If it weren’t all so cuddly, the baby bonanza being served up this Mother’s Day could have a coals-to-Newcastle quality: Isn’t Mom supposed to get a break from the kids on her special day? But the cumulative message of Babies, the documentary , and Paul Bloom’s cover piece in the New York Times Magazine on “The Moral Life of Babies” is better than a massage at the spa this particular Sunday. The wisdom might even go on a Hallmark card: Mom can chill a little every day of the week, certainly during that exhausting first year, because Mother Nature is on the case. She’s got the basics of infant development under control, wherever and however they may unfold.
In Slate’s own very smart contribution to the baby-mania,” Can Your Baby Wield a Machete?,” I think Nicholas Day misses this one-world spin when he says, “As the (epically cute) new Babies documentary makes clear, culture matters.” In fact, the point of the movie-and of his own piece, too-is to savor, not sweat, the specific developmental variations, however big they may be from baby to baby and setting to setting, because they’re all on a common theme. Whether raised in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia, or San Francisco, California (or Tokyo, or Opuwo, Namibia, all sites where Babies was filmed), babies between 0 and 1 nurse and cling to their mommies, suck their toes and anything else that strikes them, learn to crawl or get around somehow, watch and touch whatever they can (especially furry animals), make messes and get cleaned, learn to walk.
And that’s not all: Miles from the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University where Paul Bloom has done his work, there’s vivid confirmation of his finding that babies-whether they’re the aggrieved or guilty party, or both-display a rudimentary sense of justice. Or not so rudimentary, as in several riveting scenes of sibling-on-sibling violence in Babies . Watch the amazing opening vignette between Ponijao, the baby from Namibia, and a slightly older brother (or relative). She’s just bitten him and he bops her. She wails in the histrionic way of a victim who knows she’s not blameless; he keeps banging his rock on a stone, unapologetic. Now watch the older brother of Bayar, the show-stealing Mongolian star: As he swats the unsuspecting baby Bayar again and again with a scarf, making him cry, Degi keeps a nervous eye out for his mother.
No, she isn’t at the spa-she’s out dealing with the family’s animals. The brothers, for what it’s worth, are now very close, according to interviews with the parents-who all say, by the way, that watching the film was a great family outing. So much for that solo Sunday…
Still from Babies courtesy of Focus Features