“It was my four years of RIE classes (two with each of my two children) that set me on the path culminating in what I’m writing you about today. I’m struck by the deep similarities in our stories.”
This was my introduction to Marcy Axness, Ph.D., a professor of prenatal development, “parents-in-progress” coach and popular international speaker who trains childcare, adoption, education and mental health professionals about the latest findings in the science of human thriving. Marcy is the author of a critically acclaimed new book Parenting For Peace: Raising The Next Generation of Peacemakers. She is guest posting here today and tomorrow and will be available all week to respond to your questions and comments.
First, please enjoy this excerpt from Parenting For Peace…
“When our first child was born, long before I learned most of what I’m writing about here, I was determined to do everything I could to maximize his development. My devotion to Ian’s betterment had begun during pregnancy, when I listened to my favorite classical music, took lots of walks, thought lots of good thoughts. This was a good start, mainly because these were all activities that inspired me.
But once he was here, a certain frenzied insecurity set in about making sure I was doing enough to stimulate his development. I promptly bought a book on baby exercise – yes, baby exercise! I dutifully followed the prescribed twice-a-day regimen of moving his various tiny limbs around and about, folding and stretching his new little body this way and that. It was supposed to get his sensory-motor development off to a head start, which sounded good to me.
As luck and fate would have it, just a couple weeks into our training plan, I attended my first RIE class and what I heard there that very first day carried the blessed ring of truth. Actually, more like the booming clang of truth. And I got it.
I could relax – I didn’t have to improve upon or optimize anything! My child had an innate intelligence that knew exactly how to unfold the unique body that was his. He didn’t need me to pose it, bend it, or prop it into positions that were not yet natural for him.
A basic tenet of the RIE approach is “non-interference in gross motor development” – we allow the innate intelligence of the baby’s developing body to determine when he first rolls over, sits up, stands, walks, and so on. This autonomy of movement fosters important integrative development between various brain areas that end up impacting later capacities for far more than just movement…”
Turbo-Charge Your Infant’s Brain Development With The Mommy Mind-Meld ~ The Power of Parental Example
Imitation is the young child’s primary form of learning, which is why one of my first bits of guidance to parents coming to me for counseling is to cut down by at least 50% the sheer number of words they say to their young child. Children learn from who we are and what we do far more than from what we say. And credible leaders don’t yammer on and on. There is a wonderful balance that can be found along these lines within a RIE context: offering authentic respect and respectfully limited choices while exercising restraint over extraneous chatter, which so often (as it did with me in my early mother days) finds its roots in parental insecurities. Addressing those inner issues is really what this discussion is about!
So let’s get to this exciting topic of…
The Mommy Mind Meld
One of the most powerful ways in which this parent-as-model process shapes your child’s optimal wellbeing is in the realm of actual brain development: the relatively new field of attachment neurobiology has revealed that our babies and children actually piggyback on the self-regulation capacities of the limbic systems in our own brain! When you hold a distressed infant in your arms, the soothing she experiences doesn’t just come from your secure embrace, but also from the actual regulation and modulation of her aroused nervous system that happens when her immature social-emotional brain actually links up with your more mature one!
While the researchers use such terms as “biological synchronicity”[i] and “limbic resonance,”[ii] the sci-fi image of “mind-melding” captures it well. Writes one researcher, in evident awe, “It is a biologically based communication system that involves individual organisms directly with one another: the individuals in spontaneous communication constitute literally a biological unit.”[iii]
But it gets even wilder than that, and has more far-reaching implications for your child’s lifelong wellbeing and success: over the days and months and years of such attuned, connected encounters, the circuitry of your baby’s social brain wires up to emulate yours! Attachment neurobiology pioneer Allan Schore puts it bluntly: “The mother is downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain. The child is using the output of the mother’s right hemisphere as a template for the imprinting, the hard wiring, of circuits in his own right hemisphere that will come to mediate his expanding affective capacities, an essential element of his emerging personality.”[iv]
What that means in plain English is that engaged, attuned, playful interactions with us are a basic and essential form of nourishment for our babies. Bruce Perry points out that developing brains require human interaction as fervently as caloric nutrition for their healthy growth! (For more on this, read the Mommy Mind Meld excerpt from “Parenting for Peace”.)
