Lullabies for Little Criminals: Child Development

Child development is the genetic and internal changes that occur in children during early years. There are many internal and external factors that affect a child’s growth and development. The connection between a child’s environment and a child’s development are explored in Heather O’Neill’s lullabies for little criminals where a child named Baby becomes a product of her environment. This is explored through the early death of Baby’s mother, her being raised by a young father and her father’s drug addiction. Baby’s bad decisions and choices come from a lack of guidance necessary for a child’s social growth and development.
The absence of a mother in Baby’s life is without a doubt one of the most significant factor in how her life turns out. Not having a mother to guide her, encourage and mold her to become a healthy young adult is evident throughout the book as the important life lessons from a mother was never instilled. Although Baby is grateful for her father, Jules’s attempts at parenting her, she recognizes that he is unable to take care of himself, therefore unable to give Baby the nurturing environment necessary for a child to flourish.
This is evident when she laments “Jules tried to be a mother, but he’d always kind of fallen short on the mark” (O’Neill, 186). Furthermore, Baby does not understand the feeling of unconditional love that mothers often have towards their children which causes her to look for love in all the wrong places. Without a mother in her life, Baby does not have someone she can lean on for some of the most basic roles of a parental figure, and she grows up feeling ashamed of what she has becomes.

Hence, Baby reflects on her outcome when she states “I thought that if my mother met me now, all grown up, she would be disappointed” (O’Neill, 97). Without guidance Baby succumbs to the life of drugs, alcohol and prostitution, a fate she feels was inevitable given the lack of maternal love. Nevertheless, in her insightful moments Baby states that, “A lot of kids get the privilege of looking at themselves through their mother’s eyes. I could only see myself through my own eyes, and sometimes I could barely stand to look” (O’Neill, 186).
Here Baby Speaks matter-of-factly, without any resentment towards her mother but more resolute that her life is shaped by her circumstances – without love, self esteem or respect for self. In A Theory of Human Motivation, A. H. Maslow writes; [We] have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), recognition, attention, importance or appreciation. These needs have been relatively stressed by Alfred Adler and his followers, and have been relatively neglected by Freud and the psychoanalysts.
More and more today however there is appearing widespread appreciation of their central importance. (Maslow,1943,370-396) The instinctive needs and reassurance mothers provide their daughter’s with is what Baby searches for throughout the book. Therefore the lack of guidance and nurturing is arguably some of the root causes of her poor decision making, as she continues looking for love in the wrong places. When Baby was born, her parents were teenagers and therefore ill prepared for the responsibilities of taking care of a child.
Her early childhood was characterized by neglect as a result her behavior inevitably changes for the worst. She learns early on that adults in her life are not reliable. For instance, when her father is released from the hospital, Baby was under the impression that her father will come for her immediately; however, she is disappointed when he fails to come for her. She expresses her disappointment by saying “I thought Jules was still in the hospital. I thought the day they’d release him, he’d hitchhike right over to the foster home and get me.” (O’Neill, 50)
Jules is unable to understand that Baby has no one to depend on but him and he is presented as negligent of her needs through out the book. Jules is unable to put the needs of others above his own, and in return shows Baby that the only thing important in life is yourself. Baby want’s nothing but a stable and nurturing home environment but Jules is unable to provide the basic necessities for her. In Contemporary Liberalism and the Fate of American Children David L. Tubbs writes “Children depend on adults for many things, and this dependence encompasses more than material needs.
Certain intangible goods—education, for example—are just as crucial to their well-being. ”(Tubbs, 2007, 1) This idea is especially true in lullabies for little criminals where the emotional bond Baby yearns for, her younger father is unable to provide. This lack of caring for his daughter can also be seen when he is taken away by the police, leaving Baby stranded and confused, “As the cop car pulled away, I waved to Jules in the backseat. He had been too distracted to even notice me being hit by a car” (O’Neill, 57).
As a child, Baby has learned to be self reliant and independent. Nonetheless Baby witnessing her father’s run in with the law profoundly affects her attitude towards the law as she herself becomes a prostitute and an addict. Despite the fact that Jules does not seem to care about Baby’s well being, she rationalizes his inadequate parenting as simply lack of experience. Throughout the novel Baby chooses to make decisions that are not in her best interest simply because that’s all that she knows. It is this lack of guidance that paves the way for Baby’s poor decision making.
Baby’s inadequate and drug addicted father is unable to provide the appropriate environment for her to learn the skills needed for success in life. As Baby talks about her father’s drug addiction she makes a remark that is telling. She says “For a kid I knew a lot of things about what it felt like to use heroine. ”(O’Neill,10) Early on in life, Baby is aware of her father’s dependency on drugs and is given no choice but to take on the parental role within her family. Baby has never been told otherwise and will never understand the dangers of heroin use.
At a young age she already feels the pain and pleasure that comes along with drugs. In turn, Baby naively begins to glorify heroin as she associates it with happy times in her life. This is demonstrated in the book when Baby talks about her father and his friends, “They made me laugh so much. I thought they were the coolest group of humans that ever lived. ”(O’Neill, 72). Early on in the book Baby is introduced to drugs, thus she makes a connection between drugs and happiness. Unfortunately, she does not have responsible adults in her life to tell her the negative effects of drugs, and hence she does not grasp the dangers of drug use.
This is later proven when Baby decides that she is, “firm on the idea that [she] would become a drug addict too now. [she] didn’t care what drug [she] was going to be addicted to. ”(O’Neill, 72) Baby idolizes her father and he willingly or not, leads her to believe happiness can be gained through drugs. In the book Jules is arrested for possession of heroin and Baby says that, “Since Jules had started using heroin again it was inevitable that he would be arrested” (O’Neill, 57). Baby has become accustomed to her father’s abuse of drugs and understands the large presence it has on her and her father’s life.
The certainty in her statement also foreshadows the events that occur in her own life if she followed in his footsteps. Baby understands no other alternative than going to prison for her father or for herself. Likewise, Jules is unable to understand that by letting Baby grow up in this kind of environment, it is inevitable that she will adopt these actions and behaviors as the norm and mimic them in the future. By adopting the life skills and choices of her father, Jules has trapped Baby within a life of bad choices.
Child development is the biological and emotional changes people go through during childhood and there are many factors that can affect a child’s growth and development. Heather O’Neill’s lullabies for little criminals explores the similarities between a child’s environment and development through Baby’s bad decisions and choices and how they originated from lack of guidance necessary for a child’s social growth and development. This is seen through Baby’s mother early death, her father raising her at an early age, and her father’s addiction to heroin.

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