When you’re the mother of an infant, it’s pretty common for well-intentioned acquaintances and relatives to inquire about the temperament of your baby. Rather than ask, “What is your baby’s temperament?” – that would be far too clinical and far too direct for most casual conversion – they usually say something like, “Is he a good baby?”
Since this is a yes/no question, it naturally limits your universe of responses. Your choices are: “Oh yes. He’s a very good baby. Sleeps well and hardly ever fusses.” The person coos approvingly.
You’re also allowed the “yes, but” variant of this answer: “He’s a very good baby, but sometimes in the evenings he’s a little fussy.” Again, cooing and a “that’s to be expected” kindly acknowledgement.
The other response to a yes/no question is, of course, “no.” But you would never say this about your baby, so normally the mother is allowed to offer an explanation for why she does not say yes: “He’s been colicky. We’re worn out.” Then the attention switches to the mother. Oh you poor thing. He’ll grow out of it.
When people would ask me the temperament question when my son, Ben, was a baby, I often replied, “He’s…very…specific.” Note that this is not one of the approved responses. In fact, referring to one’s infant as “specific” is pretty much a conversation stopper. It makes about as much sense to describe a baby as specific as it does to describe a ballpoint pen as compassionate, but there it was. The word made sense.
It’s not that Ben wasn’t a good baby. He wasn’t particularly fussy or sensitive. Nothing even coming close to colicky. But he wasn’t a mellow baby either. He was terribly alert and focused for a baby. His expression often looked like he was hatching a plan. He seemed to know what he wanted at all times. Rather than happy lilting babbling, his early sounds were more like urgent, insistent prompts: eh! eh! eh! eh!
None of this is especially notable in terms of infant behavior, mind you. Nothing that Ben did raised any red flags of development. But looking back, I always had the sense that there was much, much more happening in his brain than he had the power to express and that this created a certain intensity in him.
We still see this intensity in him when a train engine on a pile-up tableaux he’s constructed refuses to sit at the precise 67 degree angle he would like. At those times, his bubbling enthusiasm quickly boils over into overwhelmed panic.
Sometimes I wonder what’s it’s like to be the parent of a kid who’s not specific at all. What is it like to have the toddler that says “hey man, like, whatever.”
Still, specific has its charms. Recently, when Ben wanted to prevent me from making another well intentioned but dumb-ass parental comment on the video he was watching, he told me “I want to let mommy say nothing.”