Babies, Squirrels, and Grit

By Tuesday, October 15, 2019 0 4

Having small children, while challenging as I went belly up about in my last post, is a magical pretend world where you are completely enchanted by tiny, gross heathens who would lick a toilet plunger if you would just please please let them.

Being a baby is really hard work. What impresses me most is their tenacity to give life their all, every moment of every day. They are abnormally motivated to learn, grow, and try new things. All. Day. Long. Meanwhile, back on the farm, I can go weeks without a complex thought and have a hard time trying a new face wash.

Their brains are building 2 million new synapse connections each second – that’s a fact, y’all. In their first year, their brains will double in size and their cerebellums, the part responsible for balance and coordination, will triple in size. They go from floppy, barely responsive, drooling protozoans to agile, clever, fully interactive chimpanzees.

It’s also a fact that we have to do an extraordinary amount of work to keep these vulnerable creatures alive. Oftentimes it’s like they’re trying to kill themselves. Nature has shown the longer babies are dependent on their parents, the smarter the animal. So, our childhoods are long because we are smart. Human babies are completely helpless so they can be completely protected, freeing them up to spend most of their focus learning how to use their brains.

Babies seem to have something adults lack and I kept wondering: how are we different? I watched a TED talk on the topic by Alison Gopnik, a child development psychologist, who described the difference this way: babies “are the brilliant butterflies who are flittering around the garden and exploring and we are the caterpillars who are inching along our narrow, grown-up, adult path.” Another way to put it: babies are the research and development division of humanity while adults are production and marketing. What a way to make adulthood sound like a total snooze fest. I want to flit! Babies por vida!

Gopnic described the consciousness of babies and young children as a lantern and that of adults as a spotlight. While adults have a powerful, focused attention span that brings singular objects into vivid light, babies have a less powerful, but more broad attention span that notices everything with equal clarity. So, it’s not accurate to say babies and young children are bad at paying attention, instead they’re bad at not paying attention. Hence the “SQUIRREL!!!” distraction issue they frequently encounter:

Interesting side note: Gopnik says caffeine mimics the effect of all those neurotransmitters firing in a baby’s brain – that scattered, jumping from thing to thing, somewhat out of control energy you feel after four lattes is how a baby’s brain works. Exhausting. No wonder they need nap time.

What I’ve witnessed in my kids and what I hear from Gopnik is that in some ways babies are more conscious than adults. Children are firing on all cylinders at every moment. They don’t take breaks to poop or puke, those just happen in the midst of what they’re doing. There’s no time to stop for trivial stuff, babies must go! Smash paper, throw dino, [*poop*] pick up stick, yell a little, [*vom*]…

My kids experience levels of frustration I can hardly comprehend like learning to grasp an object, developing the muscles to hold up their huge ass heads, and figuring out how to crawl.

Crawling was brutal. My son, Jonah, could only crawl backwards at first. When he saw a crumply book he wanted to crumple, everything he tried just meant he moved further away. No crumple at all! Bullsh!

Here Jonah is stuck buck naked under a bookshelf. I mean, who among us hasn’t been stuck buck naked under a bookshelf?

For over a month, Jonah howled with frustration, but — get this, you guys — he harnessed the power found in his frustration as the ultimate motivator. Frustration isn’t a blockade by which he gives up; it’s a vehicle by which he tries harder. What the…??!!?

My adult mind was blown by that news. I almost gave up on an entire year once because New Year’s Eve was a dud.

The thing I keep thinking is: we all learned to crawl, we all worked to hold up our heads, and we all failed to crumple that book. The grit I see in my kids is the grit innate in all of us. We are born factory-loaded with an unstoppable amount of motivation, tenacity, and zest. For most of us, it goes away or at least does a sharp nosedive. Where does it go? Why don’t we keep it? How can we get it back?

Part of me wants to go back to the time where everything was curiosity, potential, and awe. Lots of me wants to flit around the garden instead of march on the path. I’d like to retain my motor skills, emotional control, and lack of desire to lick toilet plungers, however. In the meantime, I’ll keep on being enchanted by my tiny heathens, and let their grit remind me of my own.


It’s entirely possible babies are smarter than adults. They are definitely more alive. They also forgot to mention to channel babies in moments of frustration and ask ourselves: what would Jonah do? Jonah would keep trying until he figures it out. Except if he sees a squirrel.

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