Feb 16, 2012

French, Chinese, or what?

Humanizing Families 
The infamous saga of eating out with young children continues. Picture twenty month- old Tim entering a neighborhood restaurant with his parents, toddling past some big potted plants just at his eye level. Tim reaches out for a fat green leaf and is about to grab on when his attentive mother speaks. "Timmy, that's not okay for you to pull. It looks like you want to touch it, so please be gentle." In turn the attentive, communicative toddler hears the message and lets go. Losing interest in the scenery and feeling hungry, the family moves to their waiting table for a meal together. Timmy truly wants to sit only on his mom's lap, and she tells him that will be fine for a while, but when their food comes, she wants him to sit in his seat too. Sure enough, soon he is placed in his seat, offered a bib to wear, and eats his meal alongside his parents. But in a while it's clear that this toddler needs more room, and they're all on their way home, hunger satisfied.
What goes on here? It looks and sounds like these people have relationships with each other that enable their lives to function in a pleasant, harmonious and cooperative manner. Were these parents finding a way to see their role through humanized eyes, growing in new directions towards healthy patterns of mutual satisfaction and care in their family? Have they fostered something that makes early childhood less difficult than the typical public eating out scenario? Sounds familiar...and it doesn't seem like they were controlling their toddler by forcing his compliance. 

What about their parenting style? Is it French or Chinese? Years ago a letter to the Times stated “Parenting trends come and go but children’s needs never change.” This is true no matter if one emulates last year’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” or the latest “Bringing Up Bébé.” As Magda Gerber, Founding Director of Los Angeles-based Resources for Infant Educarers said, “When allowed to unfold in their own way and in their own time, children discover, manifest and inspire the best in themselves and in others.” The buzz is high voltage on these two books, hot-housed in PR firms and creating the controversy over authoritarian vs. permissive parenting while bashing today’s parents and kids.

What Tim’s parents were doing was communicating and responding to their child, intentionally allowing his cues to inform them – a parenting approach they began experiencing when Tim was first born. As new parents they became aware that the developing relationship between parent and child was primary as they slowly learned to look to their baby to find out what he needed instead of projecting their needs onto him (a familial dysfunctional pattern best avoided in one’s own new family).  These parents would later learn how that enduring concept would influence the years far beyond infancy, resonating for them every day long into adolescence.

Parenthood provides a difficult but therapeutic stage of adult development that I have studied and processed for decades as an infant developmental specialist. In my masters degree research with families of young children, the outcomes of a standardized attitudinal test showed very little stress from a group that had been participating for two years in a program offering Magda Gerber’s EducaringTM Approach. These parents perceived much less burdensome aspects of their roles, an experience that many fed-up parents and boundary-less kids today would no doubt covet.    

By sensitive observation of a baby, the parent may make fewer but more selective and more effective interruptions in the child's activities. Being actively allowed to explore safely builds trust in oneself and those significant others who accept you and your yearnings, both physical and emotional. Responsiveness to a child's signals on an emotional level, the quiet availability and facilitation of striving for independence, is shown by the caregiver's willingness to allow the child's autonomous functioning and help him achieve a sense of his own competence.         
The fundamental worth of the whole child, including his responsibility for the choices he makes, his initiative, needs to be acknowledged by another in order to be felt and learned by him. "Spontaneous, self-initiated activities by the infant have an essential value for his physical and mental development in that the pleasure evolving from exploration and self-mastery is self-reinforcing. Subsequently, the infant becomes intrinsically motivated to learn," writes Magda Gerber in “Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect”, her well-known book self-published by Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), a non-profit based in Los Angeles since 1978. (www.rie.org)
"A consciousness in everyday interactions which bring forth respect," is the way one parent who benefited from RIE’s supportive parenting classes describes the daily process of fully experiencing growth and change together. Vital life-long patterns of communication being formed will affect the parent-child relationship throughout its existence where self-discovery offers a process for mutual growth and development.

Magda Gerber wrote decades ago in The RIE Manual: for parents and professionals “Nobody said it was easy to be a parent” She identifies the two major difficulties as ”The On-Goingness of Being a Parent” and The Technicality of Being a Parent.” Her prophetic words tell how “these two realities…impinge on the attitudes of today. “And these realities don’t have to be so overwhelming if the parents have strong support, both that of their peers and of society itself. If the parent’s job is recognized as tough and society supports parenthood and its toughness, then the parent feels strong….I’m not talking about glorifying parenthood the way they…hallelujahed parenthood so much…out of proportion that no one could live up to that false ‘perfect’ image of the super parent. That was the pitfall of those times.” (p. 25) Nothing’s changed much, in fact parenthood has morphed into a publicist’s dream in the culture vulture mentality.
Almost everyone knows how expectant parents are practically given a riot act of woeful predictions: “Better sleep now – it’s your last chance” – “Twins? Double trouble!” –“Your life is never going to be the same!” What’s a parent to do? Resign oneself to the ominous challenges by accepting the vision of sacrificial martyrdom and hovering, up to and including your child’s first job applications? Or understand some possibilities for finding community, making conscious parenting choices that could help develop more harmony and balance in a family’s life from the beginning…and for the long run too.