One of the greatest challenges for parents and professionals practicing mindful care is allowing children to struggle as they develop skills. It is far easier for us to do for them than it is to trust their natural process and offer hands-off encouragement. Good things often come to those who wait, but sometimes the wait can be excruciating for us.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mercedes Castle, a passionate educator and child care director in Portland, Oregon. Mercedes’ story depicts a common experience many parents and caregivers face, and she describes beautifully the critical moment of decision where mindful inaction proves mutually transformative:
That afternoon, I agreed to supervise the infant community for a few minutes while the teacher ran to the bathroom. I had taken the first third of the RIE Foundations course, read Magda Gerber’s Dear Parent, and was working my way through the RIE Manual. I was developing a deep appreciation for the work that infants do in terms of learning to move and had been working on my observation skills.
We had three infants in class that morning. Two of the older infants went to visit in the toddler communities, leaving our five-month-old friend Jesse in the classroom alone with a teacher. Jesse had been with us for just a week. I hadn’t spent much time with him, but we’d talked a bit. We were still getting to know each other. I hadn’t ever held or touched him. That day, when the teacher excused herself to the bathroom, I sat at my desk across the room for a minute or so. I heard Jesse start to fuss. I waited another minute and then went into the room. He had rolled onto his belly. I had observed him do this before, but according to the caregivers, he had not yet figured out how to roll from belly to back. In the past, he would become so distraught that a teacher would move in and help him.
I lay on the floor next to Jesse for about two minutes and talked to him while he pushed with his toes and rocked onto his side. I told him that I could see how much he wanted to roll over. He would try first on his left side, then on his right, pushing himself around in a circle. He was making noise and seemed frustrated. I talked to him some more, describing what I was seeing: You have pushed yourself onto your side. You are pushing the floor with your toes. You are pushing the floor with your fists.
He was starting to make more and more noise.
The teacher returned. I told her what Jesse had been doing and stayed next to him on the floor while she attended to another child. Jesse started to complain louder. It was clear that he was getting more frustrated. I told him that I could hear him asking for me to help him. I told him that I was trying to help him by letting him work a little longer. His movements intensified, and he started to cry. I said, “You are trying so hard. You are so close, keep trying…”
And then he rolled over. He lay very still. His eyes opened wide. I looked into his face, smiling, and I said this is what it feels like to do it. You did it, you tried so hard and you did it. You rolled over. And he smiled at me. Then he was quiet for a few minutes. Shortly thereafter, he became very upset, screaming for his bottle. After eating a hearty meal, Jesse then took an unprecedented two and a half hour nap.
Later that day, I mentioned to his teacher that I didn’t want her to tell Jesse’s parents that he had rolled over. I wanted his parents to experience his discovery on their own. His teacher told me that he’d been rolling over all afternoon. What an accomplishment!
I will always remember Jesse. He is the child who taught me that I can, as Magda Gerber advised, “Wait as long as you can stand it. And then a few moments more.” In my internal struggle to refrain from helping Jesse roll over, I experienced first-hand what I have read about: that I am not helping when I intervene. I am helping most when it looks like I am not helping. When I talk, reflect, broadcast, support, and encourage. When I am present. When I am here fully in the moment.
This evening as I write this, I reflect on how I used to approach situations like Jesse’s. In the past, when an infant would fuss to express their desire to roll over, I would gently guide his arm and help him. It never occurred to me that I may not know the way that this child is meant to move. It never occurred to me that it is important to honor the child’s individual process and trust that what they are doing is exactly right according to their own unique arc of development.
I also consider what Jesse’s five-month-old brain learned from this experience. Does he learn to trust himself? Does he learn that perseverance pays off? Does his brain now wire itself to seek the experience of accomplishment? Does he learn to trust his environment? Does his experience reveal a kind and caring adult? Will he seek relationships that are authentic and honest? Who Jesse becomes and what he thinks about himself, how he approaches new situations and challenges, how he persists and is motivated – all of these components are intertwined and ultimately function to compel us to succeed in the face of adversity.
