Since one of our primary goals as responsive parents is being attuned to our children and their needs, it’s helpful to be aware of a natural impulse that obstructs this clarity: projection.
Projections aren’t all bad. These “educated guesses” stem from our healthy, socially adaptive instinct to imagine each other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions in order to relate and connect. Projections are sometimes accurate, but more often than not they are at least a little off track, because they are more reflective of our own thoughts and feelings than those of the person we’re projecting about.
We project most when our children are preverbal and can’t share what they’re thinking. These projections often cause us to:
1. Misread our child’s cues and reactions
Does our 5-month-old baby love it when we pull her up to sit or stand, or is her glee a reflection of ours? Do our child’s squeals mean she enjoys being tickled or thrown in the air, or are we seeing what we want to see? Does our toddler want reading lessons with Daddy, or just to please him? Is our baby bored, or are we?
2. Respond inaccurately to crying
It’s extremely challenging not to project the worst case scenario (like a deeply traumatized child, always) whenever babies cry. Our baby’s cries feel like a knife (if not several) to our heart, and a powerful instinct to calm our baby overwhelms us. We’ll do anything.
But is immediately scooping our baby up or offering breast milk or a pacifier what she needs? Or are we just temporarily quieting, perhaps even stifling her? And what messages do we send children when we can’t bear to hear their cries for the minutes or even moments it takes to discern what they are trying to communicate? I can’t handle hearing your feelings. Your way of communicating is not valid. You are alone with these thoughts and feelings, your needs are not recognized.
3. Interrupt our child’s important processes
Every week in my RIE Parent-InfantGuidance Classes the parents and I share projections we have about the children, but we make it a point not to act on them. We project that 4-month-old Johnny wants “help” rolling over, because he has moved from his back to his side and is crying. But after we probe a little, acknowledge his feelings (“you are working so hard and seem frustrated”), ask him questions (“do you want to be picked up?”), listen and wait, we discover that he was saying he was tired and needed a break. Or, we realize that his cries were expressions of his effort and that he was actually able to roll over himself when we gave him a minute or two.
4. Impede socialization
Adults commonly project when children are engaging with each other. This is another scenario I witness at least once a week in my RIE classes: Johnny has the ball, Savannah comes over and touches the ball. “Uh-oh”, we’re all thinking — although after my years of witnessing these interactions, my “uh-oh” is more about the parents getting angry with me because their kids might end up momentarily unhappy, which has actually never been the case (yet my fearful projection remains). More often than not, Savannah takes the ball from Johnny, who takes in this interaction with interest, but is not at all stressed. The parents and I saw a potential problem that might need fixing. The children saw “learning to play together”.
5. Not provide children the clear boundaries they need (which includes defining our own personal boundaries)
From late in the first year through age five, especially, children often object very strongly to our boundaries, even if it’s about a preference for mommy’s attention when only their wonderful, loveable daddy is available. These strong objections, screams, tantrums and meltdowns are a healthy expression of will and pent-up emotions that can include real tears, shaking, holding one’s breath – all reactions that are ripe for our fear-based projections. “Does our child feel unloved, abandoned, devastated?” No, not if we’ve honestly and calmly communicated with her and acknowledged her feelings. Although she may feel disappointed and angry, she also feels safe and secure, assured that she has the leaders she needs.
6. Distort our perception
A friend recently shared an astute realization: While trust for her six-year-old daughter had come easily, she had overreacted to her older son’s behaviors over the years, because she feared he’d become like her own alcoholic, abusive brother.
7. Emit a sense of foreboding that is self-fulfilling
When we project that a diaper change is going to be a disaster or that our child will freak out when we try to separate, our child senses our discomfort which makes a relaxed diaper change or easy separation far less likely.
But enough about the problems. Let’s move on to the solutions:
Beware of the Mini-Me’s. The positive side of projection is that we are relating to our babies and toddlers as little people, but when we project, this little person is usually a mini-“us”. Although children inherit a combination of traits from their parents (some of which might be noticeable), our kids are totally unique, separate individuals and the earlier we recognize this, the clearer our perceptions will be.
Observe. If there’s an antidote to projection, observation is it. Sensitive observation is the key to clarity. The two years parents usually spend in our RIE Classes are all about learning to observe, and this is a fascinating process, because it’s about understanding and accepting our children, and also ourselves. Parents come to our classes to learn about respectful care and are blown away by the insights they gain about their own fears, concerns, motivations and childhood experiences.
Be responsive rather than directive during play and when choosing extra-curricular activities. Allow children to come up with the ideas and set the pace. Follow infant specialist Magda Gerber’s advice: “Do less, observe more, enjoy most”.
Wait before responding rather than reacting to the first impulse, which is often driven by projection. Your perception of the moment will likely change. ‘Wait’ was Magda Gerber’s magic word and I wrote all about it in this post: The Parenting Magic Word.
Our natural tendency to project is powerful, instinctual and doesn’t go away, but our increased awareness of our projections combined with a pause for observation can lead to a new level of clarity about our children and ourselves.
“Being understood creates security, trust and confidence. Being misunderstood creates doubt both in oneself and in one’s own perceptions. So how can we try to understand rather than misunderstand? What should we do? The answer is, observe more, do less.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect
“Attunement sounds simple. Yet so often we can become transfixed by our own internal notions of what should be rather than remaining open to what is. In other words, our own preoccupations can limit how we truly take in another.” – Dr. Dan Siegel
I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo by Andrew Huff on Flickr)