers with a three-month-old as the getaway driver end up having to take public transit. It would be too embarrassing for the crooks to return to the bank and ask if they could borrow a hostage with a driver’s license.
Name other normal social behaviors, and infants are of no help. Imagine a party of babies out celebrating the fact that they are all weaned from nursing. I dare you to have them calculate a 15 percent tip onto a restaurant bill. Carrying the 2 makes no sense to them. Splitting the tab between four friends is so mind-boggling you rarely see babies having dinner with their buddies unless it is at establishments that permit individual tickets.
Conversationalist they are not. Ask about their various areas of interest — politics, religion, technology, sports or even celebrity watching. They will only want to focus on their latest spit-up or diaper. Engage them in day-to-day chit-chat and one will just get a bunch of babble, coos or screeches. Talk about a long, boring evening or a short phone call.
Their social skills are, to put it nicely, raw. Do we hear a please or a thank you or even a simple “excuse me” out of a nine-month-old? No siree. It’s cry here. Burp there. Squirm or just get up and crawl away without a word. You are trying to think and they are in the kitchen banging pots and pans. You are in the middle of a sentence; you look over and they are sound asleep.
Babies don’t pull their fair share around the house. From the day they are brought home from the hospital, they just seem to take, take, take. Tell them to clean up their nursery, and they act like they don’t understand a word you say. Mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage are beyond any grasp of understanding. You explain it to them countless times, and countless and one times you end up having to do it yourself.
In the adult world, babies are pretty useless. Yet if we picture what they do in their universe, they are pretty amazing.
Grasping their hands into a fist requires contracting muscles, multiple moveable joints and mechanical pulleys. It is a physics wonderland. Work, energy, friction, angles, tension, chemical reactions and motion all add up to a baby’s grasp. Gear shifting is still 16 years away, but since it will be about that time before they can see over the dashboard, it all works out.
Smiling is not too tough for most kids. It is the adult life-form that seems to struggle with a happy face from time to time. Smiles are not accidents. They are not gas-powered. Smiles are incredible inventions of babies. Sure they don’t know the subtleties of social graces, but get a baby to smile and it is not important that they just spit up all over the carpet and your new black dress.
We get excited about a football game or a home run. For babies, just having us in the room paying attention to them is the Super Bowl and World Series wrapped up into one. They cannot tell you the best quarterback or long ball hitter, but they will kick and beam with delight knowing you notice them. Sure you give up a little on ESPN SportsCenter, but there is a make-up when it comes to feeling good.
So the next time you plan to rob a bank, forget the car seat. However, when you plan to be alive, bring a kid.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.