elevating child care

The Parenting Magic Word (10 Ways To Use It)

Magda Gerber extolled the power of a single word that is fundamental to her child care philosophy. This word reflects a core belief in a baby’s natural abilities, respects his unique developmental timetable, fulfills his need to experience mastery, be a creative problem solver and to express feelings (even those that are hard for us to witness). The word is a simple, practical tool for understanding babies, providing love, attention and trust for humans of all ages.

The word is wait. And here’s how it works…

1. Wait for development of an infant or toddler’s motor skills, toilet learning, language and other preschool learning skills. Notice a child’s satisfaction, comfort and self-pride when he is able to show you what he is ready to do, rather than the other way around. As Magda Gerber often said, “readiness is when they do it.” Ready babies do it better (Hmmm… a bumper sticker?), and they own their achievement completely, relish it, and build self-confidence to last a lifetime.

2. Wait before interrupting and give babies the opportunity to continue what they are doing, learn more about what interests them, develop longer attention spans and become independent self-learners. When we wait while a newborn gazes at the ceiling and allow him to continue his train of thought, he is encouraged not only to keep thinking, but to keep trusting his instincts. Refraining from interrupting whenever possible gives our child the message that we value his chosen activities (and therefore him).

3. Wait for problem solving and allow a child the resilience-building struggle and frustration that usually precedes accomplishment. Wait to see first what a child is capable of doing on his own.

When a baby is struggling to roll from back to tummy, try comforting with gentle words of encouragement before intervening and interrupting his process. Then if frustration mounts, pick him up and give him a break rather than turning him over and ‘fixing’ him. This encourages our baby to try, try again and eventually succeed, rather than believe himself incapable and expect others to do it for him. This holds true for the development of motor skills, struggles with toys, puzzles and equipment, even self-soothing abilities like finding his thumb rather than giving him a pacifier.

(For more examples of the value of waiting for children to solve problems, please read A Jar Not Opened and A The Powerful Gift of “I Did It”.)

4. Wait for discovery rather than showing a child her new toy and how it works. When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself. –Jean Piaget

5. Wait and observe to see what the child is really doing before jumping to conclusions. A baby reaching towards a toy might be satisfied to be stretching his arm and fingers, not expecting to accomplish a task. A toddler looking through a sliding glass door might be practicing standing or enjoying the view and not necessarily eager to go outside.

6. Wait for conflict resolution and give babies the opportunity to solve problems with their peers, which they usually do quite readily if we can remain calm and patient. And what may look like conflict to an adult is often just “playing together” through an infant or toddler’s eyes.

7. Wait for readiness before introducing new activities and children can be active participants, embrace experiences more eagerly and confidently, comprehend and learn far more. It’s hard to wait to share our own exciting childhood experiences (like shows, theme parks or dance classes) with our children, but sooner is almost never better, and our patience always pays off. (I explain this in much more detail in Toddler Readiness – The Beauty of Waiting and Please Don’t Take The Babies.)

8.  Wait for a better understanding of what babies need when they cry. When we follow the impulse most of us have to quell our children’s tears as quickly as possible, we can end up projecting and assuming needs rather than truly understanding what our child is communicating. This is the basis of my argument in Attachment Parenting Debate – For Crying Out Loud and the realization shared by a parent in A Toddler’s Need To Cry (One Parent’s Lesson).

9. Wait for feelings to be expressed so that our children can fully process them. Our child’s cries can stir up our own deeply suppressed emotions; make us impatient, annoyed, uneasy, and even angry or fearful. But children need our non-judgmental acceptance of their feelings and our encouragement to allow them to run their course.

10. Wait for ideas from children before offering suggestions of our own. This encourages them to be patient thinkers and brainstormers. Countless times I’ve experienced the miracle of waiting before giving my brilliant two cents while children play, or providing play ideas when children seem bored. Biting my tongue for a few minutes, maybe saying some encouraging words to a toddler like, “It’s hard to know what to do sometimes, but you are creative, I know you’ll think of something” is usually all that it takes for the child to come up with an idea. And it’s bound to be more imaginative, interesting and appropriate than anything I could have thought of. Best of all, the child receives spectacular affirmations: 1) I am a creative thinker and problem solver; 2) I can bear discomfort, struggle and frustration; 3) Boredom is just the time and space between ideas… (And sometimes, the wellspring of genius.)

Instincts may tell us that waiting is uncaring, unhelpful and confidence-shaking — until the results are proven to us. Sitting back patiently and observing often feels counterintuitive, so even if we know and appreciate the magic that can happen when we “wait”, it usually involves a conscious effort. But it’s worth it.

Do you find it challenging to wait? Do you have a magic word of your own? No need to wait to share your thoughts…

(I share more in my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting)

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79 Responses to “The Parenting Magic Word (10 Ways To Use It)”

  1. avatar Anh says:

    Thank you for posting this! I absolutely love it and it couldn’t have come at a better time. My tot took her lil sweet time to walk and as first time parents- we were SO worried. One day a little past her 16-month mark, she decided SHE was ready and when she did – suddenly my baby was no longer a baby and now I wish she could have waited just a little longer!

  2. avatar stefanie says:

    i absolutely love this post mostly for the reason that i’m terrible at waiting. with each # you wrote, i found myself thinking of all the way i DON’T wait but truly want to. i have such a hard time watching my almost 3yo put on her shoes – even when we aren’t in a rush! When we play, i have a hard time watching yet I complain she won’t play by herself. It’s something i am constantly working on but can’t seem to do. Are there any small steps I can start with? I know it seems silly, JUST WAIT. it seems so easy but i really struggle. Maybe I can repeat a motto in my head. Thank you for this post.

    • avatar Ashley says:

      I also sometimes find it difficult to wait, so I use a tip I read somewhere about always counting to a certain number (17, not sure why?) in your head while you’re waiting for your child to do something you’ve asked them to do, like start putting on their shoes. Amazingly, it seems that by the time I get to 17 my 4 year old has almost always started doing the thing I asked him to do!

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