elevating child care

Respect, Trust, Acceptance – Magda Gerber’s Therapeutic Approach To Child Care

I was a newbie mom just beginning my studies with infant expert Magda Gerber when I first read Gloria Ohland’s story about Magda in her “Local Heroes” column at LA Weekly, and it resonated deeply. It still does. “Our Babies, Ourselves” (June, 1991) captures the spirit of Magda’s work with parents and infants as few articles have since…

OUR BABIES, OURSELVES by Gloria Ohland

Magda Gerber’s approach to child care is like preventative medicine, and it’s therapeutic for both parent and child. Her philosophy  – based on her psychoanalytic training and work as a child therapist – emphasizes self-acceptance, the need to set boundaries, the importance of ritual and of expressing your feelings, the fact that life is made up of choices which have consequences and that there are no victims. These are familiar principles to those who know 12-step-program theory, and their effect is at least as profound when applied to infant care. And while hers is a low-stress, simple and common –sense approach that acknowledges the realities of working moms, its vision is ambitious: “authentic” infants who become secure, autonomous, compassionate adults.

While too many theories of child-raising focus on making children do or be something more than they are, Magda argues the less we do the better, and suggests that many parents try too hard. She believes infants should be left to explore a child-safe environment with minimal adult intervention, because “spontaneous, self-initiated activities have an essential value.  The pleasure evolving from exploration and mastery is self-reinforcing, and the infant becomes intrinsically motivated to learn.”  But parents must also set aside quality time when they are simply available, watching and listening without judgment, thinking only of the child. Says Magda, “We are conditioned to always be doing something. But it is very comforting to know the parent is there, really there, without the little person being under pressure to do something to keep the parent’s attention.”

The key word in Magda’s vocabulary is respect – for parents and their needs as well as for their child’s. Even the smallest infant is looked at, handled and talked to as a thinking, feeling, participating human being, and never discussed in the third person if she can hear. “Many awful things have been done in the name of love,” says Magda. “But nothing awful can be done in the name of respect.”

Some of her very practical suggestions, with the caveat, “What you teach is yourselves”:

  • Before you pick up a baby, tell him what you’re going to do. Do things with, not to or for, a baby.
  • Allow the child to experience conflict and work it out for herself; let the child experience pain or sorrow, and let her choose when and if she wants to come to you for comfort.
  • Be clear. Be honest. Ambivalence from a parent produces a nagging child.
  • Children need expectations; they need to know the rules. Discipline is an integral part of a rooted, secure feeling. A child who is never told “no” is a neglected child.
  • It’s a misconception that children must be happy all the time. That is not the way life is. If children discover that too late, they will find life difficult and frightening.

When Magda came here from Hungary in 1957, there was no such thing as an infant specialist. Even today, infant care in the USA is neither lucrative nor prestigious, despite our increasing recognition that basic patterns of coping, living and learning are set during the first three years of life. Magda’s Hungarian teacher and colleague, Dr. Emmi Pikler – who originated many of these ideas – was famous for her work with institutionalized children. At her residential nursery, she’d created an environment that encouraged them to reach their full potential. Many studies have since shown that these children don’t exhibit the impaired development – such as a lack of initiative and volition and an impersonality in relationships – associated with institutionalization, and have become healthy, well- adjusted adults.

Perhaps the best thing about Magda’s infant-care philosophy is that its wisdom works just as well in adult life. Mutual respect, and the trust and acceptance it engenders, open the door to well-being and happiness. As Magda says, “Lucky is the child who grows up with parents who basically accept and love themselves, and therefore can accept and love their child, who reminds them so often of their own selves.”

Gloria Ohland (gloriaohland@earthlink.net) is a longtime Southern California journalist and former staff writer at the LA Weekly.For more, please enjoy Magda Gerber’s website: magdagerber.org and her books Your Self Confident Baby, Dear Parent -Caring for Infants With Respect.

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15 Responses to “Respect, Trust, Acceptance – Magda Gerber’s Therapeutic Approach To Child Care”

  1. avatar Rick Ackerly says:

    Janet, this is a wonderfully succinct summary of what Magda Gerber stood for, an approach that works both at school and at home (would that it were more common in schools.) One tiny change might make a difference in its broader acceptance: the language: “the less we do the better” as in: “Magda argues the less we do the better, and suggests that many parents try too hard” triggers a liberal vs conservative, Laissez faire vs. authoritarian, fight which gets us no where. I have had good luck with “I am not saying ‘back off.’ I am saying change the quality of your involvement.” When a parent summarizes what I have been advising with “You are telling me to back off.” Better to say, “You don’t have to try so hard. Be true to your imperfect self and everything will be fine.”
    But I am having fun quibbling with language this morning. I am a total disciple.

    • avatar janet says:

      Rick, thank you. You make a really good point, and I think Magda Gerber’s philosophy is sometimes misunderstood as being carefree when it’s quite the opposite. Magda encouraged parents to be mindful about what babies are capable of doing for themselves and allow them to do those things, and this restraint actually takes far more mind work for parents than doing for the child, fixing situations for him.

