“Children both know more and learn more than we ever would have thought,” notes psychologist and infant brain researcher Alison Gopnik in her Ted Talk entitled “What Do Babies Think?” She goes on to point out that hundreds and hundreds of studies (along with her own) over the past 20 years support her statement.
Pediatrician Emmi Pikler and her protégé Magda Gerber saw proof of infant awareness more than 70 years ago through their extensive observational studies of infant and toddler free play. Furthermore, they observed awareness and competence in the infants’s responses to communication that clearly demonstrated an ability to participate actively in caregiving tasks.
The recognition of infants as aware individuals is the basis for every aspect of Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach, down to minute details like our word choices and clothing that is geared toward comfort and free movement rather than cuteness. Respect for infant consciousness is a constant in all of Gerber’s advice.
When practicing Gerber’s approach, we discover early on that caring effectively for an aware child requires a high level of self-awareness. We recognize our power. Not only do our intentional behaviors influence our children, but our thoughts and feelings can, too. Children sense them through our tone of voice and body language. They know when we are uncomfortable with a situation, and that makes it virtually impossible for them to get comfortable (when we need to separate, for instance. How can our toddler be cool with us leaving when she senses our hesitation?) If our discomfort is chronic, we can create a more general dis-ease, which usually shows up in emotional fragility or constant limit-pushing behavior.
It makes sense. In order to deal with the job of growing up and all its challenges, kids need parents who handle their job with relative ease. Or, at least, most of the time.
More specifically, children know when:
We fear their feelings.
They sense it in our urgency to hug, soothe, pacify, distract, make it all better. Even when we are verbally acknowledging their feelings, they sense it if the subtext is overly sympathetic or the slightest bit impatient (Okay, okay, I’ve acknowledged you, so that’s enough now, please, please stop). They sense it when we are angry, tense, or impatient with their explosions. And they sense it when we’re walking on eggshells or trying to make it work for them in order to avoid their negative reaction.
Our message is clear: Don’t go there. Anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness aren’t safe places to be. Our discomfort then becomes our child’s, hindering the development of emotional resilience and self-confidence.
We waver with limits.
Again, there is a very, very slim chance that a child will accept a limit when we seem wobbly with our decision. Pleading, coaxing, over explaining, and reasoning in the hope of convincing our child she should agree to stop hitting the dog or needing the new toy at Target are dead giveaways of our discomfort.
Or perhaps there’s annoyance or anger behind our solemn mask of calm control, because we’ve asked nicely, and our child’s resistance seems so darn unreasonable. Personal, even. We’ve told her how much it bothers us when she jumps on our freshly made bed and then given her several chances to stop (Can’t you see how patient I’m being, will you give me a break, please?). Toddlers can only wonder how their impulsive 3-year-old antics could be so unnerving to their giant leaders. What’s the big deal? Just see what I’m doing and stop me right away, gently move me, and then let me rage about it. I might really need to scream.
There’s a category of typical behaviors that tend to bother parents and yet are physically impossible to limit. They include: repetitive questions like, “Why?” or “Can I have ice cream?”; actions like following us around while we do chores rather than playing independently as we’d wish them to; and expressions of emotion like screaming, whining, exclaiming, “You’re stupid,” “I hate you,” etc. These behaviors usually begin innocently enough but tend to gather steam and occur far more frequently when parents are bothered by them. It’s as if our children have a need to understand why these relatively harmless acts could have such power.
In their quest to find in us that capable, comfortable parent they desperately need, kids might continue to test us in small and large ways, waving red flags through their challenging and resistant behavior. When this need remains unsatisfied, it can perpetuate a cycle of mutual frustration, creating distance and disconnection between parent and child.
They are being subtly manipulated or coerced.
Our children’s sensitive radar for coercion is commonly what stalls the toilet learning process and causes eating issues. Toddlers, especially, have a developmental need to resist our agendas, and it can be so powerful that it creates a physical response like constipation or a lack of appetite.
We’re concerned that they are not social, athletic, advanced, gracious, assertive, gentle, creative, artistic, independent, (fill in the blank __) enough.
For parents, there’s always a reason to worry. Take play, for example. Parents commonly share with me these kinds of concerns about their children:
He doesn’t seem interested in toys.
She only plays with one type of toy.
She moves from toy to toy, never seeming to focus on anything for very long.
He takes toys from other children.
He gives toys up to others too easily.
She’s too bossy with her friends.
She stays on my lap at play group rather than exploring with the other kids.
And so on…
Our private concerns, dismay, and dissatisfaction — which children sense — make it more difficult for them to pass confidently through these various phases of their individual learning processes.
In other words, FDR’s famous statement could apply to parenting: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Truly, our fears will usually trip us up and might very well cause the behaviors and feelings that we dread.
But how can we change what we feel? That’s a problem. We can’t. We might believe we are doing a stellar job pretending to be unaffected, but more often than not, children still know it’s an act.
The only answer I know of is altering our perspective, and this has been the focus of my consultations with parents. I attempt to help them to see differently so they can let go of their fear and guilt and gain more trust in their children. This might simply mean assuring parents that their child’s behavior is typical and temporary rather than a permanent condition; or perhaps it’s conditional and to be expected because of a change in routine (new sibling, schedule change, etc). It often means pointing out to parents that feelings are all good all of the time (even when the timing is inconvenient). Emotions might seem to come out of nowhere, but actually they only come because they are in there and need to be released. And I consider our acceptance of these feelings a powerfully positive (often heroic) act.
Mostly, I try to help parents recognize our powerful influence and see where they may be unintentionally fueling, intensifying, perpetuating, or even causing undesirable behavior, and also where they may be stifling healthy learning processes by allowing their emotions and judgments to use up all the oxygen in the room. Kids need room to breathe.
As my acting teacher often reminded his students, “If you’re thinking it, the audience knows it.” There are no more perceptive audience members than our children. To help them flourish in their roles, we must play ours with awareness and trust.
I share more about this mindful approach in