The smell of love is more prominent than you think
Do you know how I tell my children’s clothes apart? If your first thought is by the labels with their names on them, I applaud your dedication to making your nursery teacher’s life a whole lot easier, but sadly, no. I have definitely heard tall tales of parents who label their children’s clothes, but have never encountered them in real life.
Any nursery will have dedicated coat hooks and baskets for clothes to keep everything separate, but sometimes someone makes a mistake or life happens, and you end up with a bunch of mystery clothes.
I startled my bosses the first time I did this, but by now everyone does it: I smell the clothes. Most of the time, I instantly know whose clothes I’m holding.
Don’t worry, your kid isn’t smelly or dirty, but thankfully there are enough different detergents to enable a quick smell test for us. Also, children have their own smell, and this lingers in whatever they wear. Some children even smell of perfume or soap, but even if they don’t they all have their unique, special blend of aromas which we smell every time we hug them.
So smelling a pair of comfy trousers will conjure up the image of one of the boys who always does a ‘beep-beep-beep’ noise when backing up his toy cars, or smelling a dress may make you think of the girl who never fails to try to escape from the garden while playing outside.
I strongly believe that smell is one of the most important senses we have, especially in childcare. We check diapers with our noses, discuss the delicious smell of the cheese on toast that’s almost cool enough to eat for lunch, and smell the breath of a child to see if they are well or not.
The joy you get from hugging someone you love, for me, rests mostly in the sensation of smell – although smells are notoriously hard to describe (have you ever seen a comprehensible perfume ad?), they have the ability to instantly conjure up an emotional response. I never used to like a certain shower gel, but now that I have a husband who uses it, I instantly feel happy when I smell it.
But, back to the children: have you ever noticed they don’t have the same hang-ups about smell as we do? They go through life mostly without commenting on bad or good smells, and seem to not even smell it when another child has pooped or farted.
Children only start alerting us to full diapers or smelly poops once they approach primary school age and I’ve never seen a child smell a flower without being prompted to do so by an adult. So, smells are something we learn from our elders, and yet they somehow become such an unconscious experience that according to Bill Bryson’s The Body, the sense of smell is the one most people would give up out of the five senses.
One of the reasons I like my job is that although the children will most likely not remember me when they grow up, I have been a significant and powerful presence in their young life. I sincerely hope that the children in my nursery, when they grow up, will smell something that unconsciously reminds them of me and makes them feel happy. Just as happy as I feel when I smell their clothes. So, maybe, forget about the labels after all.
Merel Miedema is an early childhood educator in Amsterdam, where she works at one of the city’s oldest independent and green crèches.