The “How to Fight a Baby” video, above, which went viral last week, divided parents into camps: the rough housers, and the genteel; jokesters and the humorless. You might guess where I fall: I think the video comedian Gavin McInnes shot for Vice is funny. The love he clearly feels for his baby—and his baby for him—is apparent in every frame.
But that doesn’t mean the video didn’t choke off my breath a time or two: McInnes tosses his baby through the air (and on to a set of fluffy blankets). He wraps his fingers around the baby’s neck as if to strangle (his fingers encircle, but never actually grip). Each time, it took a moment for me to register that what looked dangerous was actually quite safe. Then I laughed like hell.
Of course, some people reacted differently, accusing McInnes of inciting adult-on-baby violence. Because, of course, as a society, we tend to baby our babies.
In this sense, I think McInnes really has incited something, or someone—namely, me. This last week, in fact, now that Jack and Eli, my fraternal twins, have grown from babies to 16-month-old toddlers, I’ve discovered just how deep my own overprotective streak runs.
Only Baby Backs Baby Into a Corner
Our boys don’t just lie on the floor anymore, or jibber-jabber from high chair to high chair. They walk right up to each other, and push.
Mostly, Jack does the pushing. Eli, the bigger kid, dutifully falls over. Then he lets out one of those perfect, pouty yells. He isn’t actually sad or scared. There are no tears. He’s just pissed. And I don’t know how to respond.
My wife and I tried giving Jack “timeouts” whenever we saw him act as the aggressor—filching some toy from Eli, or knocking him down just for fun. But once timeout is over, he walks right back to Eli, pushes him, and looks at us to see how we react. Further timeouts don’t erase the undesirable behavior, and now we’re convinced we sent Jack the wrong message, suggesting to him that knocking over his brother will yield much-desired attention from his mom and dad.
On the plus side, Jack has listened to some of our entreaties. Often, if Eli possesses some toy he covets, Jack will retrieve some other item from their toy box and try to work out a deal. Sometimes, if Eli refuses, Jack will grab another toy and try again. Other times, if Eli refuses to give up the goods, Jack just starts wining and flapping his arms like some flightless bird.
And then? It’s on.
Now, it isn’t like mayhem ensues. Just some shoving, some thudding and some caterwauling. But each time one of my sons punks the other, my own onboard systems go higgledy-piggledy. My own sense of right and wrong is challenged. The other day, I even suggested to Eli, who was lying on the floor after a shove from his brother, that as far as I was concerned he could get right up and push his brother back.
Several shoves later, I started wondering how much I might one day spend on bail. ‘Cause what had I taught them? Fight it out?
“I hate to admit it,” I half-whispered to my wife that evening. “But if Jack is still pushing Eli around when they’re seven, I’m the kind of guy who’ll just pull Eli aside and say, ‘Hey, you know, you could just punch your brother in the face.’”
My wife smiled. She knew that I was half-joking—or, at least, that I already understand this is a bad idea. But I remain unsure of what to do. The research that’s out there on toddler behavior doesn’t seem to speak to my very specific situation, or cuts in a couple of different directions. And my wife and I, after consulting with each other and some more experienced friends, are starting a new tack: We’re going to let the boys work it out themselves, unless and until A.) one child is in danger of actual injury or B.) being subjected to more pain than the usual, tush-cushioned landing.
For me, McInnes’s video made this decision easier: There is a difference between images that look like a big deal and behavior that actually is a big deal. As a result, I’m going to stop reacting out of that first moment of shock, and assess what it is I’m really seeing.
That said, we’re open to more advice. So please, take a moment to vote in the following poll, and share your thoughts in the comments.
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood on Be Well Philly.