      You nail it with “change the quality of your involvement.” It’s being just as present, but taking that moment to observe and see what the child can do before reacting, being open to allowing the child some struggles in order to achieve mastery. (I wrote more about this in “A Hovering Parents Successful Landing”… http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/02/a-hovering-parents-successful-landing/ )

      • avatar Kashmir Kambata says:

        Hi Janet,

        I once observed an infant in a centre during meal time. My student whom I had visited during her practicum was feeding the infant. I noticed that the girl took a piece of broccoli with both her hands, sucked it and then placed it on the table.She repeated this experience and it was a pleasure watching her explore this new taste and flavour of the broccoli.
        The infant while exploring got the broccoli out of her mouth and the student teacher put the spoonful of food in her mouth (I overheard the student tell her associate teacher how the infant is not fond of broccoli, but gave it a go.) The infant pushed the food out of her mouth and got up from the chair.
        During my conversation with my student teacher I suggested that next time she might allow more time for the infant to suck on the broccoli especially since she was aware that the infant is not fond of brocoli rather than putting the spoonful of food in her mouth.
        This suggestion was taken as criticing the centre practice as according to the student she was suggested by her associated teacher that she should feed the infant when she sees the mouth open. The teacher said that they follow the RIE philosophy.
        I appreciate Magda Gerber’s philosophy and implement it, and from my experience I saw it as been implemented without really understanding it fully in this centre especially when they say they are using RIE.
        This experience that I share is in response to how often Magda Gerber philosophy is sometimes misunderstood and the concept of RESPECT is seen differently by different educarers!
        I would appreciate if you could share your perspective on this scenerio. Thanks.

        • avatar janet says:

          Kashmir, I totally agree with you that this teacher has a misunderstanding of Magda Gerber’s Educaring philosophy. Your instincts are spot on! It sounds like she was trying to follow a RIE “rule of thumb” — to wait for an infant to open her mouth before feeding. But she wasn’t being sensitive to this particular infant’s experience or listening to what the infant was really communicating. She wasn’t being nearly as patient and respectful as she could have been.

          Unfortunately, philosophies like Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach, Montessori, Waldorf, etc., are sometimes misinterpreted… It usually happens when people don’t take the time to really understand a particular approach from the inside out and just try to follow some of the practices.

  2. avatar Rick Ackerly says:

    Nice. In the first year of my first daughter’s life I was a student and had an agenda of my own a mile long, so I cherished the times she was asleep, and when she seemed to be happily playing on her own, I took that as an opportunity to get some of my work done. I noted at the time an annoying dynamic. When I was doing nothing, she seemed oblivious to my presence, but as soon as I picked up a book or a frying pan to do something on MY own, she interrupted herself and started to engage in attention-getting behavior.
    It was annoyingly puzzling at the time; now I see that doing nothing in her presence was what she needed. Darn!

    • avatar janet says:

      Well, yes, it’s her job to see if she can get your attention but that doesn’t mean you can always give it.:) Another thing Madga encouraged was taking care of our own needs, even though they sometimes conflict with our baby’s wants. When we’ve given our attention to a baby for a few minutes, we can then do a bit of work, even with the expected complaints. Our children want 24 hour slaves and it’s okay for them to know that we can’t be that for them. Seriously, were your children ever happy when you were on a phone call? Didn’t they always need something right then? Mine still do…

  3. avatar ihilani says:

    Hi Janet! Thanks for sharing this. I am very new to the Montessori philosophy and this gave me a good idea of the gist of it. I am happy that many of these ideas have come naturally to me as a new parent and look forward to exploring your site and learning more.

  4. avatar Buffy says:

    Janet, I fully agree with Rich Ackerley that this “is a wonderfully succinct summary of what Magda Gerber stood for,” I am (as always) looking forward to sharing this with my clients clients and friends.

    I remember when I first learned about Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber in my Feldenkrais Training. I was in awe of the simplicity, respect and “elusive obvious” of what Magda was teaching. My life and my work are forever changed by these wonderful and insightful human beings.

  5. Thanks for this glimpse of Magda’s wisdom. I remember learning from my first child (soooo slowly) as he taught me what he needed. Not a lot of interference but my presence, not adults centered solely on him but adults who did interesting things nearby, freedom to be held and cuddled as he needed but not restrained by arms when he wanted autonomy. Real respect for the child teaches us what they need. At least in my case, it took quite a while to figure out. I wish I’d found Magda (and you!) earlier.

  6. avatar Harmony May says:

    Wonderful succinct comments especially from other readers. As an ECE teacher I have discovered many urban mythis being practiced by teachers who have not understood the various theories they have read, and rely on ‘gossip’ to underpin their practice. Some very good examples here to suggest other ways of thinking and understanding what one reads!

  7. avatar John S Green says:

    Hi Janet,

    This is my first glimpse into Magda Gerber (+ Pikler). I began studying ECD in 1985 when my daughter was gestating, and I now seem to have found another person who gets it. It is always a pleasure to find another soul mate in early childhood development philosophy. I speak of Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury with this comment!!!

    I look forward to researching much more of Gerber’s and Pikler’s work. And, the same with yours…

  8. avatar Ruth mason says:

    Thanks for reprinting this, Janet. Very useful. U don’t want to set the Montessori lady straight? (I tried to reply but couldn’t.)

  9. avatar Patty Feder says:

    Janet,
    Facebook is new for me. Memories Gloria and her daughter Annabell were in Magda’s class
    While I was interning. RIE 2 .I encouraged Gloria to interview Magda. Magda agreed . Great article.
    Gloria and Annabell were in our class at least one year.I lost contact with Gloria is she still writing in the Los Angeles area?
    By now Annabell would be 22 or 23 years of age.So many awsome children and their parent and sometime nannies.
    Years I will always remember dearly. Magdalena,Carol PintoHariLiz MemelObserving their class’s and being their intern.
    So much fun I worked in the classroom and the office. I lived at RIE. Magda’s assistant.It was a holistic experience.
    Respectfully
    Patty Feder

  10. avatar Pricilla Uria says:

    Hello,
    I am interested in delving more deeply into this, maybe even from a professional standpoint. The psychology and putting these things into practice intrigues me. Where can I go to study or get more involved with this? I am a single woman with no attachments to where I live, so I am talking about any opportunities anywhere. Thanks for any advice!
    -Pricilla

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