From time to time I have the pleasure of sharing the perspectives of other parents, educators, and early childhood professionals familiar with the work of infant expert Magda Gerber. This post is by Miven Trageser, M.A., a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. Miven specializes in parenting, mother-infant attachment therapy, play therapy with small children, and couples therapy. She attended RIE Parent/Infant Classes with her now 11 year old son and 8 year old daughter.
It’s a big family party and your beloved brother who has never met your newborn approaches with great joy and excitement. “My brand new nephew!” his voice is booming. He swoops his face inches from your baby’s and starts grabbing under the baby’s chin and on the tummy, making gootchy-goo noises. Your baby seems to freeze. Is this OK with you?
a) Of course. That’s his uncle and he’s expressing love.
b) If my baby ends up laughing, then I guess it’s OK, but I feel kind of nervous.
c) No. I adore my brother, but my baby has NO IDEA who this man is and looks completely overwhelmed.
If your answer was ‘a’, I’m going to offer a challenge: Would it be OK with you if a stranger did this to you? How about a stranger who towered over you? Can you imagine how it would feel if you were helpless to move away? Isn’t it even worse if this grabbing is happening to you and you don’t like it, but everyone you trust around you is smiling and laughing?
From the mom-perspective, the fact that your brother (or other relative) is utterly familiar to you and that his intentions are clearly loving makes it hard to see that he is a stranger to this baby. We can wish it wasn’t so, rationalize somehow, but then we are still seeing this situation from the adult’s perspective, not the infant’s. It’s very hard to know what to do when you are torn between adults you can identify with (you can feel your brother’s intentions), and the baby you are taking care of.
There are lots of interpersonal reasons why your decision might tip towards understanding your brother’s point of view and temporarily tuning out your baby’s, which is answer ‘b’ above. It’s a huge challenge to really consider the helplessness of infants, and remain an advocate for them in the face of social pressures.
Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE, (Resources for Infant Educarers) opened my eyes to the actual experience of infants and toddlers when I read her books and was able to attend a RIE parent-infant class when my children were babies. In these weekly classes I practiced a new skill of observation without agenda, sometimes called ‘looking at infants with new eyes.’ This awareness continued to grow as my children passed through many developmental phases. Being able to imagine your child’s experience is a strong indicator of secure attachment between parents and children.
Why is this important? There is a lot of exciting new research in psychology on infant attachment, and the relationship structures that get ‘embedded’ early in life. A lot of this work in psychology, brain research and child development, focuses on how infants regulate fearful emotional states, something that is called “affect regulation.” In the infant/uncle scenario, the infant who freezes and stares vacantly is experiencing a fearful state of emotional and physiological arousal and using a strategy of dissociating.
What’s sad is that the uncle in this story is attempting to reach out to the infant in the best way he knows, but he’s not starting from where the infant actually is. He’s starting from where he is and where he wants the infant to be with him—close and connected. It’s a sad fact of life for many dispersed modern families that babies may not know their uncles, aunts and grandparents as well as they know their babysitters or their mother’s friends. Sensitive conversations may have to happen for you to mediate between the relatives’ needs and wishes, and the perspective of your baby.
If you picked ‘c’, then you are accepting the inconvenient reality that this person you love is not familiar to your baby. Once you accept what is, you can foster the beginnings of an authentic uncle-nephew relationship. I believe this is the most respectful and aware way to go, though I can’t say I always followed this path. I know there were times when I chose to keep silent about something in the interest of not rocking the boat. When this happens, it is important to be kind to yourself.
As a parent, you are always balancing your needs and the needs of the baby. If you can practice the discipline of considering your baby’s point of view and needs, while not forgetting your own, you are doing heroic work, and your parenting path will be its own rich reward.
Miven would love to hear your thoughts, and will respond here to any questions. Please check out her website: http://www.losangeleschildtherapist.com/.
She can also be contacted at:
Miven Trageser, MA,
Marriage and Family Therapy
Psychotherapy: Individuals, Couples, Children
My answer to my uncle would be ‘c’. Furthermore, I’d dump my Pina Colada on his head before I’d let him poke, prod or tickle my baby.
Loved the article. Miven’s article was a welcome addition to your excellent site.
It can be a challenge to stand as the “interceptor” of the hugs, tickles and grabs often directed at our children by well-meaning family members and even perfect strangers on the street! It is so encouraging to be reminded that our work as parents is heroic and the path rewarding.
