Infant expert Magda Gerber’s contributions to the lives of children are widely acclaimed by educators and child care professionals. Less acknowledged is the tremendous gift her Educaring philosophy is to us. Magda’s theories not only make our job more enjoyable and successful — they elevate the child care experience. They stretch us and engage our intellect, opening our eyes to a new view of infants, and of ourselves.
Educaring challenges us to be keen observers. By holding back our impulse to teach, direct, or otherwise intervene when a child plays, we are often amazed by the child’s developing abilities. Through observation we gain insights into the origins of a host of psychological issues, major and minor. Some strike a chord. Parents have reported realizations in RIE parenting classes about personal issues that eluded them for years in psychotherapy.
Educaring tests us to understand and bravely acknowledge a child’s feelings when distraction and re-direction seem so much easier. We bite the bullet, and sometimes experience emotional discomfort as we encourage the children in our care to openly express their feelings. Parents can put the money for future therapy bills into a college fund instead.
Magda presents us with an ideal to strive for, a relationship based on mutual trust, honesty and respect. Educaring is not just about the baby, it’s about us too. We are encouraged to not subjugate our needs to the needs of our child. The baby cries, and we still go to the bathroom. We both have rights, and his is to voice his disagreement with our action.
We tell babies the truth. We don’t have to sing when we don’t feel like singing.
Through Magda Gerber we learn that the best way to teach values like honesty, generosity, empathy and forgiveness is to model, rather than force. We’re not the parents and caregivers chanting “Share!” or “Say you’re sorry!” on the playground. Instead, we gently intervene only when children might hurt each other. We become examples of empathy and patience, trusting that our children will initiate empathetic responses authentically in time. Modeling brings out the best in us.
(Of course, the responsibility to set a good example can also be a little restrictive at times, like when a 50-year-old RIE teacher considers the possibility of getting a little facial ‘tweaking,’ and her 13-year-old responds, “You teach parents to raise authentic children! How would that look?”)
We also model language by communicating with our infants from the beginning about anything that pertains to them, especially the things that happen with their bodies. We can be ourselves, speaking to a child in our normal voice. We trust that a child’s language development is a natural product of our time together. We never have to ‘teach.’
One of the greatest gifts Magda bestows on us is the knowledge that infants are self-learners. And this is how a parent or caregiver spells relief. Self-learning means we don’t need to provide any lessons for a baby, and we need not feel pressured by developmental timetables. Infants are internally motivated to learn the things they need to learn: motor skills, communication, problem solving. We provide the foundation of a secure relationship with a caring adult, a safe environment conducive to exploration and discovery, and let nature takes its course. We never have to worry that we are not doing ‘enough,’ or that the child isn’t doing ‘enough.’ Whatever a healthy infant or toddler chooses to do in his safe environment is the perfect curriculum for him on any particular day. We let go of ‘doing’, and are left with observing, learning, enjoying.
One of the gifts that I am most grateful for is Magda Gerber’s description of two types of ‘quality time.’ The first kind: “wants something” quality time is when we have a task to do with a baby like diapering, feeding, bathing, or clipping his toenails, and we challenge ourselves to slow down, ignoring our instinct to zip through it as quickly as possible. We try to focus on the experience, talking the baby through each step, asking for cooperation, sometimes dealing with resistance. It suddenly occurs to us, “What’s the rush? Is there anything more important than this time together right now? Why are these moments with a child any less important than his ‘play time’?” The child looks into our eyes as if to ask us what will happen next, and we realize that we are indeed having an intimate moment together.
The second kind of quality time, “wants nothing,” can encompass a wide range of experiences, but all we are asked to do is pay attention and have no agenda of our own. It can mean being quietly available as a baby explores patterns of light on a blanket beneath him, or standing nearby while he has a screaming meltdown because he cannot have another cookie. It may be trickier to see the benefit for parents and caregivers in this latter scenario, but it is clarity. When we pay full attention to our child for intervals each day, no matter what the tone of our exchange or the outcome is, we are giving him the quality time he needs. We are doing our job.
Magda Gerber often described the parent infant relationship as “Two awkward adolescents learning to dance together.” She encouraged us to keep our eye on the prize, a lifelong relationship of love and respect. For most of us, this new view of infants as unique individuals shifted our perception dramatically, but also felt like the way we always thought it should be. Whether we are child care professionals, working parents, or stay home parents, we should take pride in this work.
Thanks to Magda Gerber our daily experience with children is profoundly enriched. She challenges us to hone our observational skills like scientists, listen to another’s feelings without judgment like psychotherapists, and empty our minds to revel in the moment like Zen Masters.
She teaches us to make creative decisions about when and how to intervene so as not to interrupt a child’s process of discovery, and work to be models of authenticity by staying connected to our true selves.
And Magda’s most splendid gift of all is a simple truth: child care is the developing relationship of understanding between two distinct human beings.
Now, let’s dance.
To learn more about Magda Gerber‘s life-changing gifts and how to put them into practice, I recommend her books: Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby… and also my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
Reprinted from Educaring, Spring 2010