Bore that I am, I do the exact same thing every morning. Up before my family, I turn on the tea kettle and walk to the street with Dulce (our Ridgeback- Pitbull-whatever rescue dog) to collect the LA Times. (Yes, I still read hard copy sometimes.) Then I make a smoothie with vitamin powder, soy milk and frozen fruit while I steep green tea. Alternate sips of hot tea and cold smoothie miraculously transform the beast. As Lumière, the candlestick in the Disney musical sang, “…I’m human again. Only human again. Poised and polished and gleaming with charm…”
I like to break out and do different things once in awhile, but one of the many things I have in common with babies (arrested development?) is my attraction to routine. My habits have shifted over the years, and some have been healthier than others, but they’ve always given me comfort. I look forward to these rituals and really like knowing I can depend on them.
Imagine what it’s like to be an infant. The world is all brand new — a fascinating, stimulating sensory delight — but the constant transitions, surprises and novelty can be intense and overwhelming. Combine that with the fact that we are growing, changing more rapidly than we ever will, so even what we know can feel different the next day. (Like the way my adolescent daughter feels when she wakes at noon and thinks the kitchen table and her mom have shrunk because she’s grown a half inch.)
We need responsive, reliable parents and caregivers to feel secure, but wouldn’t it also be nice to depend on some daily experiences? To be able to predict, for example, that after our morning meal and diaper change we’ll go to a familiar place to play. Or know that after our dinner and evening bath we will enjoy a book, close the shades, hear a lullaby we’ve begun to recognize and be gently placed in a cozy bed to sleep.
In a life full of changes we cannot control, creating routines and rituals is one of the most respectful and empowering things we can do for our babies.
Infant expert Magda Gerber emphasized the importance of establishing a daily sequence of events — not arbitrarily imposed, inflexible, or on the clock, but formed together with our babies in response to their individual needs. “In a predictable environment, and with regular, dependable schedules, they feel comfortable, cry less, and life is easier for both infant and parents. Infants who do not need to adjust to too much unnecessary stimulation will eventually regulate their sleeping and eating patterns. This regularity will, in turn, give parents some predictable time for their own needs and interests.”
It takes a little time to find a rhythm with our babies. Even in the giddy, chaotic, sleepless first days with a newborn, we can begin by getting into the habit of telling our infant what will happen next. “I’m going to carry you to the diaper table. Then we will unsnap your pajamas.” Soon our baby learns what he can expect. He feels more participatory in experiences he can predict and anticipate for himself. “After I drink milk in the morning, we usually go outside to my playpen under the tree.”
As our infants become toddlers, it’s easy to recognize that even the simplest rituals empower them. And when children know what to expect, they are inspired to immerse themselves in an experience and gain more pleasure from it. If I had any doubt about babies loving rituals, it would be shattered by the way the children in my life have always enjoyed creating them on their own.
One example of this began spontaneously. Snack time in the weekly RIE Parent/Toddler Classes is all about ritual. Each ceremonial step is anticipated and relished by the children, and as they get older they gradually help and participate more, physically, communicatively, and then verbally. First we place the mat on the floor, or the deck outside if it’s nice weather. Then we bring out the table and stools. The children who want to participate sit, and we take turns washing hands with a wet cloth. Then each child chooses a bib. Next they get a turn to help peel the first banana, and are then are offered pieces to eat. After eating some banana we bring out the glasses (yes, glasses!) and little glass carafes from which the toddlers learn to pour water into their glasses…and boy, do they love that part.
One day, a 17 month old boy choked a little and coughed when he drank a sip of water, so I patted him gently on the back. He then coughed again, and I repeated the patting. Then a girl at the table coughed. When I responded with a pat, she grinned. Before long others tried it too, and we all laughed uproariously. Predictably, fake coughing, patting and laughing became a reliable and highly anticipated addition to our snack ritual each week.
Some believe that our babies will learn to be more adaptable if we expose them to our hectic lives. They argue that the parent’s constant presence and responsive care is the only consistency a baby needs to feel secure. The years Magda Gerber spent studying infants led her to disagree. “Being exposed to circumstances we cannot anticipate nor understand, and in which we cannot actively participate, makes us feel helpless, like riding on a perpetual merry-go-round. Anticipating a change, on the other hand, gives us a feeling of being prepared, of being in control,” she wrote in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect.
Magda believed that a secure, self-confident baby who has had the opportunity to build trust in his environment is more flexible and amenable to changes in his routine, and I’ve found this to be true with my children. They have quite different personalities, but all three are amazingly secure, self-confident, independent and much more adaptable to change than I ever was…or probably ever will be.
Do you have rituals with your children? Do you have your own?
I share many more ways to empower children with respectful care in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting