The Easily Forgotten Gift

I know the gift all children want most — we all want it — but it’s a hard one to remember. I’ve forgotten it for days, even weeks at a time. Sometimes it takes a desperate situation to remind me.

Once, I remembered it when my independent ten-year-old went through a phase in which she saw no reason to bathe. Days would pass. She would come up with excuses. I would let her off the hook and then forget about it. Finally, the time came when I knew I must force the issue, but I was still hesitant to demand it. Bathing should be looked forward to as a pleasant experience, not dreaded as an angry and resentful one.

Then, suddenly, the Good Parent Fairy whispered infant specialist Magda Gerber’s magic words to me –“Pay attention” – and I was reminded of her thoughts on baby “caregiving.”

Magda directed parents to give full attention to babies when feeding, diapering, bathing and at bedtime. Rather than treating these activities as unpleasant chores and rushing through them, Magda taught us to take advantage of intimate moments together by slowing down and including the baby in each step. When we do these activities with, rather than to a baby, we cultivate a relationship based on respect and trust. Daily intervals of focused attention refuel children, giving them the nurturing they need to spend time playing independently.

When our babies get older, caregiving opportunities are not as delineated. They might look like: removing a splinter; putting make-up on a bar-mitzvah-bound daughter; or lying with a son at bedtime while he sobs about an unkind playmate. Even though my daughter was fully capable of bathing herself, it was worth a shot to see if she needed my attention. So, I asked her, “Shall I come and wash your hair for you in the bath?“ “Yeah…okay,” she answered meekly. Bingo.

Would you rather have close proximity to a busy loved one all day long, or a few minutes of that loved one’s undivided attention?

Our children need real attention more than they need video games, iPods and trips to Disneyland. Please excuse my Hallmark sentimentality, but simple moments of true togetherness, whether we are happy or sad, mean the most. Focused attention is the glue that holds relationships together. Then why is it so hard to remember?

My newborn son had colic. He would wake in the night several times and cry for an hour or more before I could get him back to sleep. I was an exhausted mess. And my two daughters were adapting to the new addition to the family.

My four year old exhibited the expected mood swings: adoring her brother and being supportive of me one minute, then whining and crying the next. She was in obvious mourning for the loss of her previous life, life without a baby that took up most of her mom’s time and energy.

My nine year old daughter was a perfect angel, which, if I’d been paying attention, should have been a giant red flag. She made no demands of me, stayed out of my way and off my radar. I deliriously thought, “She’s old enough to understand this situation. She’s fine.” My husband and I had heard a glowing report about her in a teacher conference before the baby’s birth. She has always been an excellent student, but she was not without her difficult moments at home. Children are inclined to give those they are closest to (and feel safest with) the backhanded compliment of their worst behavior.

A few weeks after the baby was born, we got a phone call from the nine-year-old’s teacher. Our daughter had begun acting out in class. She had talked back to the assistant teacher and stuck her tongue out. Displaying a rebellious attitude at school was totally uncharacteristic. My heart sank.

I realized that my daughter must not have felt ‘safe’ to push limits with her overwhelmed mom. So, instead, for the first time ever she was showing her worst to the outside world. That day after school, I sat in the car with her and talked. I asked about her feelings, imploring her to express anger, sadness, loss, all the thoughts she must have felt the need to keep from me. I suggested the feelings she might be having, and how normal, how expected they all would be. She could not answer, except for once or twice saying quietly, “I don’t know.”

I became desperate for her to respond. I was in tears then, but still nothing. This one-way dialogue went on for thirty or forty minutes, but it felt like hours. I was beside myself. Just as I was about to give up and return with her to the house, my usually strong, assertive daughter spoke in a tiny, pained voice. “Pay attention to me.”

From then on I made a concerted effort to let my daughter know that I could handle anything she might need to throw my way. I carved out a little bit of time each day just for her. When she saw that I was not too overwhelmed to be there for her bright and dark sides, her behavior at school returned to normal. I was grateful to her teacher (who, interestingly, has always been my daughter’s favorite) for alerting us to a change in our daughter immediately.

In hindsight, I think of those times my parental presence was needed – for issues large or small, important or mundane, joyous or heart-wrenching – as the most cherished moments in my life. Giving real attention has always turned out to be a gift to me, too.

