I know the gift all children want most — we all want it — but it’s a hard one to remember. I’ve forgotten it for days, even weeks at a time. Sometimes it takes a desperate situation to remind me.
Once, I remembered it when my independent ten-year-old went through a phase in which she saw no reason to bathe. Days would pass. She would come up with excuses. I would let her off the hook and then forget about it. Finally, the time came when I knew I must force the issue, but I was still hesitant to demand it. Bathing should be looked forward to as a pleasant experience, not dreaded as an angry and resentful one.
Then, suddenly, the Good Parent Fairy whispered infant specialist Magda Gerber’s magic words to me –“Pay attention” – and I was reminded of her thoughts on baby “caregiving.”
Magda directed parents to give full attention to babies when feeding, diapering, bathing and at bedtime. Rather than treating these activities as unpleasant chores and rushing through them, Magda taught us to take advantage of intimate moments together by slowing down and including the baby in each step. When we do these activities with, rather than to a baby, we cultivate a relationship based on respect and trust. Daily intervals of focused attention refuel children, giving them the nurturing they need to spend time playing independently.
When our babies get older, caregiving opportunities are not as delineated. They might look like: removing a splinter; putting make-up on a bar-mitzvah-bound daughter; or lying with a son at bedtime while he sobs about an unkind playmate. Even though my daughter was fully capable of bathing herself, it was worth a shot to see if she needed my attention. So, I asked her, “Shall I come and wash your hair for you in the bath?“ “Yeah…okay,” she answered meekly. Bingo.
Would you rather have close proximity to a busy loved one all day long, or a few minutes of that loved one’s undivided attention?
Our children need real attention more than they need video games, iPods and trips to Disneyland. Please excuse my Hallmark sentimentality, but simple moments of true togetherness, whether we are happy or sad, mean the most. Focused attention is the glue that holds relationships together. Then why is it so hard to remember?
My newborn son had colic. He would wake in the night several times and cry for an hour or more before I could get him back to sleep. I was an exhausted mess. And my two daughters were adapting to the new addition to the family.
My four year old exhibited the expected mood swings: adoring her brother and being supportive of me one minute, then whining and crying the next. She was in obvious mourning for the loss of her previous life, life without a baby that took up most of her mom’s time and energy.
My nine year old daughter was a perfect angel, which, if I’d been paying attention, should have been a giant red flag. She made no demands of me, stayed out of my way and off my radar. I deliriously thought, “She’s old enough to understand this situation. She’s fine.” My husband and I had heard a glowing report about her in a teacher conference before the baby’s birth. She has always been an excellent student, but she was not without her difficult moments at home. Children are inclined to give those they are closest to (and feel safest with) the backhanded compliment of their worst behavior.
A few weeks after the baby was born, we got a phone call from the nine-year-old’s teacher. Our daughter had begun acting out in class. She had talked back to the assistant teacher and stuck her tongue out. Displaying a rebellious attitude at school was totally uncharacteristic. My heart sank.
I realized that my daughter must not have felt ‘safe’ to push limits with her overwhelmed mom. So, instead, for the first time ever she was showing her worst to the outside world. That day after school, I sat in the car with her and talked. I asked about her feelings, imploring her to express anger, sadness, loss, all the thoughts she must have felt the need to keep from me. I suggested the feelings she might be having, and how normal, how expected they all would be. She could not answer, except for once or twice saying quietly, “I don’t know.”
I became desperate for her to respond. I was in tears then, but still nothing. This one-way dialogue went on for thirty or forty minutes, but it felt like hours. I was beside myself. Just as I was about to give up and return with her to the house, my usually strong, assertive daughter spoke in a tiny, pained voice. “Pay attention to me.”
From then on I made a concerted effort to let my daughter know that I could handle anything she might need to throw my way. I carved out a little bit of time each day just for her. When she saw that I was not too overwhelmed to be there for her bright and dark sides, her behavior at school returned to normal. I was grateful to her teacher (who, interestingly, has always been my daughter’s favorite) for alerting us to a change in our daughter immediately.
In hindsight, I think of those times my parental presence was needed – for issues large or small, important or mundane, joyous or heart-wrenching – as the most cherished moments in my life. Giving real attention has always turned out to be a gift to me, too.
“Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.” – Thornton Wilder, Our Town
I share many more of my experiences implementing Magda Gerber’s approach in my book: