“When you grow up you can be anything you want to be,” my mom often told me. She believed in me and wanted me to know it. Oddly, I translated this encouraging message into an overwhelming expectation that I could never live up to: “You have to be big, important and really famous. No mediocrity for you!”
We all parent with best intentions, and we are bound to be misinterpreted by our children sometimes. But there are some unproductive messages that we commonly send with our words and actions without meaning to, and I’ve found it helpful to be aware of them.
1) “You can’t do it.”
We probably wouldn’t tell our child that he or she was incapable of accomplishing a task unless it was inappropriate or dangerous, like lighting a match. But toddlers hear this unintended message when we follow our impulse to ‘help’ them do things they are trying to do on their own. For instance, carrying them down from a climbing structure; showing them how to do a puzzle; or fixing any problem they may eventually be able to solve independently.
An infant might hear this message when we hand him a toy that he is straining to reach, reposition him while he struggles to roll from back to tummy, or even intervene too soon when he is trying to ease himself back to sleep.
In my parent/infant and toddler classes, I witness the results of the “you can’t do it” message often. A child ascends a climbing structure or platform and freezes, calling or crying for an adult to bail her out when she is usually perfectly capable of climbing down independently (while we are close by, spotting for safety). It’s a challenge for us to be patient and relax when our child is struggling, but the glorious, confidence-building result (I did it!) is well worth our effort.
2) “Don’t trust your feelings.”
The instinct many of us have when our children stumble and cry, react fearfully to something that we know is safe, or just seem inexplicably out of sorts, is to reassure them by saying, “It’s okay. You’re alright. That was nothing. Shhhh.” Or even, “Brush it off!” But in those moments our child does not feel okay. He hurts. He’s upset. And these godlike people he counts on to guide him — his parents — are telling him not to feel what he feels. This is confusing and invalidating.
A child’s tears or anger make us very uncomfortable, but the healthiest message we can send is that feelings are just feelings. We don’t control them and they are all acceptable, perfectly valid. It’s best for us to take a deep breath and lovingly allow our child’s feelings to run their course.
3) “What you can do isn’t enough.”
When we try to urge development forward by placing babies in positions that they will eventually achieve naturally, like sitting and standing, or show them how to use toys and materials rather than allowing them to develop those skills in their own time, we may believe that we are helping, teaching, parenting as we should. But, as infant expert Magda Gerber emphasized, “When babies are ready, they do it.” Babies always do what they are ready to do. They show us what they are working on, if we allow them to. They don’t hold back.
So, by teaching and helping our babies to show our love for them, we inadvertently send the message, “I don’t appreciate what you are able to do. I want you to do more.”
Magda Gerber implores in Your Self-Confident Baby, “Why not acknowledge your child when she turns herself onto her side (which requires strength and coordination) instead of propping her into a sitting position with pillows? If she doesn’t yet have the strength to hold herself up to sit, she will be cramped, have poor posture, and be unsteady. She will feel unsure rather than confident. Accept and appreciate what she does.”
We don’t live in a “relish the moment” society. We aren’t encouraged to be satisfied with the status quo. When we’re dating someone, friends and family want to know when we’ll be married. When we’re married everyone asks when we’ll have children. When we have a baby the focus is on developmental milestones. Is he smiling, crawling, walking, talking, toilet training, reading yet? When will you have another child?
Our babies, if we allow them to, will teach us to let go of the fast track and appreciate the present. We just have to relax, ignore the well-intentioned queries of those around us, enjoy whatever our baby is doing right now, be grateful for this interesting person we are learning more about each day — send our baby a “you are enough” message. Children grow up really fast.
“The consequence of hurrying a child may be that the child feels that she’s not living up to expectations. The most important person in her life, the parent, wants something the child cannot deliver. This is good for therapists because it breeds people who need therapy. They grow up and say, “I don’t know what I want,” or “I don’t feel good enough.” – Magda Gerber, Your Self-Confident Baby
Does any of this ring true for you?
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