Every so often I receive a critical comment along the lines of this one:
“…reading things such as ‘I asked my baby if she wanted me to lift her up and with the slightest nod of yes, I did’ (not exact quote) — when talking about a month-old baby — makes me want to laugh. It is true that babies, infants and toddlers should be treated with respect, and I adhere to the notion of the calm parent and caregiver, but this is too much.” (A reader’s partial review of my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting)
She did misquote me. I admit I’ve never seen a month-old infant nod. What I have seen are infants only weeks old taking in certain words or phrases that we repeat from birth, then indicating they understand by demonstrating their readiness to be picked up – arching their backs and/or tightening their bodies in preparation to be lifted. The idea seemed farfetched to me, too, even laughable, until I tried it.
Perceiving babies as worthy of respectful communication requires a leap of faith that most either don’t consider or aren’t willing to take. But if we can suspend our skepticism and take the plunge, it often leads to a radical, life-changing conversion.
I have been meaning to write to you for a while. My wife is crazy about your stuff and to hear it second hand sounded to me like some serious hippy Mumbo jumbo. Talk to and treat an infant as a person? They don’t even understand English, I thought! However, I read your book and thought it made sense. Thank God I read it when she was little. Diaper changes are a piece of cake now. I let her know what I am doing, what to expect, and treat her with dignity and respect. All my interactions are guided now by this philosophy. I had feared speaking in this way would be formulaic and contrived. Quite the opposite. I feel my interactions are more genuine because I speak to her in the manner I would want to be spoken to. This has carried to my work as an ER doc. I now speak respectfully to children, let them know what is coming. I know it’s not the point of your work, but it makes my job so much easier! I have to spend half the time with wiggling children because they usually comply with my requests! So…thanks a lot!
Dr. Steve Kraunz
Dr. Kraunz’s note was encouraging on many levels, but what inspired me to share about it was his comment: “…I know it’s not the point of your work, but it makes my job so much easier!”
Making our lives with children easier is the point of my work for parents and caregivers, especially, but also for anyone that interacts with kids. Like all of us, children are far more inclined to trust and cooperate with people who communicate with them respectfully.
Respectful practices also make parenting easier in these key ways:
We clear away the clutter of parenting gimmicks, gadgets, and control tactics, simplifying our job and clarifying the most wonderful part of our role as parents, which is to become intimately acquainted with a new and important person with whom we will share our life. She’s no passive, mindless blob or Mini-Me. We recognize her as a separate individual ready to actively participate in her life and relationships.
This approach differs from those that suggest infants are still fetuses and need to be tucked away, confined, and swaddled as if they are still in the womb; or those that advise parents to “turn off cries as easily as flipping a switch;“ or encourage tricks and distractions for infants and toddlers when they are doing something we don’t want them to do. These practices might seem easier and more convenient in the moment, but transitioning out of these habits and mindsets can be intensely challenging. If we’ve been managing our children from day one, then when (and how) do we suddenly switch gears and perceive them as capable of developing skills, learning, entertaining themselves, or expressing their emotions?
With a respect-from-the-beginning approach, we don’t need to switch gears, alter strategies, wonder “now what?” during each new stage of our child’s development. We are on track as soon as we’ve made the paradigm shift to recognizing a baby is worthy of our respect and trust. We settle in and can stay there for good. For me and a growing number of others, there is relief in this approach because it is holistic, consistent, and clear.
Using our energy wisely
Switching our role from manager/director of our children’s emotions and development into one of a receptive, observant, attuned facilitator benefits everyone. Our energy is not wasted constantly doing for children — fixing, finding, arranging, choosing, teaching, demonstrating, intervening — which ultimately convinces our child he actually needs us for these things, setting him up to be less confident and resourceful. Once given the freedom to experiment and learn, we find that children are usually quite willing, capable, and proud to do these things for themselves.
A simple structure for our day and quality time
My mentor, infant specialist Magda Gerber, suggested a (loose) daily plan for parents that I’ve found incredibly helpful. It is viable for stay-at-home parents, those employed outside the home, and families small or large. It offers a healthy balance that helps everyone thrive.
Between sleep and naptimes, our children’s day consists of extended periods of uninterrupted play and exploration in a safe space, punctuated by basic caregiving activities like diapering, bathing, dressing, feedings, and meals. It is during these caregiving moments that we connect with our child by giving him or her our undivided, one-on-one attention. No phones or other distractions. These are naturally intimate, relationship-building, “refueling” periods and often all children need to be able to release us with confidence while they re-engage in self-directed play, alone or with siblings, for the remaining waking hours of day. Our occasional presence during playtime, when possible, is icing on the cake. For young children, especially, predictable daily routines are empowering and, ironically, freeing.
Capable, self-confident, content kids
Children are ultra-aware, so our perceptions of them often become their self-image. Respect begets self-respect. Accepting and supporting our children’s uncomfortable emotions – letting them be — encourages resiliency and authenticity and deepens our connection. A respectful, trusting approach is the surest way to raise content, kind, self-confident children. These kids are easier to parent, no question, and it’s never too early or late to begin.
When I asked Dr. Kraunz if I could share his story on my website, he replied:
I would be honored!
I’m not sure if I have all the philosophy correct, but I use it a lot at work. In fact, in some ways, there is nothing to “use”. That’s why I like it, it doesn’t seem like a trick.
The other day a young boy came in with a badly fractured leg. It was too painful for him to do awake, so I had to use a drug called ketamine. Often with ketamine there is bad emergence phenomenon. Essentially, kids wake up freaking out. When I gave him the needle he was screaming and crying, but I didn’t shove an iPad in his face as is often done. I sat right next to him, held his hand, and told him it was okay to cry, okay to express his fear and his pain. He went to sleep and woke up calm as a Hindu cow.
I think it is pretty weird that talking to kids like they are human beings is so revolutionary!
Thanks for all your work,
I share more in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
UPDATE: Just received this note from a pediatric nurse, who chimed in:
In response to the ER doc’s email, I whole heartedly agree!!
I’m a nurse, and spent 13-14 years working in pediatric oncology. Oh, how I wish your approach to communicating/relating with children would become a standard part of training in the nursing field.
Our son is now 3 (and 2 months) old – I first started reading your information when he was about 4-5 months old. How deeply grateful I am for all the work, and encouragement, and coaching you have provided to me and my husband. We are better at parenting, and have also found a lot of common ground to stand upon together for our son.
(Photo by Darla on Flickr)