Our children are born thinkers, whole people at birth, and the good news is that once we’ve recognized this, we won’t need to remind ourselves that they deserve our respect — they’ll do that for us. Once we’ve opened our eyes, we can’t help but notice how aware our babies are of everything we do and say, along with every other detail of their world. They don’t miss a trick.
We’ll be astonished by our children’s natural abilities to communicate, explore and learn, and by how quickly they understand. What’s not to respect?
And now, thanks to researchers like Alison Gopnik, Elizabeth Spelke and Paul Bloom, there is overwhelming scientific proof that infants are competent, sentient people. I like to think that society will embrace this evidence (sooner than later) and that respect for babies may someday be a given, rather than a conscious choice to remember.
Trust is probably the word I use most on my blog and with the parents I advise, because I consider it the most vital parenting tool for raising healthy, self-confident, successful children from birth to adulthood. Two experiences I had this past week were vivid reminders of the value of trust:
While observing the toddlers in one of my weekly RIE Parent-Toddler Guidance Classes, I took particular notice of C, a bright, active 19 month old boy with a delightful sense of humor. C has only recently taken his first steps at home, but still chooses crawling as his preferred mode of transportation.
The realization I had observing C was that there was clearly something that crawling still had to offer him, whether that entailed muscle development, flexibility, cross lateral integration or who knows what, and he wasn’t going to stop crawling until he had gained all he needed to gain from it.
I see this as true for all young children in just about everything they do. Babies don’t roll to their tummies and stay there until they’ve completed the developmental work they need by moving freely on their backs. They don’t push up to their knees and crawl until they’ve learned all they need to learn from scooting on their tummies. Motor milestones aren’t only about new things babies are able to do – they are reflective of children finishing with what they were doing previously. And since the child is the only one who knows the perfect time for him or her to move on, all that’s left for us to do is respect that and trust.
Another recent reminder about trust came during my 11 year old son’s soccer tournament. I noticed that the standout players in my son’s highly competitive club were the ones whose parents generally keep their mouths shut during games, unless they have something encouraging to say. All these boys are exceptionally skilled, train hard each week and know what they’re doing. So their performance at game time is largely determined by their mental state, especially their level of self-confidence and focus, which are both hindered when parents direct or criticize them from the sidelines. These parents don’t seem to realize how much they are weakening their children’s performances by not trusting them to play their game.
‘Acknowledge’ is right up there with trust as one of the most invaluable parenting practices, vital to building healthy relationships with people of all ages. It’s relationship-affirming because it meets the other person exactly where they are, but it’s a difficult one to remember in the heat of the moment when the urge to calm or correct children can be overpowering.
While acknowledging is somewhat similar to empathizing, they are not the same. Empathy is often far too big a leap for us when, for example, our child is having a meltdown because another child bumped him slightly from behind. Acknowledging, “you didn’t like that”, can be our bridge to empathy, and it’s more rational and less emotional, so we are less inclined to overdo it (“oh, poor baby!”), projecting weakness and adding to the distress.
Less stimulation (kids are sensitive to it), less needless intervention (because we respect our children’s innate abilities), and less scheduled activities and busyness will usually add up to more learning, more self-confidence, more peace for parents and kids. Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne is an inspiring resource.
Want to learn everything you’ll ever need to know about your children? It’s simple: observe, observe, observe, and you will see what your kids are working on, which skills they are developing, their imaginations at work, their needs, passions, when and how to intervene rather than interrupt, and much, much more. When we observe we notice that a great many of our thoughts and feelings about our children have little to do with them and are actually all about us. Observing children play is enlightening, fascinating, surprising and immensely enjoyable. And how gratifying it must be for our kids to be appreciated and enjoyed.
‘Wait’ was infant specialist Magda Gerber’s magic word, because waiting is the secret to giving children precious opportunities to make their needs clear, demonstrate competence, and develop in their own way and time. It never ceases to amaze me when I discover that children really do understand my direction for them because I’ve waited an extra moment for the coin to drop. (I share many more details about the magic of waiting in The Parenting Magic Word.)
Like ‘wait’ and ‘less’, ‘slowly’ is crucial for connecting with our young children, because their pace is distinctly slower than ours. Slowing down our pace, our speech and our lives are the way we will let our children in, include and empower them.
Have I saved the most unpleasant for last? No, because I don’t perceive boundaries negatively, and one of my primary goals is to convince parents not to do this either. Boundaries are commonly thought of as this icky thing we have to do with children when they aren’t behaving properly, which is exactly the reason parents struggle with them.
Children are extraordinarily perceptive. They know that it’s easier for us to say, “okay, whatever, hang out with your friend even longer while I stand here pleading and the car’s running,” than it is to insist “come on, it’s time to go now” and take her hand. But at what cost?
As Magda Gerber explains in Your Self-Confident Baby, “Sometimes you may give in to your child’s requests. At others your needs may take precedence. When you are clear about what you want, do communicate your wishes to your child in a clear way. You may avoid feeling anger stemming from self-sacrifice.”
When parents perceive boundaries positively and then learn to provide them with confidence and ease, they notice that their children seldom react negatively, and when they do it’s not for more than a moment or two. Often, to our surprise, we can even sense our child’s appreciation beneath the grumbling. When our children’s reactions are strong and last longer, it’s usually because they have unconsciously (and brilliantly, in my view) created the opportunity to release some intense feelings they’ve been storing, or they’re overtired, or overly hungry, or didn’t really want to do whatever it was anyway and are seeking an “out”.
Our boundaries are the gifts that help children feel protected, cared for, empowered. They create peace and nurture our parent-child bond, because they help to prevent us from yelling at or resenting our kids. Boundaries keep the air clear, so everyone in the family can breathe more deeply. They are essential for our children to feel free, genuinely happy. Kids with boundaries are trusted and always welcome guests and companions. If that’s not positive, I don’t know what is.
“A positive goal to strive for when disciplining would be to raise children we not only love, but in whose company we love being.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect
(Photo by Cristian Bortes on Flickr)
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