The baby self: How to work with children’s most annoying, yet necessary, behaviors |

The baby self: How to work with children’s most annoying, yet necessary, behaviors


“Luke, please stop kicking the back of my seat.”

“I’m not hurting anything.”

“Stop kicking my seat.”

“Stop yelling at me.” Kick-kick.

“I am not yelling. Your kicking gives me a headache.”

“You’re yelling, Dad. That gives me a headache.”

“Stop kicking, Luke, do you hear me?”

“You can’t make me.”

“You can bet I won’t be buying you that Tower-of-Power building set.”

“I don’t care.” Kick-kick.

In this example, the only way for the dad to feel a “win” is to exert authority through a threat. He may not be aware that he has come up against the child’s baby self, and even a strong threat does not get the desired outcome of compliance.

The baby self

The baby self, as defined by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., is in all of us. It is most apparent at home or in a safe and known environment.

The baby self wants what it wants, and it wants it now. It is not rational and consequences have no meaning. It most often appears when it has to do something it doesn’t feel like doing or doesn’t get its way. It has zero tolerance for stress.

The baby self would love to sit on the couch and eat chips, so being asked to rake leaves is a major stressor. A demand to stop playing with Legos and put on one’s shoes is a stressor. Baby self responses to this stress can range from crankiness to defiance.

In young children, the baby self wants as much of the parent as it can get. It thrives on attention and engagement — negative or positive — and hates to be left alone. It will not let go and ferociously provokes, paying close attention to what infuriates a parent.

“Mom. Mom.”

“Quiet, Leah, I’m on the phone.”

“But look at this picture I drew.”

“I’m on the phone.”

“You have to look at this picture.”

“Stop interrupting me.”

Loud wailing.

The mature self

In contrast, the mature self is what is presented to the outside world. This is the part of us that develops patience, works hard, tolerates stress, regulates emotions, and delays gratification.

Parents may receive glowing reports of their child’s behavior at school or grandma’s house. These are places where the child taps into their mature self.

After holding things together under social pressures, though, the baby self comes home and often lets loose. Home feels safe. And this doesn’t just happen in children. Adults do this, too, especially after a stressful day of handling life’s pressures.

There is no qualitative comparison between these two selves. One is not better than the other. We need both. In most of us, the mature self develops more completely with age, yet the baby self continues to also live inside us. It is in the baby self mode that all of us — children and adults — receive our basic, deep nurturing. It is upon this nurturing that our personality and our mature selves are built.

Annie Keeling of Grass Valley teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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