Oct 18, 2011

An Antidote for All Ages

A new mother in a parent/infant guidance class I facilitate asked what is to be thought of the advice given to a newborn’s parent to take the baby out a lot and “get her used to people and places” and stimulation so as not to spoil the baby. I asked her what she thought of this common recommendation. In her best self-aware moment she could determine that was a bad idea, really meant to serve the adult, definitely not the young baby. Yet she had seen others doing just this when she was pregnant and wondered about that commonly chosen path. Her wise conclusion then was it didn’t work for her family and she has since learned to be quite an advocate for the authentic needs, the natural rhythm of routines in the life of her growing young baby. She’s also working on meeting her own needs better, trying to find balance while embracing the accompanying requisite sacrifices.

The question remains, how will babies respond to early conditioning such as that popular myth recommends? In Mind in the Making, described by the NY Times as the “next iconic parenting manual, may be up there with Spock, Leach and Brazelton”, author Ellen Galinsky of the Work and Family Institute quotes research on how infants respond to new people, places and events, some with intense physical behavior and negative emotions. The result of the study evidenced that later in life, these are insecure inhibited children who show negative emotions and intense physical behavior when confronted with new experiences. It seems the baby’s amygdala gets overexcited, impairing connection with the pre-frontal cortex that enables children to respond to novelty and threat and then regulate their reaction. So for these babies, ability to self-regulate is not that effective, possibly due to early cortisol flooding. What will their future choices be in the realm of anti-social behavior? While genes may underlie a tendency toward this pattern, Galinsky’s book concludes that nurture surpasses nature, so parenting style makes a difference.

While too many theories and popular myths of child-raising focus on making children do or be something more than they are, infant specialist, teacher and author Magda Gerber argued the less we do the better, and suggested that many parents and caregivers try too hard. An excellent article in Atlantic magazine this past July describes this trap that may land “your kid in therapy,” written by a therapist and mother. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking more familial balance and boundaries, a perk I often say comes for those experiencing and learning the RIE philosophy.

Gerber’s EducaringTM Approach suggests infants should be left to explore a child-safe environment with minimal adult intervention, because “spontaneous, self-initiated activities have an essential value.  The pleasure evolving from exploration and mastery is self-reinforcing, and the infant becomes intrinsically motivated to learn.” [i] “If we help our children build confidence from infancy in their ability to learn, in their own sense of knowing what is best for them, then they will have the capacity to learn for a whole lifetime.”[ii]

But adults must also set aside quality time when they are present, what Magda Gerber called "Wants Nothing Quality Time", being simply available, watching and listening without judgment, thinking only of the child. A four month-old in RIE class just discovered his own “tummy time” and beamed with awe and delight at the sense of his own accomplishment, while his emoting mother observed her trusted baby figuring it out himself for the first time. According to Gerber, “We are conditioned to always be doing something. But it is very comforting to know the parent is there, really there, without the little person being under pressure to do something to keep the parent’s attention.”

Magda’s wisdom is a foundation for many stages of family development, with everyone’s true selves individually evolving rather than being pressured to perform in today’s world of helicopter parenting. Copied below please see an online essay written and posted recently by Dee Dee Myers, a parent in my classes who attended with her husband a number of years ago:
            “When my daughter was just shy of her first birthday, we joined a toddler class. Every week, a dozen or so parents and the instructor would quietly observe the children, in an effort to raise “authentic” and “competent” human beings, with a minimum of intervention.
            One afternoon, a little boy toppled off a slide and began to cry. His startled father hugged the child and said in a comforting tone, “You’re all right.” A moment passed. Then the instructor said, “Children don’t cry when they’re all right.” It seemed harsh at the time. But I soon realized that it wasn’t empathy that was being discouraged; it was telling even a small child what he was supposed to feel.
            Each week, the instructor would prepare a snack area on the floor. If a child wanted bananas and juice, he or she had to put aside the toys, sit down, and put on a bib. It was totally optional. But there were requirements. And it was astonishing to watch as these tiny children made their choices. Some went in for the snack in the first or second week. Others took longer. All of them got there eventually.
            I’ll never forget how I felt the first time my daughter had the snack. Crazy as it sounds, I was really moved by her little act of independence and the obvious satisfaction it gave her. Now, as my children near adolescence, I try to remember that I can guide them, but I can’t tell them what to think or feel. I can try to teach them to make good choices, but ultimately, they must be trusted to choose. And if they know what they want – if they can learn to recognize that special light inside themselves—and if they are brave enough to follow it—they will be satisfied.
            And that will be enough for me.”

Elul 1- August  31, 2011                                          Enough for Me by Dee Dee Myers

[i] Gerber, Magda. "Respecting Infants: The Loczy Model of Infant Care," Supporting the
Growth of Infants, Toddlers and Parents, E. Jones, ed., (Pacific Oaks, 1979).

[ii] Gerber, Magda. Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Resources for Infant Educarers, Los Angeles, 1987.