For me, the waiting provided a moment where I could exist without ego. It was humbling and rewarding to observe rather than participate and control the event, and I am grateful for my little five-month-old teacher working so hard to roll over. He showed me struggle and accomplishment, and because I waited and observed, I experienced wonder and joy and growth and satisfaction.
Jesse will not remember me. He will not remember this moment in his life. But the time we spent together, the time when I waited instead of helping, this time becomes who he is as a person, and much more than just a memory.
Mercedes Castle is an Assistant to Infancy and has been guiding infants and toddlers towards the realization of their human potential since 2003. She has been educating adults about the nature of infancy since 2008. Mercedes recently took the RIE foundations course and is working to integrate RIE principles into the infant and toddler classrooms in her school.
Active in the Oregon Montessori community, Mercedes advocates for Montessori education at a local and state level. Mercedes is a mama and a wife, and in her free time enjoys singing, songwriting, and playing the guitar. She loves to travel, but is terrified of flying.
Unfolding of Infants’ Natural Gross Motor Development by the Pikler Institute
Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson and Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber
Respecting Babies: A New Look At Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach by Ruth Anne Hammond
My book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (available on Audio)
See How They Move, featuring Magda Gerber, by Resources for Infant Educarers
“Freedom of Movement and Self-Awareness”, by Ruth Anne Hammond, Respecting Babies
“No Tummy Time Necessary” by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
“Set Me Free”, “Don’t Stand Me Up”, “Messing With Mother Nature” and “9 Reasons Not To Walk Babies” (on this blog)
(Photo by gabi menashe on Flickr)
This reminds me of a story that my friend and colleague Anna of http://mamas-in-the-making.com/ told us several years ago when she was living in New Zealand about visiting her mother with her eldest child Antek. Antek was having a difficult time with something that day and Anna’s mother commented “I never let you struggle like that” and Anna’s reply was “I wish you had”.
This idea of struggle is a complex and challenging one for many of us. Anna is a self-motivated and actively engaged person, but imagine what we as adults would have been like if we had been supported through the struggle instead of having a situation ‘fixed’ for us?
I absolutely love the last lines (“Jesse will not remember me. He will not remember this moment in his life. But the time we spent together, the time when I waited instead of helping, this time becomes who he is as a person, and much more than just a memory.”) Sometimes others comment to me that a young child will not even remember their earliest years, so why bother to treat them with such respect and why do things the way we do with RIE? This is exactly the reason why, the child may not remember the details but their relationships and treatment shape who they actually are and become as a person. Lovely.
Thanks so much for highlighting this detail of the account—that’s HUGE! It made a “ping” in me when I read the author’s description, but your re-capping really “brought it home” for me.
Gosh. I am so glad I read this today. I also feel sad too, because today I helped my near 6mo roll over. She rolled over once on her own about 5wks ago and hasn’t since. I had started to read a few things about her needing to be strong in her hands and needing tummy time. I have read ‘the case against tummy time’ and watched the video so much, it brings me to tears. Our Dr and chiro and nurses ALL said she needed tummy time and so I would lie her on my chest, conflicted: do I listen to Dr! Or what I have read in a beautiful website?
So today, I began to doubt that I was doing the right thing by waiting for her to roll on her own. She wanted a toy and no I didn’t get the toy but helped her roll.
Now I am wondering why I want to push her to the next moment each time. Why am I living in the future with her? All that I have practiced in mindfulness and here I am, in the one place where it’s utmost important to be present, yet pushing her to ‘help’…
Anyway, I’m not beating myself up too badly, just noting and bringing awareness back, realising this tendency of mine, the doubt combined with wanting her to be safely happily able to get her toy. Yet, the waiting and observing is the ingredient required more here.
Oh and I’m also on my own from Monday to Saturday morning, as sole carer, so I am very tired so this could also be where my need for her to do things without me might be coming from. But no, I am going to slow down. With everything with her. I don’t want to give her the msg that she is inadequate because I am tired.