 “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.” – Thornton Wilder, Our Town 

  I share many more of my experiences implementing Magda Gerber’s approach in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

32 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Barbara Elder says:

    How true this is Janet and you express it so well.

    Barbara

    1. avatar Roseann Murphy says:

      Janet, thank you for such an eloquent and heartwarming message of truth. “Pay attention to me” transcends all ages, doesn’t it? We all need those moments. Thank you for the wonderful message! Miss you all!

    2. Thank you, Barbara and Roseann. I wish you Happy Holidays spent with your wonderful families!

  2. I am never disappointed when I open your page Janet. Indeed, we should all be reminded to slow down a little and pay a little more attention. Not only to our children, but to each other. Your story reminds me of a quote, which I cannot recall precisely, but as close as I can remember, “there is no bigger man than one who kneels down to a child.” Thank you for always sharing and educating us all.

    1. Thank you, Ed, and I hope you are having wonderful holidays! Yes, time passes so quickly, and all that matters in the end is those moments when we truly connect with others. I love your quotation!

  3. avatar Claudia Antoine says:

    Dear Janet,
    You write beautifully and the sentiment is profound. You are an inspiration to a lot of parents out there, including me.
    Now I know where your brilliant children get it from. Thank you for sharing your insights with the world.
    Love,
    Claudia

  4. avatar Roseann Murphy says:

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder. We all need this “gift” all year round…Beautifully written…

  5. All I can say is, you again have written an article that I hope EVERYONE reads. I can not agree more with the importance of paying attention! Your writing is so heartfelt and beautiful. It is a great pleasure to read and share your posts!

  6. We all crave attention, which is the true ‘presence’ of another. So worthwhile to understand this about our children and people in general. With babies, it’s critical to understand that ‘presence’ of another human being who is interested and motivated to provide care is a biological necessity. Infants (as well as animals of all types) who do not receive this nurturing do not thrive.
    Thanks for the wonderful illustration of the layers and intricacies of attention in our families.

  7. A message that is worth repeating, Janet. My Hubby and I developed a saying “if baby ain’t happy, nobody is happy” – reminding us to always take care of our child’s needs first.

  8. Dear Janet,

    Thank you for the beautiful gift of this gentle reminder to pay attention. It’s not just our babies and toddlers that need our undivided attention and “listening”, but our “big” kids as well. And as you noted, when we are able to slow down enough to pay attention and really listen to our children, we often receive amazing gifts in return. During the holidays especially, it can be so easy to get wrapped up in doing things “for” children, that we can forget the importance of slowing down, and doing things “with” them, at their pace.Just “being with”- the greatest gift of all!

  9. Wonderful reminder in this busy season. Thank you!

  10. avatar Magdalena Palencia says:

    Nice article. Listening and paying attention are wonderful gifts to give always

  11. Thank you so much for this post, Janet, both from my mama side and my teacher side. I spent most of my time today at work and at home thinking about the giving children the gift of time. I was mostly thinking about giving them time to work through things that they’re doing/thinking/feeling, but I now realize that another important key in that was our own availability as well. I wanted to write about this to bring attention to how precious time is, and by slowing down we are respecting the child and being present.
    This article made me teary eyed as a mama who works away from her children for most of the day. Thank you so much!

  12. One of the best gifts I received this year was being introduced to RIE. I am so grateful beyond words. I came late to the game as my twins wwre already 3 but the wisdom of observation has changed me. This post is a perfect reminder as I get caught up in the consumerism of the holidays that our children want is us, not stuff. Thanks for helping me become a better parent and person this year!

  13. This is a terrific post, Janet. I often tell adults (parents/teachers) that kids want someone who will truly listen to them and respond to them personally and individually. Sometimes it’s so hard – in the classroom I’ll hear “Mr. Scott, look at this” or “Mr. Scott, do this with me.” I must remember that those are the most important times I can spend. It’s important for the kids; it’s important for me. Thanks for the reminder.

  14. *goosebumps! I love this – so so true, such a good reminder of the best gift we can give our children.

  15. Another, beauty, Janet. Thank you. You always hit the nail on the head with beautiful writing.

  16. Wow!!! Beautifully written. Such an important reminder, especially at this time of year.

    Thanks for sharing.

  17. This post resonates with me. I am on a journey to let go of distraction and grasp what matters. For too long, I lived my life in constant motion with a full calendar and phone to my ear. I missed so many of the “moments” that you touch on so beautifully in your post. Now, I am trying to let go of all that other “stuff” and connect with my family. I find the most meaningful experiences are the quiet ones we have together just talking or cuddling. I applaud you for spreading this critical message. Thank you for inspiring me.

  18. One of my daughters is an absolute genius for the way she has managed bath times. Often, a bath will help to calm a fretful child, but that child is often hungry,too. So she brings a plate of cut up fruit, meat, cheese, a bowl of yogurt, and the child plays, eats, and calms down. Yesterday, her five year old (who is profoundly deaf) wanted a washcloth, then another of a different color. My daughter reached into the linen closet, grabbed a stack of multicolored cloths and threw them into the air over the tub, to the delight of my granddaughter. Happy child, and they are only wet washcloths.

  19. Ohhh how I love reading your posts. This resonates to me in so much level!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      1. Hi Lana! I’m so touched that you shared my post on your blog. Thank you!

        1. It was my pleasure. I really like reading your articles and try as much to learn and practice from what you have written as possible. Keep it up please! 🙂

  20. This brought tears to my eyes. Beautifully written, as all your posts are.

    When my kids were younger, I asked myself daily if I had sat on the floor with them to simply be available. If I had cuddled. If I had lingered a few minutes longer after tucking them in at night in case they wanted to talk. I found out that it’s harder when they are older because the ways they want us to pay attention are more nuanced and highly individual.

    It’s also harder when we are stressed. And honestly, when we are very stressed it can toss us, as parents, back to damage we experienced in our own childhoods or in later relationships that left us starved for emotional sustenance. Our coping mechanisms, at least in the US, is to pretend we can do it all and continue on with the usual heavy schedule while carrying extra burdens. That’s when we need to do less. Sit on the floor with our kids more. Linger by the bedside longer. Take extra time to cuddle. The exact nurturance we give our children not only helps sustain them, it’s a salve for what’s sorrowful in ourselves. That goes a long way toward easing stresses too.

  21. Thank you, as always! I need this reminder so much. I know I expect a great deal from my children as an in-home care provider. I am responsible for the needs of seven children everyday, which often means that I rely on my own children (the oldest, usually!) to be “easy.” Often, when she begins to act strongest towards me is when I know I’ve gone too long without connecting. I need this reminder to stay connected and aware all the time. Thank you!! xo, emily

  22. This was so real…raw… how often are we there physically, but not really there…this happens a lot especially now with all the computers, iPads, iPhones and other devices so easily available. I am always “with” my son, but how often and I actually WITH my son? When I really ponder that question, I come to realize that most times I have challenges with him, it’s because I am not really WITH him…
    Thank you so much for this reminder to really focus our attention on our kids, ALL of US..
    It is so appreciated. Have a wonderful Christmas, Deb

  23. Janet,

    I am wondering what you mean by this one sentence: “[she] must not have felt ‘safe’ to act out with her overwhelmed mom.”

    What does feeling ‘safe’ to act out mean? What would have made her feel that she wasn’t ‘safe’ to act out at home, but then perfectly ‘safe’ to act out at school?

    I love all your articles… am a huge fan, and looking forward to implementing RIE when my baby is born in February. I have 2 step children, so am particularly interested in this article!

    Thanks so much,

    Miranda

    1. Miranda, thank you, that’s a great question. Children are very sensitive and aware… And one of the most important aspects of parenting is confident leadership, especially with strong, dynamic children like my eldest daughter. She is usually on her best behavior when she is away from home, because she knows that at home she can let it all hang out. She feels comfortable sharing her more difficult sides… She can push boundaries with us and she knows we’ll love her unconditionally while we set limits for her. She can, for lack of a better expression, “be her bad self” and refuel with us. But she wasn’t getting much of my attention (or any at all) after I had the baby and she was hurting, but she sensed I couldn’t handle her anger about that, so she pushed limits with a teacher she adored instead.

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