WHITNEY: Teach your children now about 'the others' they'll meet

When you finally achieve “big kid” status, there’s no going back. It’s fascinating, actually, how soon babies seek their own independence and begin to distance themselves from their babyhood.

At 18 months, we’re witnessing our daughter’s growing confidence and self-assurance that she can do things on her own. She can open the refrigerator or feed the cat.

She can request to eat, ask for more and declare that she’s “all done!” with her new-found words and with simple sign language.

And with those words, she’s also quick to point out other babies — people from whom she is certainly different — whether they’re actual infants or children who are older than her.

For many years before I was a mom, I took care of other people’s kids as a nearly full-time nanny, as a date night babysitter and as a kid wrangler in my church’s playroom. However, I never noticed this “othering” to be such a thing with children until I had my own.

When Olivia was still small and was carried into daycare in a car seat, other toddlers would point to her and say “baby!” which would make me laugh because they looked like babies to me. Toddlers ARE babies to me, but don’t tell them that. I know they’re clinging desperately to their big kid status.

Last week, my sister and I went shopping and, in an act of brave stupidity, I allowed Olivia to walk the aisles instead of riding in the cart. As she sprinted past a shoe rack, a 4-year-old little girl whispered to her mom, “Look at that baby, mama! Maybe we should follow her.” Follow her she did, and the two had a little moment of friendship near a display of blouses.

As the older, wiser kid in this new friendship, the 4-year-old — again, still a baby in my eyes, but a little bigger version — really wanted to take care of Olivia.

“Is she allergic to any kinds of grapes?” she asked me, reaching into her adorable little girl purse.

“Um, no?” I said, tentatively, looking at her mother who had raised an eyebrow. “Are we sharing grapes at T.J. Maxx today?”

From the purse, the little girl pulled a half-eaten grape Dum Dum, wrapped sloppily in it’s original wrapper in appropriate “saving it for later” fashion. A grape allergy small or serious need no disclosure for this particular snack sharing occasion.

“Oh honey, that’s so sweet,” I said, literally clutching my bursting heart. “She’s too little for suckers, but thank you so much for wanting to share.”

The girls exchanged a few more waves and smiles before parting ways as Olivia darted into the home goods department. I was left amazed at the sweetness of the gesture and how this little girl seemed to believe so strongly in her superior, care-taking role in contrast to my daughter’s still-baby status.

Othering is a real thing, and it’s a much studied concept in sociology. It’s our natural response to new encounters, our way of sorting ourselves out from the rest of what exists in the universe. It’s the way I know I’m not a man or a chair or a Republican. But it’s really interesting to see children apply the concept so aptly and at such a young age. They know when they’re no longer babies, and they know exactly who the babies and the big kids are.

Knowing that our children are already sorting themselves out from the “others” in their lives, it makes sense to start discussing now the value in differences and other people’s potential. It’s a lesson we, as adults, probably need to a refresher on as well.

Babies might be small, but they’ll get bigger one day! Olivia, you’ll always be different from someone, and that doesn’t make you bad or them bad. In the words of Yo Gabba Gabba, all our friends are different and we love them all the same. And they’re all worthy of sharing a half-eaten sucker while shopping for your spring wardrobe.