What is NOT nourishing to the developing brain (this will come as no surprise to RIE-savvy parents) is “electronic engagement” — which is largely an oxymoron, as far as the social brain is concerned. I’m referring to Baby Einstein and other info-tainment, as well as data on the screens of iPhones, iPads, and lapware computers designed for babies. The Baby Einstein juggernaut bears commenting on, just in case you feel like the mom who said, “You want to make sure you’re doing everything you can for your child, and you know everyone else uses Baby Einstein, so you feel guilty if you don’t.” In case you missed it, in 2007 Baby Einstein, along with all other so-called educational screened programming, was found to be associated with delayed language development; television or video watching at this age, said an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson, “probably interferes with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.”[v]
The take-away is, our children wire up to be us ourselves, from the very beginning; this foundation then serves as their launching pad, at the most basic level of brain structure, for surpassing us into higher realms of accomplishment, social intelligence, and joyous self-mastery.
The Power of Example (With a Miraculous Twist)
For this and many other reasons related to the potent teaching power of models, a fruitful question to ask yourself, ideally beginning even before you have a child, is “Am I worthy of my child’s unquestioning imitation?” Daunting, yes. But it’s best to realize early on that whether or not you can answer “Yes” to this question, what you see in the mirror is to a great extent what you will see in your child. And, most likely in your child as an adult.
But don’t despair: Nature seems to have built in a special mechanism that allows us to give our children a fighting chance to surpass us. If our children’s potential was constrained by the limitations of our own accomplishment, we’d be doomed! We’d have to wait until our sixties, seventies, eighties — or maybe never — before we’d feel prepared to be parents. Nature has brilliantly built into the system that our children most powerfully respond to our inner life; thus, it is the ideals, aspirations and earnest striving we engage in that greatly shapes them — our upward striving that helps Life, in theologian John Cobb’s words, to “exert its gentle pressure everywhere, encouraging each thing to become more than it is.”[vi]
Indeed, as I look back into my own history as a new mother, I recognize it quite starkly: if this mommy mind meld deal were merely a copy-and-paste situation, my son and my daughter wouldn’t have had much hope. Motherhood brought me to my knees, and it was many years before I recognized that I had suffered from what I’ve come to call CCPD — Chronic Covert Postpartum Depression. I had grief and rage bubbling up all over. It was really hard for me to be present. RIE classes quite possibly saved me, as well as my children! For one thing, the power of example was at work: my RIE teacher Liz Memel provided me an invaluable model of the simple presence I was struggling to give Ian. And she also gave me the gift of seeing me: just as RIE promotes respect of an infant or a toddler’s true experience, RIE gave me permission to be exactly who I was, complete with my imperfect experience of motherhood.
So here’s the thing I have learned about us as models, including those of us (which is pretty much all of us??) hoping our children don’t emulate us completely. I have learned the power of striving. Through all my struggles with mothering, I never stopped striving — for insight, for healing, for wholeness. And that changed everything, and I believe it is why my son and daughter have both flourished into their early adulthood.
What does this miraculous striving look like day to day? Presence. Mindfulness. Renouncing multi-tasking in favor of uni-tasking. Being fully engaged with all of you in whatever you’re doing. (RIE parents have an advantage, since RIE practice is essentially mindfulness!)
(To be continued)
Please share your thoughts with Marcy. I know she’d love to hear them!
[i] Schore, A. N. “Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain.” Attachment and Human Development 2, no. 1 (2000): 23-47.
[ii] Lewis, Thomas et al. A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House, 2000.
[iii] Buck, R. “The Neuropsychology of Communication: Spontaneous and Symbolic Aspects.” Journal of Pragmatics 22 (1994): 265-78, quoted in Schore, Allan N. “The Neurobiology of Attachment and Early Personality Organization.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 16, no. 3 (2002): 249-63; italics added for emphasis.
[iv] Schore, Allan N. “The Neurobiology of Attachment and Early Personality Organization.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health 16, no. 3 (2002), pg. 258.
[v] Christakis, Dominic A. “The Effects of Infant Media Usage: What Do We Know and What Should We Learn?” Acta Paediactrica 98 (2009): 8-16. The researchers put so fine a point on the infant media debacle as to declare, “Parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.” My contempt knows no bounds for an enterprise that leverages parents’ insecurities and fears (Will my child have what it takes to succeed in this ever more complicated world?) into a frantic market for baby-improvement “infotainment” that flies in the face of everything science knows about what infants and young children need for healthy development. They even thumbed their nose at the American Pediatric Association’s guideline that children under two shouldn’t watch any television.
[vi] Quoted in Cobb, J.J. Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998, pg. 56.