“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.
To learn more about Magda Gerber‘s life-changing approach and how to put it into practice, I recommend her books: Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby… and also my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)