The Baby in the Room

You know what it’s like when there’s a baby in the room. At best, the baby is delightful and everyone is cooing and coddling the cute little tyke. At worse, the baby’s screams prevent anyone else from saying a word or even thinking a complete thought. If the baby is upset, then everything must stop until the baby is happy. If the baby is happy, then you must keep the baby happy or there’ll be hell to pay. You’re not even off the hook if the baby is asleep, for the baby must stay asleep. Be careful how loud you talk or how hard you walk, or you’ll wake the baby.

You excuse babies for being baby-like because they don’t know any different. Besides, they’re just so gosh-darn cute. You were a baby, too, and kept your parents up all night. They forgave you, so, it’s OK. Part of growing up is not being grown up, being irresponsible, crapping your pants, saying rude things, not understanding, and wanting everything your way, right away.

Here’s the thing, though. There are many babies in many rooms who are not actually babies; they’re full grown adults, acting like babies. They’re being irresponsible, understanding nothing, saying outrageous things, wanting everything their way, demanding everything right now, and shitting all over everything.

Every room has a baby in it. Every family, every couple, every workgroup, every team, and yes, even every Presidential debate has at least one person being a baby and forcing everyone to either meet his terms or devolve down a long ugly descent to deeper and deeper dysfunction and despair.

Wherever you go, look around and see if you can spot the baby. The baby is not necessarily the youngest one in the room, or the least experienced, or least skilled. It’s the person you check first to see if she’s on board. It’s the one you most need to keep happy or no one else is happy. It’s the guy who creates the narrative, sets the tone, puts the ball in play. It’s the one who gets the most attention for doing the least work. The baby is whomever is the best at playing the baby.

If you don’t know who the baby is, it might be you.

Being a baby gives you a lot of power in the way that being angry, throwing tantrums, getting attention or making people do what you want gives you power. It’s limited power. You can’t accomplish anything long range with it; but a baby is not playing the long game; it only wants immediate gratification.

Adults act like babies for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they never grew up. More often, they did grow up, but some kind of stress: physical, mental, or environmental, is causing them to regress and go back to an earlier state. You might remember the last time you had a bad cold. Chances are, you acted like a baby, simply because you didn’t feel well.

I believe this is more rare than assumed, but there are other times when people will act like a baby in a deliberate attempt to get what they want, cause division, and escape accountability. The recent Presidential debates again come to mind, proving you can be quite successful in most regards and still be a big baby.

Babies bring out both the best and the worst in people. If you’re lucky, someone steps up and acts like the adult in the room. Someone does the responsible thing, cleans up, understands, accedes the point, shows patience, and restraint. Certainly, all this grace gets wasted on the baby. You give an inch and the baby takes a mile. It encourages the baby. The baby can go on and be a baby and get its way and someone else picks up the pieces. But, at least everything doesn’t go entirely to hell.

Ideally, the one who had been acting like a baby should be the one to step up and take responsibility. The best possible outcome is for the baby to grow up.

Others can facilitate this by being parents. The task is similar no matter whether the baby is an actual baby or is supposed to be an adult. A good-enough parent discerns what the baby needs and provides for it. This involves assessing the developmental stage of the baby, so that, if the baby has some capacities, the good-enough parent patiently coaches the baby to behave in a more mature fashion.

If your baby has just never grown up, you’re going to have to be especially patient while she catches up to everyone else. You’re going to have to gradually give her more responsibilities as she learns to handle them.

If your adult is a baby because he’s stressed, you may have to help him remove the stress, solve the problem causing it, or learn to cope with it so he can return to his previous level of functioning.

If your baby is acting immature as a part of a negotiation, then you have to increase the costs of adopting that strategy. Make it worth their while and this kind will grow up pretty fast.

One practical tactic is to use isolation, so that the baby doesn’t disrupt everyone else in the house. She can go on having a temper tantrum, but, with no one else paying attention, she only cries herself hoarse. This is why babies, ideally, have their own rooms, so that everyone else can go on living their lives without everything being centered around the baby.

One thing you want to avoid is having a whole room of people competing over who gets to be the baby, each one acting more childish than the last. This starts off when someone tries to get the baby to grow up, so they can be the baby. The baby doesn’t want to grow up, so a fight ensues. There is no adult. There is only dissension and chaos.

When addiction enters a household, there’s a baby in the room. It might seem like the addict is the baby, the one who runs everything. It seems like the non-addicted people are the non-babies; sometimes catering to the addict, sometimes making excuses for him, some other times resenting him. Sometimes the situation devolves into a screaming recrimination match.

If you look a little closer, though, it’s not quite so simple. A lot of the time it does seem the addict is the baby; but sometimes the others are throwing tantrums. Sometimes the non-addicted spouse is just so fed up that he begins to whine and carry on like a child. Sometimes the addicted person steps in and takes care of things. They switch places.

I prefer to think of the baby in the room as the addiction, which sometimes is found in the addict, and, other times, migrates over to the non-addicted partner and takes the form of some other kind of madness. No matter who you are and how mature you can be, you still have a little child inside you. Take care of her, no matter where she shows up, or she will make herself heard, loudly.