“There are three kinds of people who look at you this way…lovers, the insane, and babies.”
– Magda Gerber commenting on an infant’s gaze.
When it comes to our relationships with our children, it’s the quality of the connection we have that truly matters. Whether we’re responding to our baby’s cries, setting limits for our toddler, deciding whether we should trust or direct our child’s development, it is the strength of our bond that informs our choices and our child’s response.
Our relationship guides everything we do. Parenting will either be a puzzling, baffling struggle or logical, organic and (often) effortless. It’s all about understanding how to connect.
If I had known years ago that I could connect with even the youngest infants just by being myself, I’d have been a “baby person” back then. I wasn’t. In fact, I’m often amazed and amused that my life and work is now all about babies. Me? I can think of plenty of baby-adoring people I’ve met over the years that I would expect this from, but certainly not me.
For most of my life I was not particularly drawn to babies, and the feeling seemed mutual. I wasn’t the one toddlers toddled over to, and although I thought young children were cute and precious, garnering their attention and keeping them entertained seemed like a lot of work.
All of that changed when, through Magda Gerber, I learned that I didn’t need games and baby talk — I could connect with babies as my authentic self. In fact, this is what babies really want and need. And when we do this, we forever see babies in a remarkably different light. As Magda said, we see them “with new eyes.”
When we show babies that we are receptive to connecting with them in a real way, they will open their souls to us… and pour them into ours. The secret is simple:
Quietly behold the person.
Since I started doing this, I’ve had unforgettable encounters with babies, toddlers and children of all ages, both mine and those of others. Babies lock eyes with me across restaurants, in airplanes, while passing by in their carriers and strollers. Really. This is not my imagination or wishful thinking. In fact, it’s more akin to magical thinking. For a brief moment we see and understand each other at a very deep level. There is recognition and acknowledgement.
When you connect with babies in this real and respectful way you know without a smidgen of doubt that babies are all there, whole people, just waiting to be acknowledged as such. Babies appreciate you and even seek you out. The joy begins.
One of the moms in my new infant class shared with me that she had been struggling to understand her 4 month old son’s needs. She decided to try something that had been said the previous week at the RIE Class Orientation: “Just talk to him. Ask him what he needs. Engage him as a person.”
She described this as a “light bulb” that changed everything. Suddenly her boy is much calmer and more communicative. As she told me the story, her boy looked at me, eyes twinkling, and then I talked to him, too. It’s easy to see what a hugely social guy, what a charmer he is and how wise beyond his years (or months, rather!).
With toddlers especially, it’s best to allow them to initiate the connection by engaging with us first. They like autonomy. I’ll never forget one of the toddlers in my class peering at me through the crack behind an open door and saying “Hi!” We repeated this back and forth to each other several times, her eyes locked with mine. It was a simple, silly game that became profound. I felt our souls greeting each other… and I cried (but I don’t think the parents noticed).
The connection I have with this particular toddler includes jokes that one probably wouldn’t expect a 21 month old to understand. During snack time in class, she coughed after taking a sip of the water I had offered her and I replied, “Spicy water,” which she repeated and seemed to find hilarious. Then when she once tried to sneak her hands into the bucket of bananas herself (a favorite pastime of the children), I said, “Such an eager beaver!” Since then, her parents hear her repeating these remarks and laughing to herself, and she and I continue to chuckle about them, too…
Once you know how to connect with babies and begin to see through the crystal clear lens of respect, you can never go back. You’ll find it impossible to punish, abhorrent to manipulate, demeaning to trick or distract, disturbing to stifle babies just because their feelings are so hard to hear. You’ll be shocked and saddened by the way babies are often objectified, dehumanized, their perspectives disregarded. You can no longer pretend there isn’t a person there who wants to get your jokes and deserves your respect and acknowledgement. And not just when it’s convenient — always.
I share more about connecting authentically with babies in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting