From the moment they are born, babies struggle to communicate physical and emotional needs. First they cry, and then they learn by our example to smile, coo, babble, eventually extend their arms to us, shake their heads, point, gesture, and finally speak words and phrases. Imagine the challenge it is for our babies to make us understand!
Common sense tells us that the more actively we acknowledge our child’s efforts to communicate – whether or not we are successful at deciphering them — the more validated he or she will feel, and the more encouraged she will be to continue trying. Responding to our infant or toddler in this simple, often counter-intuitive way works wonders, for parent and child.
When we acknowledge our infant’s cries by taking a moment to say, “I hear you crying. I’m trying to figure out what you need,” even if we are at our wit’s end, it helps us to calm and center ourselves, making it easier to find clarity and possible solutions.
Acknowledgements help soothe our child, too. Our baby is reassured that his efforts to communicate are working. For a toddler, his parent’s “no” is much more palatable when he knows his conflicting point-of-view has been heard. Above all, a child who is acknowledged has the satisfaction of knowing that his thoughts and feelings are well worth listening to and wholly accepted.
Infant expert Magda Gerber taught parents the vital importance of acknowledgements, and I was reminded of their value in a recent parent/toddler class…
A mom told her toddler that she needed a diaper change, and off they went to the changing table. Another toddler, Riley, observed this and asked her mother for a diaper change, too. Riley’s mom checked her diaper and told her she didn’t need a change. This seemed to frustrate Riley. Riley knew she didn’t need her diaper changed, but the acknowledgment that Riley wanted her diaper changed, for whatever reason (it looked like fun, it would be an opportunity to have mom’s attention and intimacy, whatever), might have given her the satisfaction she needed. With toddlers, it’s often less about our saying “yes” than it is about feeling understood and accepted.
As parents, it feels wrong to acknowledge a desire that we will have to deny, or to validate a feeling that seems unreasonable to us. Our instinct is to ignore, dismiss, or immediately counter it. We think that acknowledging our child’s inappropriate ‘want’ or feeling gives it more power. Saying, “You really wanted that candy bar, but I had to take it away,“ rather than, “No. That’s not good for you,” is counter-intuitive, and a major challenge for parents. Most of us need continual reminders.
But imagine how profoundly validating it would be to have acceptance and understanding from our parents, siblings, friends, or spouses of even our wildest, most inappropriate thoughts. We don’t need to act on them. We just want to feel okay for having them.
Don’t let me jump off the balcony when I’m upset, but please understand that I feel like doing it. Don’t judge my sadness, or my anger. Acknowledge it, and help me find a safe way to express those feelings.
As the parent/toddler class was ending, 21-month-old Riley again asked her mother for a diaper change. Riley’s mom checked her diaper and saw that it was still dry. This time she acknowledged Riley’s wish, and it gave her an idea — maybe Riley wanted some intimate time with her mom. “You want your diaper changed, but your diaper is dry. Do you want to go to the car and have a snack together?” Riley brightened. Yes, she did.
Acknowledging feelings and desires encourages our babies to communicate, but more importantly, it inspires them to feel confident about who they are. The good, the bad and the ugly we all have within us feels understood, and it’s all okay. With that kind of love our babies can go far, and are bound to love others just as generously.