Like many mothers pregnant with their second child, I wondered how I could possibly love my another child as much as I loved my first. I’d watch my three-year-old son bounce across the room as if the floor had springs in it. He would drive toy trucks over the furniture and crash them together, fly tiny metal jets while making loud roaring jet noises. My chest would swell with love as I observed his antics, and yet, along with that warm, fuzzy feeling came… anxiety. Because holy cow, was he rough.
I’d figure out the love thing, surely, but we had a more pressing concern: How in the heck was I going to keep my first kid from accidentally maiming my newborn? My son was extremely active, loud, and loved crashing things together and building towers for the simple joy of knocking them down. Gentleness was not a concept he could wrap his head around, and as an only child to that point, it wasn’t something he’d needed to wrap his head around.
How do you teach a young child to be gentle? I figured — like with anything else we want to learn — hands-on practice is best. So, about midway through my pregnancy, I bought my son a baby doll. I told him this was going to be his baby. Babies are extremely delicate, I told him, so we’re going to practice together how to take good care of this baby.
My son knew I had a baby growing in my belly, so his curiosity about that quickly warmed him to the idea of having his very own baby to care for.
Our first interaction made me glad I had decided to use the baby doll as practice—because the first thing my son did was try to land a toy jet on the doll’s head. That gave me an opportunity to talk about how when we’re touching and holding our baby, we should keep our hard toys aside. I explained to him about the soft spot in a baby’s head and how we have to look out for that. His eyes grew wide, and I could see the lightbulb going off in his head that playing with a baby was going to be very, very different from how he was used to playing.
We practiced whispering near the baby doll and laying the doll down gently. We talked about the importance of supporting the baby’s head. We changed pretend diapers and gave pretend bottles. It didn’t take long for my son to tone down his rough play whenever we pretended with our baby doll.
Months later, when my daughter was born, my son already had all the information he needed for how to behave in the hospital room, without anyone having to lecture or warn him. My usually bouncy child crept slowly into the room with a shy smile on his face, eager to gently stroke his new sister’s soft head. He held her, too, sitting still and smiling lovingly into her newborn face.
I’m sure my son would have loved his little sister even if I’d never bought him that doll, but I think that giving him that safe hands-on practice ahead of time made a huge difference. Not only did it teach my son how to behave physically, but it also taught him how to be a loving caregiver. It gave him a massive sense of pride to feel like he was contributing to the care of this tiny new family member, and that nurturing piece of him has stuck around. He’s almost 13 now and she’s 9, and to this day, he still looks out for his little sister.