elevating child care

Blue Sky Thinking

“Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs, and leave them alone.” This odd sentence was my introduction to Magda Gerber and the child care philosophy that would become my passion. I had given birth a few months before reading this quotation, the only one by Gerber, in an article in L.A. Parent magazine about raising a creative child.

I remember nothing else about the article, but I could not get Gerber’s unconventional advice out of my mind. I was, at that point, a lost and desperate new mother, who, in spite of reading books and getting plenty of well-meaning advice from relatives and friends, was miserable with the clueless, catch-as-catch-can feeling I had about the way I was caring for my newborn. I sensed that Magda Gerber held the answers I needed to understand child rearing. A few weeks later I called the phone number for Gerber’s organization, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), and I attended a Parent/Infant Guidance Class with my three-month-old baby. But first let me backtrack a bit.

I was stunned that my natural maternal instincts didn’t suddenly kick in after my first daughter was born. I expected to know how to take care of my baby. I found that I did not, and the constant uncertainty was draining. I was exhausted and perplexed by my beautiful bundle of unrelenting demands. Besides fulfilling her physical needs, I felt I should entertain her in every waking moment, resting only while she slept.

In my quest to keep my baby duly occupied at all times, I made essential use of the modern contraptions commonly marketed for new parents. She had a musical mobile over her bed. (God forbid she should open her eyes without entertainment!) She had a mechanical swing that lulled her into a glassy-eyed, trancelike stupor and sometimes made her briefly sleep, but left her parents feeling uneasy. During the day, I hung a musical stuffed cow from a light fixture and played it again and again for her as she sat strapped in an infant seat on the dining table, and the mystifying fact that the cow played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” only added to my crazed confusion. I was overwhelmed, anxious, and panicked, and I wasn’t even sure why.

When I brought my daughter to our first Parent/Infant Class, the facilitator asked me to lay her on her back on a blanket on the floor. For two hours she lay awake, looking around a bit, sucking her thumb from time to time. I saw a unique person, separate from me in every way. I saw an infant with her own thoughts who didn’t need me or a musical cow–she didn’t need anything for two hours! It was a parental epiphany. I found new appreciation for my infant as a whole person, no longer seeing her as a needy extension of me. I was fascinated by watching her and trying to imagine her thoughts. On top of that, I was now able to envision time in my day to breathe, relax, and enjoy my daughter–and even leave her for brief periods of time while she was awake.

I continued to attend class with my baby once a week. Magda Gerber’s philosophy turned what little I knew about child rearing inside-out. I began to see the world from my daughter’s point of view. I began to understand Magda’s quote in the L.A. Parent article about a child’s creativity. Let’s start with her injunction to take the mobile off the bed.

Infants are individuals unto themselves. Artists and creative people, whether they are painters, musicians, writers, architects, designers, or philosophers, have by definition embraced and honed their individuality and express a unique vision to the world. If an infant can begin to spend time gazing at, listening to, and later touching and examining what interests him in his surroundings, rather than being forced to see and hear a mobile above his face every time he wakes up, or a rattle being shaken in front of him, then he has a better chance of staying in touch with his own unique essence. There are only a few choices an infant has the opportunity of making in his world, so let’s allow him to make those choices. If we have artwork or a wonderful mobile that we want to share with a child, then we can place it in his room somewhere for him to choose to focus on it, if and when he wishes to do so.

The second part of Magda Gerber’s quotation highlights the need for parents to take advantage of routine but important aspects of caring. If we give an infant our undivided attention when we feed him, bathe him, diaper him and prepare him for bedtime, then we fulfill both his physical needs and his needs for closeness. Magda encourages us to take advantage of these intimate, cooperative activities that are naturally conducive to togetherness, rather than rushing through them to make way for playtime. When a child can soak up a parent’s full attention during caring routines, he is then refueled and ready to play independently.

And this thought brings me to the last part of Magda’s quotation: “leave them alone.”

“Leaving an infant alone” sounds cold and heartless, but the freedom to self-direct “play” time can be best thing for a child. Giving a child (whose basic needs are met) uninterrupted time to “be” breeds creativity and self-confidence. A parent can quietly observe and enjoy the baby’s activities or be in a room nearby, ready to respond as needed. Second or third children in a family are usually given more of this free time because their parents are more relaxed and have less energy to stimulate and entertain. “Benign neglect,” Magda called it.

A recent article in the New York Times,Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think,” by Alison Gopnik stresses the importance of ‘blue-sky speculation,’ an opportunity to “imagine different ways the world might be.” A baby self-directing his activities in a safe place can begin to develop his own view of life. Time alone allows a child to commune with his inner-directed thoughts. He has the chance to absorb every interesting detail in his environment with all of his senses. He is fully in tune with himself; he is at peace.

And this basic insight first conveyed to me by the words of Magda Gerber can have life-long benefits for tomorrow’s complex world. As author Daniel Pink writes in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future our children need to be prepared to “survive and thrive” in the emerging world he calls the Conceptual Age. Nurturing their blue-sky speculation from the start can provide a strong foundation for developing creative and strategic thinking. “These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Infants are big picture thinkers, if we can just give them time to think.

