(regardless of what the baby actually looks like)
Let’s be honest, a lot of babies look vaguely creepy. There are many exceptions, but unfortunately most proud parents are (rightfully) oblivious to the fact that their newborn primarily bears resemblance to an alien. Since perfectly attractive people can have very odd-looking babies, you need to be prepared with a socially acceptable way to respond to any baby photo that is independent of the photo subject.
Step 1: tone of voice.
Your voice should always be positive, upbeat, and admiring when looking at baby photos.
Step 2: filler words.
The first time I ever look at someone’s child I start with an “awwww” while I think of something more specific to praise. It’s non-committal and generally accepted as an outward expression of how cute the photo is, even if inside you are thinking “awwww, that poor kid is going to have a tough time in middle school” or “awwww, shit, how am I going to say something nice about this kid?”
I’ve also found an effusive “oh my goodness” to be an acceptable alternative. “Wow” fills the same role but gives you less time to think. Find a word or phrase you’re comfortable with that will buy time.
See step 1 about tone. All of these responses are tonally dependent.
step 3: avoiding gender.
Most of the time the baby’s gender will be obvious (by name, by the parent’s pronoun use, by all the sonogram pictures that were posted to Facebook for seven months…), but there are some circumstances in which gender is unclear and for whatever reason you think it is uncomfortable to ask. Unless you know for sure whether it’s a boy or a girl, try to avoid receiving the awkward “actually, it’s (s)he” correction from a defensive parent. A safe way to do this is to pick a feature to compliment, and then try to wait for the parent to state the gender. Instead of “he’s got stunning eyes” go for “look at those eyes!”
step 4: be specific.
I’m a big believer in the feature-based compliment route because I am a terrible liar. I really am not great at selling the “she’s beautiful” line when it’s a goblin baby. Instead, I pick something in the picture that I can admire without guile.
My go to features:
- Fingers/toes (particularly the little nails)
A bit more detail:
Cheeks are safe bets. Cheeks are almost always my first choice of baby compliments, regardless of whether it’s a model baby or a Golum baby. This is especially effective when paired with “oh look at those …” as an opener because then you don’t have to specific what you like about them. (Combing steps 1-4: “Awww! Look at those cheeks!” is a golden first response to a baby photo. It works for every baby. No one can fault you. No one can correct you. You said nothing that can possibly be misconstrued, even for particularly jowly babies. You did a great job!)
Eyes are also winners. Eyes can be expressive, striking, alert, etc. Find a few adjectives that work for you. You can also always throw it a comment about how the eyes are indicative of the baby’s intelligence. Parents like that shit.
If you’re not going for a face-based compliment, stick with the baby’s hands/feet. It is a particularly safe bet to comment on the smallness/delicacy/amazingness of the baby’s fingers and toes.
Step 5: look for kid-specific things to discuss.
You made it through the first 5-10 seconds with your canned baby responses. Now you have to carry on the conversation for at least 30 more seconds until you can get away from whatever mobile device is being waved in front of your face.
- The littleness of the baby (don’t go overboard here if it’s a premie) and admiring various small features
- Comments about how the baby looks “snuggly”
- Inquiring about the health of child/mother (try to keep it vague. don’t ask about the birth unless hearing about episiotomies is your thing…)
- Asking about how everyone is sleeping
Things to Avoid:
- Commenting on chubby babies, fat rolls, use of the word “chunky,” etc. Yes, it is good/normal/healthy for babies to have baby fat. However, quick admiration will go better if you pick universally safe topics that don’t potentially carry societal baggage. Comment only if the parent brings it up first, and even then use qualifiers like “sweet.”
- Speculating on which parent the baby looks like more. This is a can of worms. Stay away.
- Commenting on headbands/hats made with gigantic plastic flowers. Admittedly this is my personal preference, mostly because I don’t think such monstrosities should be encouraged.
Step 6: extraction.
After one or two pictures, apologize for cutting things short and excuse yourself to go back to work/run to the restroom/grab a drink of water. Tell the parent congratulations. Say how glad you are they stopped by to share the photos with you. Throw yourself a small party for successfully admiring someone’s (ugly) baby.
This post was written by Lauren’s incredibly hilarious sister, who is so gifted at writing that she began doing the family Christmas letter when she was 8 years old and continued until after college. Lauren begged for her to write for Parentheticalasides.com, so leave lots of grateful comments so that we can all enjoy it again.