I have read several of these stories and the theory behind it. I love most RIE concepts, but this “letting them cry” and “letting them struggle” is hard for me to accept. I do not believe that most parents can decipher the difference between “I need you, I’m scared/tired/needing to know you are there for me” and “I’m just crying because I’m struggling and if you support me with words only, then that is exactly the perfect response.” And I am not sure I would know the difference every time. I’m not sure I want to risk abandoning my child when they really need me to intervene and/or pick them up to be comforted.
Totally agree. And would this story be such a success if the baby hadn’t rolled over?
I stumbled upon your website when I was pregnant and have read a lot of your articles with fascination and interest. I tend to agree in general with most RIE principles, but on this one I find Sam’s (the previous commenter’s) opinion to be on the right track. Infants want to know that someone is there for them and when we let them scream this is not the message that we convey. I’m not saying we should go to the other extreme and do everything for our children, but I find it hard to believe that by letting them cry while they are trying to achieve something we are really helping them. Although I do appreciate the advice in this website, I find that the way your articles are written creates an enormous weight on the shoulders of parents who are not accomplishing exactly this. For example, I have read about your first experience with RIE when you were watching your two-month-old play happily on her own for three hours and I honestly find it hard to believe that a baby so young would lay on the floor for so long, not wanting to feed, sleep, have their diaper changed or at least cuddle. I am trying to instill independent play to my almost five-month-old daughter, but she still can only manage 10-15 minutes playing alone, usually when I leave her in her crib first thing in the morning. If I’m by her side watching and slightly interfering, she can also go up to 15-20 minutes. But three hours is a bit hard to believe for a two-month-old! I also find it hard to hear her cry when she is trying e.g. to turn (she has not accomplished this yet). My words of encouragement or “sportscasting” do not seem to help.
RIE’s principles are an interesting way to go, but it seems to be devoted to nurturing just smart and independent children. What about interacting? What about happy, smiling, laughing infants? At this age, an infant’s favorite image is of another human face, and that is especially true of their mother’s face. So why should I not play with my child for the sake of independent play?
I would also like to hear your views on “hearing our children complain” when we are performing everyday tasks such as changing clothes etc. My daughter doesn’t like getting dressed or undressed. Her cries or screams won’t stop when I sportscast to her what is going on: “I see this is a difficult time for you. I am dressing you and you are not enjoying this”. So why shouldn’t I stop the cry with a song that I sing to her? Or by showing her a toy she likes? Is that really so bad?
I would sincerely like to hear your response.
Thank you and a happy new year
(p.s. english is not my first language, so I apologise for any mistakes)
Whew. I was all ready to say to this teacher, help him for God’s sakes! And then he did it. Beautifully written. And the articulation of lessons learned are so helpful.
I know that this is an old post but I am hoping to get a response because my son (whole will be 5 months old next week) is at this EXACT stage in his motor development. I am an early childhood educator and have always had a great deal of respect for Magda’s RIE philosophy. I have also been a devout follower of Janet’s blog for years. BUT…now I am a mother. I must admit that I struggle internally with the emotions that come with hearing my son struggle to accomplish new skills. It is so much more difficult to hear him become upset than it ever was to support other children through such challenges. My boy is currently able to roll from his back to his belly but he has only managed to get back to his back a few times in the past 6 weeks. He screams for me daily from his crib (at least once) because he has become stuck on his belly after or even before falling asleep. He kicks and kicks and pushes his little bottom up into the air and becomes increasingly upset while playing on the floor and I try to allow him the time (WAIT! I tell myself) to conquer this challenge but I always end up giving into his cries. It has been 6 long weeks since he first learned to roll one way, and he now does it with ease, but I am tired of the emotional stress and am beginning to doubt my choice to minimize tummy time during his early days in order to allow for more natural motor development. Could more tummy time have supported him better? Why does he not push himself up on his arms? Am I rushing him? How can I support him through this challenge without the tears and red faced frustration? How do I handle well-meaning suggestions from friends that recommend I get a bumbo or an exersaucer? Sheesh…motherhood is so full of questions!
Hi Jenny – He’s in a very common transitional stage and I would definitely help give him as many breaks as he needs. Here’s a post that explains in detail: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2016/02/when-babies-get-tired-of-tummy-time/