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12 Responses to “Blue Sky Thinking”

  1. avatar Kathleen Mazzola says:

    Beautiful! What a great article! I’ll be reading all of them.
    The concept of leaving a child alone to observe and think for themselves, sings a song to my soul.

    My Mother believed in this concept also, and there is no doubt in my mind, that that is why I have such a creative and imaginative mind.

    I remember seeing my Mom bring out soft blankets, lay them on the carpet in the living room and hearing my mother suggest to the mothers of her 53 grandchildren, “Why don’t you lay the baby down so he ( or she) can stretch out, observe and have some private time while we visit.” I REMEMBER THIS! And Janet you brought this gorgeous memory up to me. It makes me want to cry it’s so beautiful.
    It makes perfect and loving sense.

    What a fabulous journey you’re creating for your life and for others. i’ll be checking in every day, darling woman! Hip-hip-horray!

    I send you love…..

    Kataleena

  2. avatar Alessandra says:

    I know that the reason I can spend hours – days – alone and doing something creative is due to my mother.

    I always loved to color, draw, do beading, crochet, or something with my hands. I was never forced but I was encouraged. I would just go off by myself and “make something”. I also liked being alone and going outside by myself.

    I will always remember the day that I came home with a bouquet of dandelions that I picked for my mother(to me they were beautiful bright yellow flowers). She made a big fuss and took the special crystal vase from on top of the refridgerator and put them in water and placed them in the center of the table. I was so happy.

    I feel that encouragement is the most important thing for a child. Janet you make this point – so needed for parents today.

  3. avatar MadameHilmar says:

    What a wonderful article!

    It is so true – you think once the baby is born, you will know what to do and when immediately.
    A lot of mothers I have been arguing with about the Pikler/Gerber method have been telling me I should just use my instincts rather than read books. Well, I believe it can’t harm to read a book and learn something new which you then can adjust to your instincts and altogether make a good job in parenting.

    I am glad I have discovered it all right on time, still struggling from time to time but knowing that I am on the right path.

  4. avatar Jade says:

    Hi Janet, I love your articles. I love the concept of letting your little ones just be alone sometimes as sometimes I feel I am constantly trying to entertain my little 5 month old girl and I want her to be someone that likes her own company in the future and can be creative by herself. I don’t know if my LO is clingy (maybe I’m misunderstanding something) or just used to me being right next to her 24/7? For the last 2 months I have been trying to let her have as much floor play as possible(I hid away the big box of toys, musical swing, she hardly ever goes in a buggy or carseat) and just gave her space and a few open ended objects to play with. I stay in the room with her so I am within reach but try to let her have her own space. The only thing is that she seems to get very frustrated and complains a lot after a short amount of time. If I go over to her and engage with her she is instantly happy. I have not been denying her cuddles or interaction either but she seems much happier when I’m constantly entertaining her with singing, faces etc. Maybe I’m getting something wrong? Please help! The only other thing I can think of is that she doesn’t want to be restricted on the floor, she LOVES to be held up on her legs in standing position, she complains at tummy time and rolls but isn’t crawling yet and just seems to want to stand (with my assistance)for a large amount of time.

  5. avatar Buffy Owens says:

    Just lovely! I think my favorite bit was: “Infants are individuals unto themselves. Artists and creative people, whether they are painters, musicians, writers, architects, designers, or philosophers, have by definition embraced and honed their individuality and express a unique vision to the world.”

    This brought such a delightful new view of infants. I have always been intrigued and love with their innate curiosity and with just how individual each child is. But to also have a sense of a child as an artist…painting the moment perhaps with their unique attention and exploration. Well, I am not sure words do the feeling I have justice. But I am grateful for a glimpse of it that I have experienced through your writing.

  6. Lovely…I am learning so much more as a grandmother…it almost makes me feel guilty that I did not have references like this when my own children were babies.

  7. I just went to another baby shower, saddened by the overload of expensive products now considered basic for new parents. Mechanical swings, blinking buzzing toys, mobiles for crib and stroller, and many varieties of baby seats although, as you’ve noted earlier, a seated position is unnatural for infants. http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/04/sitting-babies-up-the-downside/

    I feel like a curmudgeon giving a handmade quilt and board books. I want to mutter that babies mostly need diapers, some warm clothes, and love. It feels as if the principles of RIE, the basics of parenting in general, are being bulldozed by commerce and the “buy this!” mentality. See, I told you. I’m getting to be a curmudgeon.

  8. avatar Sheri says:

    Hi Janet! I just found this sight and RIE along with it and have been reading articles on it for the last few days, trying to figure all of this out. I have a 2 month old girl and have been trying to figure out how to facilitate her independent play at this age since she isn’t even able to grasp toys or anything yet. I’ve wondered if I should just be leaving her on her back to stare at the ceiling or if I should be placing her on a playmat with toys dangling above her to bat at or what. This is what I have been doing up until now and she seems to enjoy it and will interact with the toys for quite some time. But, am I correct in how I am reading this article by saying that you advocate leaving her on the floor with nothing (but the ceiling of course) above her? I am certainly willing to give it a try. Is there anything else I should be doing with her at this age to facilitate independent play? Thanks!

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