This is a common game of babies: Drop an object on the floor. Wait for adult to pick it up and give it back. Drop it again. Repeat until adult begins tearing hair, turning purple, or otherwise doing something entertaining.
We didn’t play that game when Nicholas was a baby.
I had been noticing since I was very young that most adults would play that game with a baby for a while, thinking it was so cute how the baby said, “Uh-oh!” or dramatically pretended to have dropped the object by accident, but then the adult would get sick of the game and wish the baby would quit it. While the baby continued to have fun, the adult’s gradually increasing frustration and resentment would be expressed through signals babies don’t understand, until finally the adult would stalk away, roughly plunk the baby on the floor, yell, or otherwise hurt the baby’s feelings. Then the other adults present would laugh at the sad baby. This struck me as a bad experience for both baby and adult, in the end, and a poor way to teach social skills.
There are some parents who really enjoy raising an “ornery” child who does annoying things just to get a reaction from people, and if you’re that kind of parent this article is not for you! This advice is for parents who want their child to understand, as early as possible, that if you want to keep an object you had better treat it properly.
Of course, babies are just learning to grasp objects, so they are going to drop things pretty often. When it’s genuinely a mistake, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get the object for him and give it back. Just don’t make a big production out of it–acting horrified that it’s fallen, saying, “Uh-oh!” in a loud cute voice–because that makes it rewarding. Be very calm and treat this mishap as a brief interruption in what he was doing; assume he’ll want to get back to doing it as soon as he has the object in hand again. Show him that you see accidental dropping as something that happens but is no big deal, not interesting at all.
If the baby drops the same object twice in a short time, start paying more attention to him. It may have been another mistake; it may have been a way of getting your attention. Don’t give him attention for dropping, but talk to him, get him involved in what you’re doing, hug him, smile, etc. If you are very busy, thinking out loud may keep him entertained.
If you see that the baby waits until you’re looking before he drops–especially if he does it with a coy expression or says, “Uh-oh!” the second he lets go–he’s doing it because of your reaction, not to fulfill a desire to get the object to a different place. Your goal now is to avoid having your reaction be rewarding for him.
Here is what I did when Nicholas purposely dropped or threw something while watching for my reaction: I said, “I see you’re all done with that.” and picked it up and took it away.
If he protested, I said in a surprised tone, “Well, if you wanted to keep it, why did you throw it on the floor?” After a brief pause and puzzled look, I gave back the object, said in a pleasant instructive tone, “Hang onto it this time,” and went about my business.
If he dropped it again, I shrugged and left it on the floor (if it didn’t create a mess that had to be cleaned up immediately) and kept on with what I was doing until he asked me to pick it up. Then I said, “Just a moment,” and when it was convenient for me, I picked it up and repeated, “If you want to keep it, hang onto it.”
If he dropped it one more time, I said, “I am tired of picking it up. You’re all done with it.” and put the object out of his reach for several hours at least. At times I had to do this with 3 or 4 objects in an hour before he finally gave up! But by about 18 months, he understood that if he treats an object irresponsibly, it will get taken away for a while.
It’s important to be firm and matter-of-fact about this, not mean and rude. Don’t even start playing the drop-and-pick-up game; act to stop it before you feel so frustrated that you want to yell at the baby or throw the toy yourself. Avoid sighing, rolling your eyes, or telling anyone else present how tired you are of your kid “always” behaving like this. (I once saw a toddler in a restaurant who actually sighed and rolled her eyes just before pushing over her cup again–she had learned that this was appropriate behavior in this situation!) When your attitude says, “Here we go again! He’s so annoying!” you convey to your child that you expect that he will behave that way and that your efforts to stop him will not work. Babies are designed to figure out our expectations and try to fit them. Show, instead, the expectation that a person who wants to play with a toy or eat a food will keep that thing near him.
Mistakes do happen, especially to inexperienced chubby-fingered people, and it’s possible that a baby who understood that you meant it about not throwing Owl across the kitchen will, five minutes later, accidentally lose control of Owl and see her tumble helplessly off the high-chair tray and feel quite stricken. Try to recognize the different body language that goes with a mistake, compared with an attempt at annoying game-playing. Sometimes you’ll take away a toy and then realize you misunderstood what was happening–and then you can give a second chance.
UPDATE: On a Wednesday when I don’t have time to write an article, I’m linking this to Works-for-Me Wednesday, where you can learn some new uses for potatoes, many St. Patrick’s Day ideas, and more!