Everytime I sit down to read one article I am drawn in by the one before…thank you for the consistent and respectful site..
as the mother of a 6 month old…i am so glad that i found this site…as it addresses many of the concerns that i have while i am making my way through this entirely new and fuzzy thing called parenting…..
i just finished reading “your self-confident baby” which is a good starter book on the philosophy of ms. gerber….it all makes sense…i had hoped that the book would have more practical advice….and now i find myself looking for more clear examples….this is important as i am a person that does not have a RIE class accessible near me and since this philosophy on child-caring is somewhat unfamiliar to me..as i have not witnessed family nor friends raise their children with this sort of attention……it is important to have examples……i am hoping that i will find the answers i seek in “dear parent”…..
until then…..what i would like to know is…..
if you choose “c” then what is a practical/approach example that would “foster the beginnings of an authentic uncle-nephew relationship”?
in that exact situation…what are some of the possibilities that the mother would facilitate……?…..
These are juicy and difficult questions. In this exact situation, what I would recommend depends a lot on what kind of relative you are dealing with. If there is a good chance of sensitivity from the person, then what sometimes works is narrating the infant’s point of view as you see it, as this uncle approaches, or afterward. This could mean saying, “ooooh! I don’t know who you are!! I don’t know if I like that!” This is one way to invest energy in the ongoing authentic uncle-nephew relationship, by trying to help the adult outsider begin to think about the baby’s point of view. You can inject humor into this approach, really hamming it up, and your results will differ depending on this adult’s willingness to consider a new point of view.
If you’re dealing with a true stranger where you have no investment in an ongoing relationship, then I would recommend physically blocking their approach to your baby, and explaining later.
I appreciate this article by Miven Trageser very much. As a former RIE mom, I am forever grateful for what I learned concerning being an advocate for my infant.
Thanks for the feedback. Being a solid ‘interceptor’ was difficult for me because it often seemed synonymous with being overprotective, something I did not want to be. Sometimes the parent who intervenes a lot is doing so out of anxiety and not trusting the child’s competence. I often see this when a parent jumps in to solve a conflict between two kids rather than letting them work on it first. I believe the kind of intercepting we are talking about here is different and is not based in fear, but I wonder what other people think.
“What’s sad is that the uncle in this story is attempting to reach out to the infant in the best way he knows, but he’s not starting from where the infant actually is. He’s starting from where he is and where he wants the infant to be with him—close and connected.”
A-ha! This line so accurately puts to words this type of interaction – I love it!
Renee, I agree! Beautifully stated, Miven, and so insightful!
Looking even further back, I think that we form our attitudes to relatives’ inappropriate touches earlier than this, and can perhaps start to protect our children by how we protect ourselves in pregnancy.
How many of us have felt uncomfortable when a stranger comes and pats our pregnant stomach without an invitation? This is a good indicator of how a baby feels in the situation Miven describes so well.
We can practise the quiet humour- ‘excuse me, this is my tummy, you need an introduction before you pat it!’- and we can start to establish an identification with our baby’s helplessness at this stage, making ourselves better prepared for the ‘swooping relative’ later.
Oh, how many times have I tried to have this conversation with my large Spanish in-law family. Cultural differences make the situation more difficult still. I had 11 unknown distant relatives arrive on my door step 48 hours after my home birth, all expecting tea and to hold the baby. Some are still not speaking to me after I chose option c.
At around 8 or 9 months my daughter was extremely open and loving of a gone, including strangers. Anyone could come up to her and she would reach out for the to hold her. In this case, would choice b be appropriate? She showed no hesitation at all, no fear.
Now, at 11 months, separation anxiety has kicked in and she doesn’t want people to touch her, which makes c the appropriate choice for us.
My baby is usually very receptive to new people, but apart from me, his favorite person is the nanny, and … whose fault is that? His two grandmothers and an aunt live in the same street but have other priorities. He senses that, I guess. I do too.
I feel pretty horrible for my 6 month old after reading this, Our relatives have absolutely no boundaries and they have taken her from me while she was screaming or showing that she didn’t want to be with them. I don’t know who does that honestly, take a crying baby from her mother. I was pretty stressed out and wanted to leave early but it’s so hard when she’s the only baby and everyone is so always so excited for her arrival. I try to get her back but some of them would just take her anyway. It’s my husband’s family so I didn’t want to offend or be that overprotective mom. After reading this article heck no am I letting them have their way so thank you for empowering me and letting me know I should absolutely stand my ground.
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